Europe was the birthplace of Cold War and was for a long time its main theatre. Yet well before 1970 there had been signs that the terrible simplifications institutionalized in NATO and (even more rigidly) in the Warsaw Pact might not be all that was shaping history there. Although long insulated by Soviet power from external stimuli to change and by its command economies, there were signs of division in eastern Europe. The violence with which Albania, the tiniest of them, condemned the Soviet Union and applauded China when the two fell out in the 1960s had to be endured by the Russians; Albania had no frontier with other Warsaw Pact countries and so was not likely to have to take account of the Red Army. It was more striking when Romania, with Chinese support, successfully contested the direction of its economy by Comecon, asserting a national right to develop it in its own interest. It even took up a vaguely neutralist position on questions of foreign policy - though remaining inside the Warsaw Pact - and did so, oddly enough, under a ruler who imposed on his countrymen one of the most rigidly dictatorial regimes in eastern Europe. But Romania had no land frontier with a NATO country, and one 800 kilometres long with Russia; her skittishness could be tolerated, therefore, because it could be quickly curbed if necessary. That there were clear limits to the dislocation of the old monolithic unity of communism was clearly enough shown in 1968 when a communist government in Czechoslovakia set about liberalizing its internal structure and developing trade relations with West Germany. This was not to be tolerated. After a series of attempts to bring her to heel, Czechoslovakia was invaded in August 1968 by Warsaw Pact forces. To avoid a repetition of what had happened in Hungary in 1956, the Czech government did not resist and a brief attempt to provide an example of ‘socialism with a human face’, as a Czech politician had put it, was obliterated.

Nonetheless, Sino-Soviet tension combined with tremblings within the eastern bloc (and perhaps the uneasiness of the United States over relations with Latin American countries) to lead to suggestions that the world as a whole was abandoning bipolarity for ‘polycentrism’, as an Italian communist called it. The loosening of Cold War simplicities had indeed been surprising. Other complicating developments had meanwhile emerged in western Europe. By 1980 it was clear that one of the historic roles of its peoples was over since they by then ruled no more of the world’s surface than their ancestors had done 500 years earlier. Huge transformations had taken place, and irreversible things had been done since then. Although Europe’s imperial past was over, the discovery of a new role was well under way. Western Europe had begun to show some of the first, feeble signs that nationalism’s grip on the human potential for large-scale organization might be loosening in the very place where nationalism had been born.

Legacies of common European experience have been traced by enthusiasts back to the Carolingians, but 1945 will do as a starting point. From that date the continent’s future for more than forty years was mainly determined by the outcome of the war and Soviet policy. The likelihood of another great civil war in the West over the German question seemed remote since defeat and partition had disposed of the German problem and so quietened the fears of France. Soviet policy had then given the western countries many new reasons to cooperate more closely; the events in eastern Europe in the late 1940s struck them as a warning of what might happen if the Americans ever went home and they remained divided. The Marshall Plan and NATO turned out to have been the first two of many important steps towards the integration of a new Europe.

That integration had more than one source. The initiation of the Marshall Plan was followed by the setting-up of an Organization (at first of sixteen countries, but later expanded) of European Economic Cooperation in 1948, but the following year, a month after the signing of the treaty setting up NATO, the first political bodies representing ten different European states were also set up under a new Council of Europe. The economic forces making for integration were developing more rapidly, however. Customs Unions had already been created in 1948 between the ‘Benelux’ countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), and (in a different form) between France and Italy. Finally, the most important of the early steps towards greater integration emerged from a French proposal for a Coal and Steel Community. This came into existence formally in 1952 and embraced France, Italy, the Benelux countries and, most significantly, West Germany. It made possible the rejuvenation of the industrial heartland of western Europe and was the main step towards the integration of western Germany into a new international structure. Through economic rearrangement, there came into existence the means of containing while reviving West Germany, whose strength, it was becoming clear, was needed in a western Europe menaced by Soviet land power. Under the influence of events in Korea, American official opinion (to the consternation of some Europeans) was in the early 1950s rapidly coming around to the view that Germany had to be rearmed.

