The Roots of the European Union

Oisín Gilmore

From the beginning, the European project had more to do with jumpstarting capitalism than ending war.

The signing of the Treaty of Rome in March 1957. EPA / ANSA

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During a press conference earlier this month, German chancellor Angela Merkel had something of a disagreement with President Donald Trump.

After Trump claimed that German trade negotiators, in securing trade deals with the United States, “have done a far better job than the negotiators for the United States,” Merkel was forced to clarify: Germany does not have its own trade negotiators. Nor does the country agree its own trade accords. Germany’s trade agreements are arranged through the European Union (EU). This is true for all twenty-eight member states. And it has been for a long time.

The treaty establishing the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor to the European Union, was signed sixty years ago this month, on March 25, 1957. Commonly known as the Treaty of Rome, the accord set up a customs union and common market between Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany. It also granted the EEC the power to handle external trade relations for its members.

Believing that the United States and Germany bilaterally negotiate trade is an embarrassing faux pas for a president who bragged about his deal-making acumen throughout the campaign, but Trump is surely not the only person to find the relation between the European Union and its member states confusing.

The sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome provides an opportune time to look back at the EEC’s founding, and to clear up some common misconceptions.

First, the oft-told story of Jean Monnet as the driving force behind the EEC and European unification is just plain wrong. This narrative is relayed by both the European Union’s opponents and supporters. As the European Union’s partisans tell it, Monnet was the great visionary who guided Europe out of an era of war and strife and into an era of peaceful cooperation. According to the European Union’s opponents, Monnet was the elitist cosmopolitan who undermined European democracy by transferring power away from national parliaments to a distant bureaucracy.

Both versions of the story are wrong. Monnet simply did not matter that much. Most of his initiatives failed or only half succeeded, and he had little involvement in the EEC’s creation. The real impetus behind the EEC was economic: namely, the need to reduce tariffs to facilitate the expansion of European trade, and thereby increase European growth.

The specific form the EEC took, however, wasn’t inevitable. It reflected the changed political situation in postwar Europe. While many European liberals simply wanted to reduce tariff barriers, the shifting political context necessitated that workers and farmers receive at least some protection from the vagaries of trade. It’s that context which has changed in the ensuing decades, leaving us with a profoundly undemocratic European Union.

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The Final Treaty

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