The European Union and its Origins in WWII

By Dr Stephen Herron

“Let us begin with the challenge of peace . . we should, none of us,  underestimate its fragility … our Assembly has, whatever our differences, a fundamental responsibility for maintaining this peace, which is probably the most precious asset in all Europe”.

– Simone Veil Acceptance Speech for Presidency of the EU Parliament 
17 July 1979

The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of 27 member states located in Europe with a combined population of over 513 million people. The 27 member states are: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Sweden. The United Kingdom voted in 2016 to leave the EU and did so on 31st January 2020.

The area of the EU covers over 4 million square kilometres (less than half of the United States). The population of the EU is 446 million, the third largest worldwide after China and India, and is made up of a diverse range of people with different cultural, social, political and economic backgrounds.


European Bodies

The five main bodies that run the EU are the European parliament, the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Auditors.  The other bodies are the European Council (different to the Council of the European Union) ‘which is not a legislating institution, but defines the EU’s overall political direction and priorities’ and the European Central Bank, the European External Action Service, the European Economic and Social Committee, the European Committee of the Regions, the European Investment Bank, the European Investment Fund, the European Ombudsman, the European Data Protection Supervisor and a range of various agencies and other bodies  – see for full details.

European Union Anthem Ode to Joy. Source – Council of Europe

European Flag and Anthem

The flag of the European Union features a circle of 12 gold stars on a blue background. The circle is a symbol of unity and it stands for the ideals of unity, solidarity and harmony among the peoples of Europe. 

The European Union anthem, adopted by the Council of Europe in 1972 is Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy theme from his ninth symphony composed in 1823. The original piece of music was composed and set to the words of ‘Ode to Joy’ by Friedrick von Schiller, a lyrical verse from 1785.  The music only is used for the European anthem and not the words, and the music expresses the European ideals of freedom, peace and solidarity. The European anthem is not intended to replace national anthems, but instead celebrates the values they share.


Impact of WWII and Holocaust

The European Union had its beginnings in the aftermath of World War II when several European countries began talks on how to promote closer social, economic and political ties in order to secure lasting peace and to promote reconciliation, stability and a stronger economic growth.  A key aim was to find a way to end ‘the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours, which culminated in the Second World War’.

The Second World War caused approximately 60 million deaths with it being the first war that claimed the lives of more civilians than soldiers and witnessed the horror of the first systematic genocide in modern history with the Holocaust. In addition, many cities, towns and villages across Europe were completely destroyed by aerial bombing and heavy artillery. Untold destruction of homes created thousands of refugees and displaced persons. Almost everyone in Europe was affected by the war in some form or another.

A common expression after 1945 was “Never again,” which symbolized a universal desire to avoid another world war. Given the suffering in Europe due to the war people here were especially committed to this ideal.

But how could peace in Europe be guaranteed? Even after the war ended there remained economic and military competition between the great powers in Europe. Tariffs and other barriers to trade were established between most European countries. For many observers, including politicians, intellectuals, and members of resistance movements, the answer became clear: Europe must be much more integrated and instead of competition between European states, there was a need for a system of co-operation.


Impact of totalitarianism 

The Holocaust or Shoah was the planned extermination of over six million men, women and children including over one and a half million children, murdered by the Nazis simply because they were born Jewish. Many were gassed and burned and as French politician and Holocaust survivor Simone Veil says, their ashes rest at the bottom of graves in Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and elsewhere.

Simone Veil 16 years old when she and her family were deported from France to concentration camps where most of her family perished. Simone remembers how in the camps, women showed an immense capacity for resistance and helped each other in generous, unselfish ways. After the war, Simone becomes a French lawyer and politician and Minister for Health where she presided over the first bill legalizing abortion. She has always fought to defend the rights of women, as well as prisoners and children. In 1979, Simone becomes the first President of the European Parliament and was committed to a Europe of solidarity in which such atrocities as happened during WWII can never happen again.

There is not one day that goes by that I do not think of the Shoah – the planned extermination of the Jewish people. More than the beatings, the exhaustion, the hunger, the cold or the fatigue, it is the humiliation that remains. We no longer had names, just a number tattooed on our arms for identification. What haunts me is the memory of those from whom we were brutally separated, as soon as we arrived in the camps. I can still see them being led directly to the gas chambers.
Keynote speech by Simone Veil to the UN, 29 January 2007.

As part of the Holocaust the Nazis murdered political prisoners, Roma, Christians, homosexuals, people with mental and physical disabilities, trade unionists, people of different ethnic groups, socialists, communists, pacifists, members of the Spanish International Brigades, Spanish Republican refugees, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, conscientious objectors, resistance fighters and prisoners of war from many different countries.  It is essential that we continue to pay tribute to and to acknowledge all those who died during WWII. January 27 is now recognised as the annual day for international commemoration of the Holocaust.  The aim is to pay tribute to and to remember the victims of the death camps in WWII. Roma Holocaust Memorial Day is celebrated each year on 2 August to pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Roma who suffered and were murdered under the Nazi regime.  It is estimated that between 60 and 70 million people lost their lives as a result of the Second World War which was a truly global conflict and the greatest man-made disaster in history.

