Celebration Tinged with Trepidation: The EU Turns 60

Everyone tried to put a good face on it, but the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome that created the organization that would become the European Union (EU) were marked by deep concerns about the future of the union.

Most striking was the absence of the United Kingdom. The British had voted to leave the EU 9 months ago and the formal request to leave is expected shortly. The British had never been enthusiastic members of the EU, but the choice to formally withdraw is a significant blow to the idea that the union is destined to grow ever closer.

Other concerns also vex EU leaders. The Eurozone faces serious economic problems and is in need of real institutional reforms if it is to continue to manage a single currency for a diverse group of countries. Brexit was only one sign of a growing anti-EU movement in Europe. No other country appears on the verge of leaving, but in uncertain times things can be surprising.

Despite its problems, the EU remains a spectacular success as a vehicle for global governance. Created in the ashes of the Second World War as a tool to promote integration and cooperation, the European Coal and Steel Community (the original name for the organization that would become the EU) was meant to make a future major power war in Europe impossible. The idea was to bring states together to promote common interests and to resolve problems peacefully. With two world wars and the Great Depression fresh in people’s minds, this was a significant matter.

The EU has become a powerful international actor, in spite of the oddity of an international organization acting somewhat like a nation-state. For years, the EU moved towards an erosion of sovereignty in favor of integration and transnationalism. While that process has largely halted with Brexit, it remains one of the only examples where nation-states have ceded significant part of what had been sovereign decision-making.

The EU has been widely copied, but few of the imitators have managed to duplicate its success. The struggles of the African Union, MERCOSUR, and numerous other regional groupings shows how powerful the sovereign impulse can be. The EU’s success is exceptional.

So, as the EU turns 60, we can look at its struggles (as reporting in RT, Russian state media likes to do) or we can sit back and marvel at how an organization built on the rubble of war has managed to keep the peace while making many of its members fat and happy. Through turbulent decades, the EU did its job reasonably well. And that deserves a celebration.




  1. Why have other regional organizations struggled to overcome the cooperation and coordination problems that the EU has overcome? What aspects of the EU members and the process of EU integration influence this?
  2. The EU was successful as an economic union and single market, but faced growing opposition as it got deeper into the daily lives of citizens. Are there limits on the aspects of sovereignty that people in member states are willing to give up? Do some parts of our lives fit more happily with transnational integration than others?
  3. The EU is often criticized for suffering from a “democratic deficit” because many decisions are made by a professional bureaucracy in Brussels. Yet most rules in most nation-states are created by bureaucrats and not national legislatures. Why does bureaucratic rule-making seem different when it takes place in a transnational organization?