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A Growing Community: The Early Days of EU Enlargement

When people think of the European Union (EU), they think of Brexit. They think of the rise of nationalism and how it will affect the future of Europe. They think of the common currency, the Euro, and the ease of inter-country traveling due to the implementation of the Schengen Area.

But how many are aware of the history of its formation?

The EU has not always resembled its current state.

European Union Flag (2019) arembowski |
European Union Flag (2019) arembowski |

After experiencing two costly world wars, European countries aimed to unite the continent economically and politically. This took the form of the European Coal and Steel Community, founded in 1950 by Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. In 1957, this union evolved into the European Economic Community (EEC), the “Common Market,” through the ratification of the Treaty of Rome. The goal of the EEC was to increase European economic integration through a common market and customs union. The following year, member states founded the European Parliament, which was initially composed of representatives elected by the national parliaments in each country.

The first enlargement occured on January 1, 1973, when Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom joined as Member States, raising membership to nine countries. In 1979, EU officials implemented an electoral reform which allowed EU citizens to directly elect their representatives to the European Parliament.

The EU, now consisting of twenty-seven member states, looks much different now than it did during the first enlargement in 1973. The Maastricht Treaty of 1993 formally established the European Union as it is known today. It granted EU citizenship to every individual who was a citizen in an EU Member State. It also put a common currency, the Euro, into circulation, and created a central banking system. The Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999 made substantial changes to the Treaty of Maastricht, including more clearly defining the ascension process and characterizing the EU as a supranational organization in which Member States agreed to transfer some legislative power from their national governments to the EU. The EU currently faces many challenges, including climate change, immigration, and the rise of nationalism.

George Barbis was serving in Brussels, Belgium, the seat of the European Union, during the EU’s first enlargement, which saw the entry of Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom into the Union. Later in his career, he would go on to serve as a Political Officer in Athens, Greece and as the Political Advisor to the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Barbis provides some context and insight into the early days of EU enlargement from the U.S. perspective.

Barbis’ interview was conducted by Raymond C. Ewing on October 8, 1966.

Read Barbis’ full oral history HERE.

Read more about the creation of the European Union HERE.

Read more about the relationship between the UK and the EU HERE.

Drafted by Sophie May

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“Enlargement beyond the present membership is going to create complications and difficulties.”

Humble Beginnings:
The United States’ support for the Community, you will recall, was always because we primarily hoped that a united Europe could assume a greater share of the responsibilities in Europe in maintaining peace, stability, and prosperity; and our role could be diminished. But, it took a long time for the Europeans to get around to that and it started as a very informal arrangement, consultations in the political committee, as they called it then. But, it was the beginning of what now is the European Union and which someday hopefully will be an even closer integration of the European states, although enlargement beyond the present membership is going to create complications and difficulties. …

Q: How many member states were there when you went, initially there were six?

BARBIS: Yes. My main preoccupation for a good part of my tour in Brussels was with the initial enlargement negotiations which were Great Britain, Ireland, Denmark and Norway. The first three joined and Norway declined in a referendum to join.

Q: I assume you would deal with the permanent missions based in Brussels?

BARBIS: Yes. Each member country had its own embassy accredited to the government of Belgium and in addition had a permanent delegation assigned to or dealing with European Community matters and in which the ambassadors would represent their countries when Council meetings took place. The actual day-to-day operation of the Community was conducted by the Commission, by the Eurocrats, if you will. I forget now the number of commissioners at the time, I’m sure it has grown, but as I recall, the British, the French, the Germans each had two commissioners representing them and the other countries only one. Each would have an area of responsibility for trade relations, for finance, for agriculture, etc. USEC was structured the same as any embassy with political and economic sections and a USIS section. We would divide responsibilities correspondingly. Since agriculture was such a key area in our relations as well as in the Community’s preoccupations, the Department of Agriculture had its own people there as part of our mission.

Q: This officer would not exactly attend the Council meetings but would get a briefing immediately after it ended?

BARBIS: Exactly. There were always briefings and he had good contacts and would talk to members of the delegations and also officials of the Commission and be able to get a pretty good reading on what had been discussed and decided and what positions governments took. And, of course, if it were a critical issue involving the United States, soybeans, for example, which was controversial at that time, or chickens, etc., the various embassies would report to us in advance so that we had a pretty good understanding of national positions.

Q: And afterwards they would often report as well getting…?

BARBIS: And, people returned because frequently…there was an agricultural Council meeting, ministers of agriculture would come to Brussels and when all of these delegations from capitals returned, the embassies did an excellent job in following up and reporting.

“But, national sovereignty was still very important, still is, and that suggested that a gradual, moderate approach had more chances of succeeding.”

Euro, Tom & Anna |
Euro, Tom & Anna |

The Rise of the Europeanists:
Q: I know the European Union had a system of rotation of the presidency by some alphabetical order. Had that started in this period, so that a country would be the president…?

BARBIS: The council.

Q: The council on all subsidiary organs for six months?

BARBIS: Exactly.

Q: So, our consultation with that country would be particularly important?

