The current European Union (hereafter, EU) contains 27 countries that comprise most of Europe. The EU was created by the Treaty of Rome in 1957. That Treaty created the permanent Brussels institutions which include the Council of Ministers (the representatives of each government), the Commission (the bureaucracy in charge of trying to get agreement for more and newer forms of cooperation), the Parliament (an organization that has somewhat increased its power over time) and a Court (the European Court of Justice). The goal of the European Economic Communities, as it was then known, was open ended. The idea was to create more economic growth through the removal of trade barriers and the integration of European economies. Over the subsequent 50 years, the EU grew from 6 to 27 members, engaged in many forms of economic cooperation, most importantly the completion of the single market, and the implementation of a single currency, the Euro, for 23 of its 27 members.
So what were its economic effects? Studies have shown that since 1990, literally all of the jobs created in the private sector in Europe have been because of the single market. European corporations have "Europeanized" their markets and grown to compete everywhere across Europe. For consumers, this has meant cheaper goods and services and lots of inexpensive holidays abroad. The inclusion of the countries of central and eastern Europe has peacefully transformed the economies of those countries. The EU has helped those countries create stable democracies, rule of law, rebuilt infrastructure, and helped pump up their economies. The first thing to understand about the EU, is that political and economic elites around Europe know how important the EU has been to national economic growth and employment. This means that most politicians in center left and center right political parties are convinced that European cooperation is the main way they have of growing their economies. Most of the citizens in Europe also realize this and this explains why it is quite difficult for any anti-EU party to come to power in Europe.
But the creation of the European economic zone has not resulted in a shift in allegiance for most citizens from being focused on their nation to being focused on Europe. Polls have shown that at most 13% of people in Europe think of themselves mostly as European while 43% only think of themselves as having only a national identity. The other 44% view themselves as mostly having a national identity and sometimes having a European identity. These numbers differ by countries in expected ways: the British, Danish, Finnish, Swedish, and Austrian are the least European while the Luxembourgers, Belgians, Netherlanders, French, Germans, and Italians are the most. These facts explain much of the political conflict in Europe. Generally, the British politicians are the most opposed to increased integration reflecting the fact that the British population are not Europeans while the French and Germans politicians are most in favor. If a political issue is construed as national, fully 87% of citizens will be against an EU solution. If an issue takes on a European framing, 57% of citizens favor an EU response.
Why has there been so little spread of a European identity? Most social science theories of identity focus on how patterns of interaction bring people together and convince them they are a "group". As it stands only 5-7% of people live outside of their country of birth and most of these are students, people working abroad for a short period of time, or retirees. The people who tend to have such an identity are those who have the most opportunities or interest in interacting with people from other countries, those who are more educated, richer, have professional or managerial jobs, and tend to be younger. These are the people who travel for business and pleasure, may live in another country, and find themselves interacting with people from other countries.
What do these facts suggest about future European political integration? Some crises could test governments as their citizens would press them to preserve the rights of national populations over the whole of the EU. If the crisis was severe enough, it could potentially send some countries out of the EU. But the fact is, that political and economic elites and most middle class citizens would favor continuing the arrangement precisely because they recognize the value of Europe. The current sovereign debt crisis has certainly pushed the EU to a precipice. But in spite of this, the governments have set up a large fund to do bailouts in the future (the European Financial Stability Facility), they have sign on to a commitment to balance budgets in the next few years, and the European Central Bank has moved to aggressively support the banks in all countries. While citizens remain deeply divided on the degree to which they have allegiance to Europe, the events of the past two years have once again pulled them together even more tightly politically. And no country, even Greece is seriously considering leaving the EU or the Euro. There currently exists a fractious European politics. But the back and forth of this politics is built into the complex interplay of national governments, national identities, and the pull of European institutions and European identities.