Other facts, too, helped to ease the way to supranational organization in Europe. The political weakness symptomized by their domestic communist parties subsided in both France and Italy, mainly thanks to economic recovery. Communists had ceased to play any part in their governments as early as 1947 and the danger that French and Italian democracy might suffer a fate like Czechoslovakia’s had disappeared by 1950. Anticommunist opinion tended to coalesce about parties whose integrating forces were either Roman Catholic politicians or social democrats well aware of the fate of their comrades in eastern Europe. Broadly speaking, these changes meant that western European governments of a moderate right-wing complexion pursued similar aims of economic recovery, welfare service provision, and western European integration in practical matters during the 1950s.

Further institutions emerged. In 1952 a European Defence Community formalized West Germany’s military position. This was to be replaced by German membership of NATO, but a major thrust towards greater unity, as before, was economic. The crucial step came in 1957: the European Economic Community (EEC) then came into being when France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy joined in signing the Treaty of Rome. Besides looking forward to the creation of a ‘Common Market’ embracing its members, within which barriers to the free movement of goods, services and labour were to be removed, and with a common tariff, the treaty also provided for a decision-making authority, a bureaucracy and a European parliament with advisory powers. Some spoke of the reconstitution of Charlemagne’s heritage. It spurred countries which had not joined the EEC to set up their own, looser and more limited, European Free Trade Association (EFTA) two and a half years later. By 1986, the six countries of the original EEC (by then it had become simply the EC - the word ‘Economic’, significantly, had been dropped) were twelve, while EFTA had lost all but four of its members to it. Five years later still, and what was left of EFTA was envisaging merging with the EC.

Western Europe’s slow but accelerating movement towards a modicum of political unity demonstrated the confidence of those who made the arrangements that armed conflict could never again be an acceptable alternative to cooperation and negotiation between their countries. Tragically, though recognizing that fact, Great Britain’s government did not seize the chance to join in giving it institutional expression; later, it was twice to be refused admission to the EEC. Meanwhile, the Community’s interests were steadily cemented together by a Common Agricultural Policy, which was, to all intents and purposes, a huge bribe to the farmers and peasants who were so important a part of the German and French electorates and, later, to those of poorer countries as they became members.

For a long time determined opposition to further integration at the political as opposed to the economic level came from France. It was expressed strongly by General de Gaulle, who returned to politics in 1958 to become president when the fourth French republic seemed likely to slide into civil war over Algeria. His first task was to negotiate these rapids and to carry through important constitutional reforms, which created the Fifth Republic. His next service to France was as great as any in his wartime career, the liquidation of her Algerian commitment in 1961. The legions came home, some disgruntled. The act freed both him and his country for a more vigorous international role, though a somewhat negative one. De Gaulle’s view of European consolidation was limited to cooperation between independent nation-states; he saw the EEC as above all a way of protecting French economic interests. He was quite prepared to strain the new organization badly to get his way. Further, he in effect twice vetoed British applications to join it. Wartime experience had left de Gaulle with a deep distrust of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and a belief, by no means ill-founded, that the British still hankered after integration with an Atlantic community embracing the United States, rather than with continental Europe. In 1964 he annoyed the Americans by exchanging diplomatic representatives with communist China. He insisted that France go ahead with her own nuclear weapons programme, declining to be dependent on American patronage. Finally, after causing it much trouble, he withdrew from NATO. This could be seen as the coming of ‘polycentrism’ to the western bloc. When de Gaulle resigned after an unfavourable referendum in 1969, a major political force making for uncertainty and disarray in western Europe disappeared.