BARBIS: Very key, both with respect to Commission activities, European Economic Community activities, but also in terms of the informal, at that time, political consultations.

Q: You say it was informal?

BARBIS: There was no structure yet. This all started through the initiative of Steven Donvion, the Belgian Commissioner.

Q: And who had been Belgian foreign minister.

BARBIS: Well, at that time he was more on the economic side, but a rising star in the Belgian political world and European too, because he was a very strong Europeanist. He pushed this idea, because the progress on the political side of the Europeans had been slow, and still is from an American point of view. It has taken them almost 30 years to get to where they are now, with more structured and institutionalized procedures. It was difficult to jumpstart on a formal basis, it had to be a gradual process where people got used to these consultations. They would deal with issues of common interest in foreign policy matters, bilaterally with some countries, but also in the UN they began coordinating their positions and eventually ending up with one position on certain issues. But, national sovereignty was still very important, still is, and that suggested that a gradual, moderate approach had more chances of succeeding, which I think they have. They have made a lot of progress in that respect.

“ What impressed me was how in some ways we were more European than the Europeans in trying to help them.”

American Support:
Q: No, they had many obstacles and lots of difficulty. But, generally the United States was supportive of the enlargement?

BARBIS: We were supportive as part of this—I guess it was a small group in our country who had the vision of a united Europe who believed in, worked with, and supported Jean Monnet and his efforts, sort of the patron saint of the European movement right after World War II. As a newcomer, what impressed me was how in some ways we were more European than the Europeans in trying to help them. But, I think it was done with moderation. We didn’t beat people over the head, but everybody knew that we supported their moving towards closer and closer economically, in trade and certainly politically. Our interests were primarily political in some respects, although the stakes on the economic side were very high, and still are. Obviously our interest is a little more mixed on the economic side, where to protect our own interests sometimes we got into some real tough hassles with them.

“. . . . I must say it was not a very influential body.”

European Political Integration—The European Parliament:
Q: Now this period in the early seventies, the European Parliament was not elected was it?

BARBIS: No, it was not, and I must say it was not a very influential body. In fact, its main power was the power of the purse, but that was seldom exercised and in some ways it was seen as something that they had to have but really didn’t pay much attention to and it certainly didn’t have much influence. It has grown since then in influence and in the role it plays. But, at that time they would gather in Strasbourg and sometimes the representative, say, of the British Parliament, would be… members were chosen by the various national parliaments. Later it became a matter of elections which they placed regularly and where you get a number of prominent politicians leaving the national scene and going into the European stage.

Q: You mentioned that the European Parliament met in Strasbourg. When it was in session, would you go down to deal with it, or was that done by our consul general in Strasbourg?

BARBIS: No, we were very protective of our role with the Parliament and with Council meetings, which didn’t always meet in Brussels but sometimes in Luxembourg. We would always send an officer from the political section to cover those meetings of the Council. There was also an officer on my staff who had responsibility for the Parliament and whenever the Parliament was in session, he was in residence in Strasbourg, or that one or two months a year when it was in Luxembourg, in Luxembourg. He would make frequent reports back to me. If it was something where it was important to have a larger U.S. presence, I would go down. I would always go and accompany a CODEL, be it the congressional group that had the exchange with the Parliament or individual CODELs where a congressman or a senator came with an interest in the Community and wanted to see the Parliament.

Q: I worked for a while in the late sixties in the economic bureau in the Office of International Trade, and I think there was a little bit of a feeling at times, not so much on our part, but particularly on the part of some of the other agencies, including the Office of Special Trade Representative, which had just been established, that the mission in Brussels and the office in the European Bureau that backstopped European political integration, was sometimes more interested in Europe and bringing it together than it was in U.S. economic goals. Did you sense that at times?

BARBIS: We were certainly aware of that and from the perspective of the groups you are speaking of, certainly that was understandable. But still, I think, the mission did its damnedest to represent U.S. interests. Perhaps in our approach we preferred to be more gentle than aggressive than some people would have liked. And within the mission too, the Agricultural Department representative, a very capable guy, who had been there longer than I—it was characteristic of that mission where officers tended to do longer tours, not just two or three years—he always on agricultural issues certainly defended the Department of Agriculture position very, very strongly.

Q: But, it does certainly involve some very fundamental issues of interest to the United States as well as those that have an impact beyond whatever the borders are.

BARBIS: And, of course, as the Community became the Union and as it expanded and is going to continue to expand, it is a completely new ball game, a new landscape, compared to the five years that I was involved.

“There still are a lot of Brits who are not happy with the Community.”

European Union Agreement  |
European Union Agreement |

Q: But, some of the considerations are still pretty basic. Just yesterday the European Union took a decision in response to something that the United States had done in the Helms-Burton Act restricting trade with Cuba. And there always is a little bit of that feeling that they have to respond to what we are doing or what somebody else is doing. Is there a positive impetus that one feels in terms of when you were there of Europe coming together or is it that they recognize that together they have a little bit more clout and strength than they do as nine or six individuals?

