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Friday, 6 April, 2001, 07:28 GMT 08:28 UK
Europe's growing trade bloc
The European Iron and Steel Community was set up in 1951
It was Winston Churchill who, as long ago as 1946, called for a "kind of United States of Europe" in a speech at Zurich University.

Now the European Union stands as one of the world's most successful and largest trade blocs.

Political union among the EU's 15 member states may still be some way off but economic ties are well-advanced.

Counting as it does the world's third, fourth, fifth and sixth largest economies among its members, the EU probably has a more powerful presence in global trade than any other economic bloc.

The single European market has existed since 1993 while in 1999, 11 states took the ultimate step to economic union, adopting a single currency - the euro.

Earlier this year, Greece joined the eurozone. And at the beginning of 2002, the 12 national currencies will disappear, to be replaced by euro notes and coins.

Post-war aid

The history of modern economic co-operation among European countries goes back to the years immediately following World War Two, when the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation was created to co-ordinate distribution of US economic aid to the war-ravaged continent under the Marshall Plan.

As European industry recovered, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman - a figure who looms large in the history of early modern European co-operation - proposed that France and Germany and any other countries that wished to join them pooled their coal and steel resources.

In April 1951, these two countries as well as Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed the Treaty of Paris establishing the European Iron & Steel Community.

This is widely regarded as the forerunner of what we know today as the EU.

Waves of membership

In 1957, the European Economic Community (EEC) came into being after the same six countries signed the Treaty of Rome.

Denmark, Ireland and the UK joined the EEC in 1973 with three further waves of membership taking in Greece (1981), Spain and Portugal (1986) and Austria, Finland and Sweden (1995).

More recently, several East European countries and Turkey have moved closer to satisfying conditions for joining.

The single European market came into force in 1993 while under the Schengen agreement two years later France, Germany and the Benelux countries agreed to eliminate border checks, in an attempt to encourage trade.

Closer European co-operation embraced not just economic affairs but also political, legal and social issues.

Higher profile

Institutions such as the European Court of Justice made their mark.

In 1989, the court issued a landmark ruling establishing the principal of non-discrimination on the basis of nationality - in this case ordering the same level of compensation to be paid to a British tourist injured in an attack on the Paris metro as a French national would have received.

And the Bosman ruling in 1995 blew apart football's system of player transfers and restrictions on numbers of foreign players imposed by national leagues.

More recently, the EU has adopted a higher profile in external trade issues, defending itself robustly in disputes with the US and the World Trade Organisation.

Among the more prominent cases, the EU sought to restrict imports of US beef treated with growth hormones - a move the WTO ruled was illegal - while the US imposed sanctions on the EU because of what it said was preferential treatment for Caribbean, as opposed to Latin American, banana exporters.

Several subsequent tit-for-tat exchanges have included a US threat to impose sanctions on EU products including Scottish cashmere, to which the EU responded by indicating it might apply sanctions on US goods, including farm products, glassware, steel and aluminum, aircraft, footwear, toys and games.

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