I have long been fascinated by the very existence of the European Union. Perhaps that statement exposes the true depths of my International Relations nerd-ism, but as a news-obsessed child who came of age in the turmoil of Brexit, it was at the center of my attention through much of high school. My obsession with the EU was a large part of the reason why I decided to major in International Relations. The intricacies of how a group of states could unite in a way that sacrifices so much individual sovereignty, despite the devastating damage they inflicted upon one another less than 50 years prior to the bloc’s founding and had throughout so much of the continent’s history, was something I could not wrap my head around. Even though I generally subscribe to a liberal view of international relations, the EU just felt like such a huge jump from what I understood about the history of European development.
During the spring of 2023, I studied abroad at Universidad Pablo de Olavide in Seville, Spain. As part of my curriculum, I had the opportunity to take a class all about the EU and its development, functioning, and challenges. This opportunity to explore the bloc in depth, combined with the ways I have seen the EU work in daily life while actually living in Spain, has totally changed my perceptions of its role in the international system and its implications for similar international cooperation.
The EU is, in its most basic form, an economic bloc of 27 European nations with free trade and effectively open borders. Though the EU was officially created by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, some semblance of European cooperation has existed since the mid-1950s. Early European cooperation began for several reasons – to help stimulate economic growth, rebuild war-ravaged industries, and ensure that German reunification could occur without further societal radicalization – but a significant factor was the hope that intertwining economic and social policies could unite the countries towards common goals and lead to a long-lasting peace. This is one incredibly important factor to understand the functioning of the EU: it does not exist in spite of the past histories of chaos and war between European nations, but because of them.
Beyond just economic policy, however, the EU exists as a supranational organization. Every treaty works to increase the degree to which the governments of member states coordinate, both inter-governmentally and supranationally. The economic benefits of the EU are clear – free trade leads to more efficient and self-regulating markets, uniting as a bloc makes each individual country have more weight in a massive international system, even a unified currency makes intercounty commerce significantly easier, despite its challenges. However, the justifications behind unified social policies are a lot less clear.
When joining the EU, countries get the right to send representatives to each of the executive and legislative bodies of the organization, which make binding policy for the entire bloc. This policy is, by nature, further reaching and has control over individual state policies, meaning that by joining the EU, states give up some of their sovereign decision-making power to ensure that their laws are in accordance with EU policy.
This is an idea intrinsically backwards in international relations, where sovereignty is seen as the most important factor in all international decisions. However, the primary reason for this is economic. If states are going to be in a true customs union, with a unified trade policy and shared currency, it makes sense that their policies on almost everything that touches trade would at least follow the same standards. And, if they truly are going to be economically unified, then social unification seems like a logical way to ensure that all states are moving in the same direction with the same goals.
Through my experiences in Europe, I have learned that the EU works because it is a choice that each country makes every day – to choose peace over conflict and cooperation over divisiveness. The system is not perfect. Disagreements occur, mistakes are made, consequences are felt, and sometimes, the union breaks, as seen with Brexit. Ultimately, however, the EU is a recognition that sometimes, the only way to stand in peace and prosperity is to lock hands with your adversaries and move forward together. And to me, this is what the heart of international relations is all about.
Andrea Hebel pictured in Spain