BARBIS: My response would be a little bit of both. I think certainly there is quite a bit of the latter because in dealing with the United States the Europeans have always had admiration, affection, self-interest in maintaining good relations and at the same time a resentment given the place in history that Europe has held in the past over the centuries, that they are being left out and left behind more and more. So, united a lot of them would see that it would put them into a better and stronger position. At the same time, I think, wide spread in Europe, especially among young people, there is a very strong current of believing in the unity of that family of nations.

Q: And as they travel, trade and interact increasingly with each other, that probably has been strengthened.

BARBIS: Exactly, although there are still pockets of resistance and opposition. Although in joining the Community, the British didn’t lose their famous breakfast, but there still are a lot of Brits who are not happy with the Community, as we know.

Q: They want to protect sovereignty, culture, language and all the attributes of nationhood.

BARBIS: Exactly. Whenever something is agreed to by the Council and the institutions of the Union to move even further down the road toward union, people resist it and oppose it and try to slow it down. And, I think that process will continue. It will be one of fits and starts with some very difficult questions looking at the future and further enlargement.

“There was just too much to do.”

Global Impacts:
Q: Besides the member states and their delegations, and the delegations that come from capitals for Council meetings, there obviously are many other countries in Europe and beyond besides the United States who have a great interest in what was happening in the European Community. I assume you had contact with countries like Canada and Japan, but how about countries on the fringes of the EC of those days, some of which later became members, were they all represented in Brussels as well?

BARBIS: Yes, they were and followed Community developments very closely. I or my colleagues, except if a particular issue was coming up, really didn’t have the time or the opportunity to have close ties with them. Certainly, countries that later applied for membership or that had applied for membership had close ties with us and we were exchanging views and information on a regular basis, but our main focus had to be on the Commission, the activities of the Council and what the European Community, itself, was doing. There was just too much to do. There were certainly opportunities to do more of that and maybe they are doing a lot more of that now, but I’m out of touch. I presume the staff at USEC is pretty much what it was, certainly no larger, so that would put certain limits on how much contact and association is possible with non-member countries.

Q: You mention that the negotiations for enlargement were going on at the time with Britain, Denmark, Ireland and Norway. Were you pretty involved in following those closely?

BARBIS: Very much so. We had frequent contact with the four applicant country delegations in Brussels and they were quite open in sharing with us their views and their concerns and where the negotiations were going and how they were going. It was a pretty open environment in terms of communication between us and the people involved.

“But, once the three countries you mentioned [Greece, Spain, and Portugal] shed their authoritarian leadership and moved in the direction of democracy, that made it easier for the Community to address membership for them.”

VIP Membership:
Q: Was there a feeling at that time that that next step in enlargement was kind of it, or was there kind of an assumption that there would quickly be another round of enlargement?

BARBIS: Well, I think the member states were certainly aware of the great interest and desire of others to join and the pressure [to join] that. To sort of contain [pressures to join], the Community did have a series of agreements with countries like Greece, Turkey and Cyprus and others, of association where the country in question was not considered for immediate membership but was on the road to becoming a member. Some of them like Greece did become members, others have not made it yet although they would like to and are constantly pressing for commitments to come into the Community.

Q: But in the period you were there, the early seventies, for essentially political reasons, their internal political system, countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal were kind of ruled out, I suppose as potential members?

BARBIS: Oh, yes. At that time the Colonels were running Greece and both Spain and Portugal were not flourishing democracies yet and certainly that was a consideration. Through these association agreements, I think, the Community sought to contain greater pressures insisting on a sort of a preparation stage that qualified for membership to precede it. But, once the three countries you mentioned shed their authoritarian leadership and moved in the direction of democracy, that made it easier for the Community to address membership for them. Although, in all three of the cases, the Community had to be concerned about the economic readiness of the candidate countries to become members, and that is something that they watch carefully. They have to since national interests are affected by responsibilities to the Community in terms of social programs and other programs of assistance to new members that are less advanced economically. So, they have to keep that as a very important criteria of membership. How new members are going to integrate or would integrate into the overall Community without doing more damage than bringing strength.

Q: At that time I assume Austria was ruled out because it was neutral, even though later on it did become a member. Was Ireland the first non-NATO country to become a member? How important was NATO membership in terms of joining the Community?

BARBIS: That created complications, especially as the political side of things evolved, but I don’t think it was a criteria that the Community considered important. At the time you had two parallel groupings in Europe. You had the Community and you had EFTA [European Free Trade Area], where many of the neutrals were members. Although the two groups dealt with each other, they were separate. There was no desire at that time, at least, as I recall, on the part of most EFTA members to become members of the Community and certainly the Community was moving cautiously in enlargement and started with the four we mentioned, although only three decided to join in the end.


BA in International Relations, University of California at Berkeley 1945, 1947–1950
MA School of Advanced International Studies 1951
Joined the Foreign Service 1954
Bordeaux, France—Principal Officer 1967–1969
Brussels, Belgium—Political Counselor to the US Mission to The European Community 1969–1973
Athens, Greece—Political Officer 1975–1979
Political Advisor to the Chief of Staff of the US Army 1980–1989