Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The European Union at 50

James Skillen


March 30, 2007
Last weekend, the European Union (EU) celebrated its 50th anniversary. In 1957, six countries--France, West Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg--signed a treaty to form a common market, called the European Economic Community (EEC). Today, after additional treaties, new names, and the creation of a common currency (the euro), the EU has 27 member countries with more waiting in line to join.

That is a remarkable achievement when one thinks of the history of Europe through the 19th and 20th centuries, including two world wars. Of course, much can be said about the inadequacies and frustrations of life within the EU. Great Britain joined the EEC in 1973 but has not yet accepted the EU's common currency regime. The EU's common agricultural policy is even more protectionist and wasteful of public funds than our American agricultural subsidies. The EU has too many bureaucracies and not enough responsibility vested in its European Parliament.

In many ways, the EU is moving toward federal political union and several years ago the leaders of its member states drafted a constitution to take the EU further in that direction. However, the draft constitution failed to win majority support in the French and Dutch referenda in 2005 and is now in limbo. At present the EU is not the best of all possible worlds and its critics never tire of denigrating it.

Nor may we ignore American complaints about the EU, a union that the United States has supported from the start with the Marshall Plan and the NATO umbrella, aware that another major war sparked in Europe could lead to an even greater disaster than the two world wars. Complaints about France's lack of support for the American military venture in Iraq, or about European enthusiasm for international environmental agreements and an international court of justice seem minor, then, compared to what we might have to complain about if the Europeans were preparing to go to war with one another again.

The great 50-year achievement of the EU and its promise for the future is that a significant number of countries have formed institutional habits of working together, bargaining together, trading together, and arguing together. Yes, most of Europe is now highly secularized, birth rates are too low, and few of its countries are dealing successfully with the growing number of immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants. But would any of the European countries be in a significantly better position in these respects if the EU had not been built?

There is something to be said for learning how to build and to keep on reforming international institutions through which countries can cooperate and argue over their disagreements. Isn't this part of what the U.S. recognizes in continuing with six-party negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program and in returning again to the UN process to try to deal with Iran? Isn't this part of what lies behind Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's comments earlier this week that nothing is more important than for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to talk directly and regularly with one another, even though the U.S. still considers Hamas (now part of the Palestinian unity government) to be a terrorist organization?

Bilateral and multilateral diplomacy that can lead to cooperative institutions will not always produce peace and prosperity. But the EU, even with all of its current problems, is a highly important institutional example of how to build habits of cooperation among peoples and states that had for centuries been warring antagonists. The EU is not Utopia. It may yet fail. And others in the world may not learn the best lessons that can be learned from the history of the EU. Yet today, we should, with a degree of awe, lift a toast to what the last 50 years of cooperative institution building has achieved in Europe.

—James W. Skillen, President
    Center for Public Justice

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”