When British voters decided to leave the European Union (EU) by a small margin in 2016, shockwaves resonated throughout Europe. If a “Brexit” does take place, it will be the first time an EU member state has broken off from what is now one of the world’s largest economic and political bodies—a 28-state organization that was established to carve lasting peace from the wreckage of world war. Here’s what the U.K. will leave behind if it manages to carry out its EU exit.
The EU has roots in the devastation of World War II. In 1945, Europe’s economy was in shambles. Huge swaths of the population were homeless or displaced. And as European industries tried to get back on their feet, political tensions split East and West in a rising Cold War.
Economic instability and the specter of hyperinflation—the exact conditions that earlier had helped give rise to German fascism and pave the road to World War II—prompted post-war European leaders to act. Officials banded together to sidestep conflict through economic means. The steel and coal industries of West Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands united, creating a common commodities market in an effort to both stabilize the economy and make it impossible for a single country to corner the market on materials used to wage war.
The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) soon inspired other economic reforms. In 1957, as the Cold War raged, the six ECSC countries signed the Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic Community (EEC). The EEC ensured a common market and aligned national economic, agricultural, transportation and other policies.
EEC countries flourished during the 1960s, and Western Europe transformed from hungry to prosperous. In 1973, three more member states, including the United Kingdom, joined. As Communism collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s, more followed.
In 1993, 12 member nations signed the Maastricht Treaty, and the European Union was born. The treaty created European citizenship, established common policies for foreign relations and national security, and paved the way for a common currency, the Euro. Four freedoms still govern the union: free movement of people, goods, capital, and services. (See what Europe's coins looked like before the Euro.)
The Euro went into effect on January 1, 1999. By then, Schengen laws guaranteeing free movement of European citizens across national borders had come into effect in most European countries, and the union had grown into one of the world’s largest political bodies.
Beginning in 2009, the now 27-member-state EU faced an economic crisis precipitated by newer member states’ inability to pay their debts. Nevertheless, the union withstood the debt crisis and other controversies. With the addition of its most recent member state, Croatia, in 2013, the EU is now 28 members strong. Today, it covers over 1.5 million square miles and has 513 million inhabitants. It ensures fundamental rights including human dignity, equality, and the rights to life (which includes a ban on the death penalty), asylum, informed consent, and freedom of thought and expression. (Here's how Brexit could impact the U.K.'s scientific research.)
The EU is no longer merely an economic union; over the years, it has created lasting peace and relative stability in Europe. It even won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. But how strong are the ties between member nations? Though some assert that a “European identity” exists, scholars debate its existence. Being European doesn’t necessarily imply support for the European Union, and Brexit casts a cloud over the European experiment. The EU is once again in uncharted waters, and it’s unclear if Britain’s planned exit is a passing storm or a sign of worse weather to come.