The founding and evolution of the EU

Hundreds of people from West and East Berlin standing on the wall near Brandenburg Gate.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a defining moment in history. Known in Germany as the turning point, it took just three years after the wall came down to adopt the Maastricht Treaty establishing the European Union. © Wikimedia

The Maastricht Treaty established the European Union, with the European Communities making up the first of three pillars. New additions were a common foreign and security policy as the second pillar and greater cooperation in justice and home affairs as the third. The Treaties of Nice and Amsterdam were later added to the existing set of agreements, in part due to the upcoming expansion of the EU to the east.

In 1989, a fundamental and unexpected change occurred on the continent: Hungary opened its borders to the West, and the Wall fell in divided Berlin. This was followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Following the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany, the European Union was created in 1992 by the Treaty of Maastricht. This treaty also introduced the three-pillar structure, with the European Communities (EC) as the first pillar, adding the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) as the second pillar, and Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) as the third pillar, which enhanced cooperation in the area of law enforcement and home affairs. In the first pillar the decisions of the EC were mostly made according to the principle of qualified majority voting, whereas in the second and third pillars intergovernmental cooperation was the rule and decisions were reached unanimously.

The economic and monetary union

Map of the economic and monetary union.
Map of the economic and monetary union. © FDFA

The Treaty of Maastricht also initiated an economic and monetary union (EMU). The euro was introduced as an accounting currency in 1999. From that date the European Central Bank operated a single monetary policy for the entire euro area. At the beginning of 2002 the euro was introduced as a cash currency and established itself – at least until the debt crisis of 2010 – as a strong and stable single currency. Today it is the official currency in all 'old' EU states except the United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden. Of the member states that have joined since 2004, the first country to meet the necessary convergence criteria was Slovenia, which entered the euro area in 2007. Cyprus and Malta joined in 2008, followed by Slovakia in 2009, Estonia in 2011, Latvia in 2014,  Lithuania in 2015 and Croatia in 2023. There are now 20 participating countries in the euro area. Within the framework of an intergovernmental 'fiscal pact' signed in March 2012, the 25 EU members committed themselves to strengthening budgetary discipline and introducing a debt brake. Only the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic have remained outside the pact.

The Treaties of Nice and Amsterdam

In 1995, Austria, Finland, and Sweden – all former members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) – joined the EU. This brought the total number of EU member states to 15. The Treaties of Amsterdam (1997) and Nice (2001) amended the Treaty of Maastricht with the aim of making the EU institutions work more efficiently, particularly in the run-up to eastern enlargement, which was how the inclusion of numerous Central and Eastern European states was known. The treaties simplified the decision-making process within the EU by replacing the principle of unanimity with a qualified majority in many areas. The joint decision-making power of the European Parliament was also considerably strengthened.

Schengen 1995 / Dublin 1997

The Schengen Agreement came into force in March 1995, allowing the first European states to halt their border controls and to increase inter-state judicial and police cooperation. The Dublin Convention entered into effect two years later, ensuring that each asylum application is only processed in one participating state in the Dublin area. The Dublin criteria establish which country is responsible for dealing with an application. The cooperation between European states known as Schengen/Dublin – in the fields of justice, police, visas and asylum – had been initiated as early as 1985 by five member states of the then EC.

European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP)

In light of the bloodshed in the Balkan wars, the European Council in Cologne in 1999 decided on a common European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). The EU thereby created the necessary resources to respond more effectively to future conflicts. In particular, the ESDP takes the form of civilian and military peacekeeping operations, also beyond the European continent. The EU has described itself as a global actor prepared to take on more responsibilities.