Europe’s 20th century left a continent shattered by World Wars and Fascism and Communism. As Western Europe recovered after 1945 and went on to build a European Union based on democracy and open markets, countries behind the Iron curtain endured Communist rule.

Much discussion has focused on how Europe should reconcile itself to its totalitarian legacy which led to a call for 23 August to be a Europe-wide day of remembrance for victims of totalitarianism.

Estonia was one of the countries swept back into the Soviet Union at the end of the war. Estonian Christian Democrat MEP Tunne Kelam said that it still surprises many Western Europeans that in the ten years following World War II “1 million people were killed in Central and Eastern Europe liberated by the Soviets”.  The consequences of this are that “today there are tens of millions of citizens in Central and Eastern Europe who have or whose parents have suffered and whose sense of justice have not yet been satisfied”.

Camilla Andersson from the Institute for Information on the Crimes of Communism in Sweden has previously stated that a survey of students aged 15-20 it found that 90% had never heard of the Gulag whilst the same number were well informed about the Holocaust. In addition 40% believed that Communism had contributed to increased prosperity in the world.

For the Presidency of the EU, the Czech Europe Minister Alexandra Vondra said that “knowing our past is also an essential tool to teach our children how to avoid intolerance, extremism and the recurrence of totalitarian rule in the future”. 

In order to commemorate all those who have suffered under totalitarian regimes, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in 2009 which called for the proclamation of 23 August as a Europe-wide Remembrance Day for the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. This day is commemorated on an annual basis and is an occasion to keep alive the memory of the victims, millions of whom continued to suffer long after the end of Wold War II and the defeat of the Nazi regime. The day is used to remember all those who suffered at the hands of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes and to pay tribute to those who fought for a better future.

The EU continues to play a key role in remembering and paying tribute to all those who suffered as part of totalitarianism, Nazism and Fascism and to commemorate all those who came together in solidarity with each other to stand up for the rights of all people equally. A range of projects are implemented on an annual basis to support remembrance, aided by the remembrance strand of the Europe for Citizens programme of the EU. 

A Lasting Peace

After the destruction of the Second World War, European nations faced a serious of grave economic, political and social problems. European nations now came together to find ways to ensure that war would not occur again between Western European states and to work together through a cooperative process to overcome economic difficulties and to re-build a war-torn Europe. 

In 1951, six European countries – Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany – signed the Treaty of Paris which resulted in the establishment in 1952 of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).  The ECSC created a free-trade area for economic and military resources and saw the establishment of several international treaties and bodies including the setting up of a Council of Ministers and a Court of Justice.  The EU originated in the ECSC as this body led to the development of the European Economic Community (EEC) set up by the Treaty of Rome in 1957 (as well as the European Atomic Energy Committee also set up in 1957) which eventually led  to the European Union in 1993.

Since the Treaty of Rome in 1957 which created the European Economic Community or EEC (common market), the following treaties were agreed and ratified by all the Member States: the Merger Treaty in 1967, the Single European Act in 1986 (a treaty aimed at regulating free flow of trade EU borders, thus creating the Single Market), the Treaty on European Union (the Maastricht Treaty) in 1992, the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, the Treaty of Nice in 2002 and the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. 

Jean Monnet, French Political Economist and Diplomat who played a key role in the promotion of European cooperation.

Building the EU

‘The last right-wing dictatorships in Europe come to an end with the overthrow of the Salazar regime in Portugal in 1974 and the death of General Franco of Spain in 1975’. Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom join the EEC on 1 January  1973 raising the number of member states to nine. The aim was to work to promote the coordinated, peaceful development of each country’s economic industry and to build foundations for an even closer union among European peoples, improving the living and working conditions in society  and developing prosperity.  

In 1979 all European citizens get the opportunity for the first time to elect Members of Parliament (MEP’s) directly to the European parliament.  Up to 1979 the members of the European Community bodies were nominated by and from national parliaments.  In 1979 the first parliamentary election was held to enable the people of each member European state to vote for the members of the European assembly. 

These direct elections would enable people of the member states to be directly involved in the selection of their representatives. 

Greece becomes the 10th member to join in 1981 and Spain and Portugal join in 1986.  On 9 November 1989 the Berlin Wall is pulled down, the border between East and West Germany is opened for the first time in 28 years and Germany is reunified in October 1990.  

With the collapse of communism across central and eastern Europe, Europeans become closer neighbours. In 1993 the Single Market is completed with the ‘four freedoms’ of  movement of goods, services, people and money. The 1990s is also the decade of two treaties: the ‘Maastricht’ Treaty on European Union in 1993 and the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999. 

