How did the European Union affect Europe economically, politically, and culturally?
The establishment of the European Union represented a major achievement for many of Europe’s independent nations, most of which had suffered terrible devastation during World War II. With the end of the war, the division of Europe into competing blocs and the imperative of rebuilding their cities and economies, Western Europe’s leading players, France, Britain, West Germany and Italy, as well as the so-called “Benelux” countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) were determined to construct a system that would enable them to rebuild while eliminating the divisions (i.e., the system of independent states) that had historically involved frictions that invariably led to wars. Early efforts at unification, such as the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community, failed to gain traction, with disparate special interests (e.g., French farmers; German miners, Italian labor unions) each frustrating efforts at overcoming protectionism and national and cultural differences.
Formation of the European Union, then, constituted a historically significant breakthrough in West European struggles at unification. It also did affect Western Europe economically, politically, and culturally. Economically, the European Union enabled the member countries provide a common front in negotiating trade and financial agreements with nonmember European countries as well as with the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. Combined, the European Union countries comprise over 500 million people, much larger than either the United States or Russia. By combining their human resources, the European Union was able to emerge as a serious economic power in its own right.
The political effects of unification, similar to the economic effects, enabled the member countries to present a united bloc in dealings with the superpowers on each side of the Atlantic. By speaking with one voice, the European Union was able, to a degree, to influence international developments greater than could have any individual member state.
Culturally, the effects of unification were limited. One of the priorities behind unification was the minimization, if not elimination, of the distinctions between countries that tended to breed nationalistic fervor. The absence of border controls to allow the free flow of people among European Union countries did succeed in facilitating such movement but much of that movement actually involved people from non-EU regions.
The cumulative effect of unification among much of Western and, now, Central Europe has been difficult to gauge. The financial implosions of Spain, Greece, Italy, and Cypress during the financial crisis of 2007-08 greatly exacerbated underlying tensions among European Union members emanating from the vast disparities among national economies—precisely the type of considerations that were supposed to disappear with the union’s growth. Finally, massive influxes of immigrants from economically poorer regions of Africa and refugees from war-torn Syria have resulted in major political, economic, and cultural disruptions.
The European Union (commonly abbreviated EU) was formed in 1993 by the Maastricht Treaty. Awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for its contributions to democracy and peace, the EU evolved from the earlier Common Market or European Economic Community, created in 1957 to facilitate trade within Europe.
The first major effect of the EU on Europe was an economic one: the reduction of trade barriers and imposition of uniform standards to facilitate commerce among the member countries. The single most important aspect of this was the creation of the European Central Bank and launch of a single currency, the Euro, in 1999, which eventually replaced national currencies such as the French franc, Italian lira, Greek drachma, and German mark.
An important cultural and political feature of the EU was the Schengen Agreement, which allowed for free movement of people and labor across the 26-country Schengen area within Europe. Although this has had major benefits to business, there has been some cultural backlash, with significant right-wing nationalistic political movements arising in many of the richer western European countries with platforms objecting to the influx of immigrants from the poorer eastern European countries. Despite this, the free movement of people has made most European countries far more culturally cosmopolitan.
Because the EU has strict rules about corruption, transparency, and democracy, EU membership, or the option of beginning the accession process, has led many members and potential members to reform their political systems in the direction of freedom of speech and rule of law.