Great Britain finally joined the EEC in 1973, a registration, at last, of the facts of twentieth-century history by the most conservative of the historic nation-states. The decision complemented the withdrawal from empire and acknowledged that the British strategic frontier lay no longer on the Rhine, but on the Elbe. It was a significant turning point, though far from conclusive, in an era of uncertainty. For a quarter-century British governments had tried and failed to combine economic growth, increased social service provision and a high level of employment. The second depended ultimately on the first, but when difficulty arose, the first had always been sacrificed to the other two. The United Kingdom was, after all, a democracy whose voters, greedy and gullible, had to be placated. The vulnerability of the traditional British economy’s commitment to international trade was a handicap, too. Other handicaps lay in its old staple industries, starved of investment, and the deeply conservative attitudes of the people. Though the United Kingdom grew richer (in 1970 virtually no British manual worker had four weeks’ paid holiday a year and ten years later a third of them did), it fell more and more behind other developed countries both in its wealth and its rate of creating it. If the British had managed a decline in international power and the achievement of a rapid decolonization without the violence and domestic bitterness visible elsewhere, it remained unclear whether they could shake off the past in other ways and ensure themselves even a modest prosperity as a second-rank nation.

One obvious and symptomatic threat to order and civilization was posed in Northern Ireland. Protestant and Catholic hooligans alike seemed bent on destroying their homeland rather than cooperating with their rivals, and caused the deaths of thousands of British citizens - soldiers, policemen and civilians, Protestant and Catholic, Irish, Scottish and English alike - in the 1970s and 1980s. Fortunately they did not disrupt British party politics as Irishmen had done in the past. The British electorate remained preoccupied, rather, by material concerns. Inflation ran at unprecedented levels (the annualized rate 1970-80 was over 13 per cent) and gave new edge to industrial troubles in the 1970s, especially in the wake of the oil crisis. There was speculation about whether the country was ‘ungovernable’ as a miners’ strike brought down one government, while many leaders and interpreters of opinion seemed obsessed with the themes of social division. Even the question whether the United Kingdom should remain in the EEC, which was submitted to the revolutionary device of a referendum in June 1975, was often put in these terms. It was therefore all the more surprising to many politicians when the outcome was unambiguously favourable to continued membership.

Nonetheless, more bad times (economically speaking) lay immediately ahead; inflation (in 1975 running at 26.9 per cent in the wake of the oil crisis) was at last identified by government as the overriding threat. Wage demands by trades unions were anticipating inflation still to come and it began to dawn on some that the era of unquestioned growth in consumption was over. There was a gleam of light; a few years earlier vast oil fields had been discovered under the seabed off the coasts of northern Europe. In 1976 the United Kingdom became an oil-exporting nation. That did not help much immediately; in the same year, a loan from the International Monetary Fund was required. When Mrs Thatcher, the country’s (and Europe’s) first female prime minister and the first woman to lead a major political party (the Conservatives), took office in 1979 she had, in a sense, little to lose; her opponents were discredited, as were the ideas, many felt, that had been long accepted uncritically as the determinants of British policy. A radical new departure for once really did seem to be a possibility. To the surprise of many and the amazement of some among both her supporters and her opponents, that is exactly what Mrs Thatcher was to provide after a shaky start to what was to prove the longest tenure of power of any British prime minister in the twentieth century.

Not far into her premiership, she found herself in 1982 presiding unexpectedly over what may well prove to have been Great Britain’s last colonial war. The reconquest of the Falkland Islands after their brief occupation by Argentine forces was in logistic terms alone a great feat of arms as well as a major psychological and diplomatic success. The prime minister’s instincts to fight for the principles of international law and for the islanders’ right to say by whom they should be governed were well-attuned to the popular mood. She also correctly judged the international possibilities. After an uncertain start (unsurprising, given its traditional sensitivity over Latin America), the United States provided important practical and clandestine help. Chile, by no means easy with her restive neighbour, was not disposed to object to British covert operations on the mainland of South America. More important, most of the EC countries supported the isolation of Argentina in the UN, and resolutions that condemned the Argentine action. It was especially notable that the British had from the start the support (not often offered to them so readily) of the French government, which knew a threat to vested rights when it saw one.


