Fifty years ago - March 25, 1957 - leaders from six European countries signed a set of treaties in Rome to establish the European Economic Community. That was the cornerstone of today's 27-member European Union. In Focus, VOA's Sonja Pace traces the development of European integration from the initial grouping of war-tattered nations to today's global economic powerhouse with growing political ambitions.
Things do not always move quickly through the channels of the European Union. It took months of consultations just to come up with an EU birthday message for presentation at the special 50th anniversary celebrations in Berlin. But despite such shortcomings, European integration has changed the face of the region.
And perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the numbers of workers moving from one country to another. According to British government statistics, some 70,000 East European migrants have come to London just in the three years since the EU expanded east. Two-thirds of them have come from Poland.
Magda Harvey left her home in Poland well before the latest influx. She initially came to London to learn English, then stayed on. She has built up a successful business that includes Polish specialty shops, a food import and distribution company and a Polish community center and restaurant. She says the attraction to come here to work has been there for years, but the status of migrants has changed since the East European countries joined the EU.
"For the last 10 or 15 years, you had hundreds of thousands of Poles working in the U.K., and they were working illegally," says Harvey. "They are still working. Now, they are working legally. They pay taxes, they are insured, they can travel freely."
A Rising Phoenix
Freedom to travel and work throughout Europe is a cornerstone of integration, says Hugo Brady of the Center for European Policy Reform in London. "What Europe is all about, what the EU is all about is securing an open, liberal Europe. And it was founded on four basic freedoms, which [are] the free movement of goods, free movement of services, people and money," says Brady.
"And, the idea was that, if they could move freely as they wished throughout the continent of Europe, then not only would there be unparalleled stability in terms of peace and so on, but there would be unparalleled economic prosperity," he concluded.
But there is a darker past. Today's Europe was born out of the ashes of two world wars in which millions perished and a determination not to let that happen again. "The whole idea, of course, started with -- if you lock together the economies of Europe, particularly then the coal and steel industries, which make the weapons of war, and then gradually you lock the economies more and more, then war will become unthinkable between those countries, because it would be far too damaging to any one of them," says Jackie Davis of the European Policy Center, a leading Brussels research group.
And so, a political elite drew up plans to change the dynamics. The European Coal and Steel Community was formed in 1951. Then the Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957, established the European Economic Community, which has become the European Union, or EU.
"If you think [about] where we've come in the 50 years from then to what we have now, which is the world's biggest single market of 490 million consumers, a single currency for many of the member states of the European Union, cooperation in all sorts of areas - from the fight against crime to environmental pollution and so on," continued Davis. "Now, [we have] the beginnings of a development of a common foreign and security policy, a common defense policy.".
What the Future Holds
But, misgivings remain. People fear losing their own national identities. They resent being dictated to by bureaucrats in Brussels and many are wary of bringing in new members and the flood of immigrants that might come with them.
Giles Merritt, Secretary General of The Friends of Europe research center in Brussels, says such fears are unfounded. He says EU enlargement was crucial. "Back when the Berlin Wall fell, there were those who said, 'No, that looks like trouble, sit where we are.' And, the others said, 'We don't have a choice. We either bring them into the fold, we either make them part of the whole European integration process or we create a tremendous zone of instability,'" he said.
The integrationists won out, a good thing for Romania and Bulgaria, the EU's newest members as of January 1. "Accession to the European Union has been looked at as a guarantee that, in Romania, too, respect of the democratic values of democracy would become a permanent value," says Lazar Comanescu, Romania's EU ambassador.
And along with it, come hopes for greater prosperity. But skepticism remains about the benefits of integration. Jackie Davis of the European Policy Center says European politicians must do more to "sell" the EU idea to their people. "Over the next 10, 20, 30 years, the big issue now for Europe's politicians is, how can we proceed and bring the public along with us? How can we make the public feel engaged in the debate? So that we don't get this gap between what their expectations are and what we deliver," says Davis.
And as integrated Europe marks its 50th anniversary, there is much discussion of not just where it all started, but where it goes from here. And that debate is far from over.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.