The Maastricht Treaty, officially known as the Treaty on European Union,  established the European Union or EU, creating ‘an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe. It laid the foundations for a single currency, the euro, and significantly expanded cooperation between European countries in a number of new areas’. These areas included establishing European citizenship (enabling citizens to reside in and move freely between member states), establishing a common foreign and security policy and agreeing closer cooperation between police and the judiciary in criminal matters. The Treaty was signed on 7 February 1992 by 12 countries – Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom. ‘The parliaments in each country then ratified the Treaty, in some cases holding referendums. The Maastricht Treaty officially came into force on 1 November 1993 and the European Union was officially established’. Since then, a further 16 countries have joined the EU and adopted the rules set out in the Maastricht Treaty or in the treaties that followed later.

The Maastricht Treaty established the stages for introducing a common single European currency, the Euro and free movement of capital between member states, the alignment of national central banks and member state economic policies along with a single monetary policy for which the European Central Bank is responsible.

This treaty established the European Central Bank (ECB) who cites its main objective as to ‘maintain price stability and to safeguard the value of the Euro’. The treaty also established the European System of Central Banks and rules on how the euro works as well as economic criteria (known as convergence criteria) that countries must meet into the future in order to join the EU, related to things such as  inflation, levels of public debt, interest and exchange rates. 

‘Since the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, European countries have grown closer together while some policy areas such as economic and fiscal policies remain at national level. European leaders have agreed on additional steps to promote further integration between European states including the Stability and Growth Pact agreed in 1997 to ensure that countries followed sound budgetary policies; the European Stability Mechanism was established to provide financial assistance to euro area countries experiencing or threatened by severe financing problems and the Single Supervisory Mechanism and the Single Resolution Board were created after the financial crisis to make the European banking system safer, as well as to increase financial integration and stability.’

In 1995 Austria, Finland and Sweden join the EU. Political divisions between East and West Europe are healed when,  in 2004, when 10 countries join the EU. They are Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia. In 2007 Bulgaria and Romania join.  In 2012, the European Union is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and in 2013 Croatia joins, becoming the 28th member of the EU.


Increasing European Economic Cooperation

The EU continues to develop cooperation in relation to economic, security and defence matters.  People across the EU have the right to travel without having their passports checked at borders within the EU. Erasmus+ education and third level international cooperation continues to grow as well as international cooperation in the area of culture and the arts.

11 September 2001 becomes synonymous with the ‘War on Terror’ after hijacked airliners are flown into buildings in New York and Washington. EU countries begin to work much more closely together to fight crime. 

In 2002, the euro becomes the official single currency for 19 of the 28 EU member states with the area covered by the 19 states making up the ‘eurozone’.  The United Kingdom and Denmark opted out and kept their own currencies. Seven countries, most of whom joined the EU after the euro was launched, will adopt the euro into the future. They are Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Sweden. 

According to the EU, a financial crisis hits the global economy in September 2008 causing serious damage in several European countries and the EU helps several countries to confront their difficulties and establishes the ‘Banking Union’ to ensure safer and more reliable banks. In 2009 the Treaty of Lisbon came into force after being ratified by all EU countries. It provides the EU with modern institutions and more efficient working methods.

In the case of the Nice Treaty in 2001 to 2002 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 to 2009, Ireland voted no in referendums for both treaties. Second referendums were held in each case and Ireland voted yes. Key areas of concern were a loss of sovereignty and a threat to Ireland’s military neutrality.  A number of guarantees were put in place leading to a yes vote in the second round of referendums. ‘Ireland  gained guarantees concerning its military neutrality with the Seville Declaration after the Nice referendum, and on the Irish commissioner, competency over tax rates, abortion, neutrality, and workers’ rights after the Lisbon referendum.’


European elections are held in 2014 and according to the EU:

More Eurosceptics are elected into the European Parliament. A new security policy is established in the wake of the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Religious extremism increases in the Middle East and various countries and regions around the world, leading to unrest and wars which result in many people fleeing their homes and seeking refuge in Europe. The EU is not only faced with the dilemma of how to take care of them, but also finds itself the target of several terrorist attacks.

At the 2019 European elections the European People’s Party won the most seats in the European Parliament.  Centre-left and centre-right parties suffered significant losses, while pro-EU centrist liberalenvironmentalistEurosceptic and right-wing populist parties made substantial gains.  This showed once again that deep divisions within the Union regarding the future direction of Europe with increasing numbers of MEPs from both pro or anti EU wings.  Since the UK has left the EU and with the subsequent removal of the large number of Brexit Party MEPs elected Eurosceptic numbers in the parliament have been reduced.  However with significant levels of nationalism and right wing populism existing across Europe the challenge for the EU in advocating its strengths to both Member States and their citizens is perhaps its most pressing challenge in this parliamentary term.  

‘Today, more than 510 million citizens from 27 Member States enjoy the benefits of European cooperation. And 25 years after the roadmap towards the euro was agreed, the euro has become the world’s second most traded currency and is part of the daily life of 340 million citizens in 19 countries’.



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Impact of WWII and Totalitarianism