It now seems clear that Argentinian action had been encouraged by the misleading impressions of likely British reactions gained from British diplomacy in previous years (for this reason, the British foreign secretary resigned at the outset of the crisis). Happily, one political consequence was the fatal wounding in its prestige and cohesiveness of the military regime that ruled Argentina and its replacement at the end of 1983 by a constitutional and elected government. In the United Kingdom, Mrs Thatcher’s prestige rose with national morale; abroad, too, her standing was enhanced, and this was important. For the rest of the decade it provided the country with an influence with other heads of state (notably the American president) which the raw facts of British strength could scarcely have sustained by themselves. Not everyone agreed that this influence was always advantageously deployed. Like those of General de Gaulle, Mrs Thatcher’s personal convictions, preconceptions and prejudices were always very visible and she, like him, was no European, if that meant allowing emotional or even practical commitment to Europe to blunt personal visions of national interest. At home, meanwhile, she transformed the terms of British politics, and perhaps of cultural and social debate, dissolving a long-established bien-pensant consensus about national goals. This, together with the undoubted radicalism of many of her specific policies, awoke both enthusiasm and an unusual animosity. Yet she failed to achieve some of her most important aims. Ten years after she took up office, government was playing a greater, not a smaller, role in many areas of society, and the public money spent on health and social security had gone up a third in real terms since 1979 (without satisfying greatly increased demand).

Although Mrs Thatcher had led the Conservatives to three general election victories in a row (a unique achievement in British politics), many in her party came to believe she would be a vote-loser in the next contest, which could not be far away. Faced with the erosion of loyalty and support, she resigned in 1990, leaving to her successor rising unemployment and a bad financial situation. But it seemed likely that British policy might now become less obstructive in its approach to the Community and its affairs and less rhetorical about it.

The 1970s had been difficult years for all the members of the EEC. Growth fell away and individual economies reeled under the impact of the oil crisis. This contributed to institutional bickering and squabbling (particularly on economic and financial matters), which had reminded Europeans of the limits to what was so far achieved. It continued in the 1980s and, coupled with uneasiness about the success of the Far Eastern economic sphere, dominated by Japan, and a growing realization that other nations would wish to join the ten, led to further crystallization of ideas about the Community’s future. Many Europeans saw more clearly that greater unity, a habit of cooperation and an increasing prosperity were prerequisites of Europe’s political independence, but some also felt an emerging sense that such independence would always remain hollow unless Europe, too, could turn herself into a superpower.

Comfort could be drawn by enthusiasts from further progress in integration. In 1979 the first direct elections to the European parliament were already being held. Greece in 1981, Spain and Portugal in 1986, were soon to join the Community. In 1987 the foundations of a common European currency and monetary system were drawn up (although the United Kingdom did not agree) and it was settled that 1992 should be the year which would see the inauguration of a genuine single market, across whose national borders goods, people, capital and services were to move freely. Members even endorsed in principle the idea of European political union, although the British and French had notable misgivings. This by no means made at once for greater psychological cohesion and comfort as the implications emerged, but it was an indisputable sign of development of some sort.

Finally, in December 1991 at Maastricht, another step forward was taken when the EC members agreed on measures to integrate the Community further, though again with reservations and special arrangements for the cautious British. Henceforth, the EC was the European Union, of which the nationals of all member states were citizens. By then a common monetary system, restricting the independence of members in managing the devaluation or revaluation of their own currencies, was already in place. This was a significant stride towards a common European currency (not to be introduced until 2002). As at every point in the Community’s history, satisfaction about what had been achieved was almost lost to sight amid quarrels, misgivings, misinterpretations and ambiguities about what should or might lie ahead. Yet many other European nations were now knocking at or approaching the door of entry, a good testimony to what they saw as the advantages of membership. In thirty-four years since the Treaty of Rome, western Europe had come a very long way, further, perhaps, than was always grasped by men and women born and grown to maturity under it. Underlying the institutional changes, too, were slowly growing similarities - in politics, social structure, consumption habits and beliefs about values and goals. Even the old disparities of economic structure had greatly diminished, as the decline in numbers and increase in prosperity of French and German farmers showed. On the other hand, new problems had presented themselves as poorer and perhaps politically less stable countries had joined the EC. That there had been huge convergences could not be contested. What was still unclear was what this might imply for the future.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!