European Economic Community Adopts the Single European Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Single European Act created a free, internal European market that allowed for free movement of people, goods, labor, and capital in the European Economic Community, which helped to reverse the stagnation and pessimism that had gripped the EEC since 1973.

Summary of Event

The final acceptance of the Single European Act (SEA) by all twelve members of the European Economic Community (EEC) in July, 1987, represented an important modification of the Treaty of Rome Rome, Treaty of (1957) of 1957, which initially established the EEC. The EEC had abolished all internal tariffs and established a common external market by 1968, but it was not able to create a complete internal market that allowed the free movement of people, goods, and capital. Individual member states, represented on the Council of Ministers, and not the European Commission or the European Parliament, controlled major policy decisions. Beginning in the mid-1970’s, the EEC faced major economic problems and bitter disputes about policy issues. The expansion of the EEC to ten members by 1981 only added to the difficulties. An April, 1984, Newsweek article headlined “The Decline of Europe” dramatically documented the pervasive “Euro-pessimism” felt by many in the EEC until the appearance of the Single European Act. Single European Act (1986) European Economic Community [kw]European Economic Community Adopts the Single European Act (Feb. 28, 1986) [kw]Single European Act, European Economic Community Adopts the (Feb. 28, 1986) [kw]Act, European Economic Community Adopts the Single European (Feb. 28, 1986) Single European Act (1986) European Economic Community [g]Europe;Feb. 28, 1986: European Economic Community Adopts the Single European Act[06050] [g]Netherlands;Feb. 28, 1986: European Economic Community Adopts the Single European Act[06050] [c]Trade and commerce;Feb. 28, 1986: European Economic Community Adopts the Single European Act[06050] [c]Economics;Feb. 28, 1986: European Economic Community Adopts the Single European Act[06050] Delors, Jacques Cockfield, Arthur Dooge, James Craxi, Bettino Mitterrand, François Genscher, Hans-Dietrich Kohl, Helmut Howe, Geoffrey Spinelli, Altiero

Between 1980 and 1984, several EEC officials and members of the European Parliament as well as European businessmen and political leaders offered draft proposals to reform the EEC and to further European economic integration. A cofounder of the EEC, Altiero Spinelli, produced a draft treaty to create a political and economic European Union that was accepted by the European Parliament, and industrialists organized a roundtable in 1983 to support a single market plan. German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and his Italian colleague Emilio Colombo Colombo, Emilio announced the so-called Genscher-Colombo Plan in 1981 calling for progress on European integration. At an EEC meeting in Stuttgart, Germany, in June, 1983, Genscher’s proposals influenced the European Council to issue a Solemn Declaration of European Union, but no specific mechanism was established to implement these views or any other proposals.

A major turning point in the efforts to reform the EEC came in early 1984 when France assumed the rotating presidency of the EEC. President François Mitterrand asked for a conference to discuss EEC progress. Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor who in May, 1984, also called for market and voting reforms in the EEC within a year, supported him. Moreover, British foreign minister Geoffrey Howe had suggested that by 1990 all economic barriers should be eliminated. At the European Council meeting in Fontainebleau in June, 1984, the Committee for Institutional Affairs, led by James Dooge, a former Irish minister of foreign affairs, was appointed. Although members of the Dooge Committee disagreed on political and voting reform issues, they agreed on the creation of an internal market.

Jacques Delors, the French minister of economics, became president of the European Commission in 1985, and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher nominated Arthur Cockfield to the commission. Addressing the European Parliament on January 14, Delors presented his vision of establishing an internal market by 1992. In Brussels, the European Council supported the concept of a single market by 1992, and it directed the commission to prepare a plan to meet this timetable. In response, Cockfield, the internal market commissioner, drafted the White Paper, a collection of almost three hundred issues that the EEC would have to resolve in order to meet the deadline.

At the European Council meeting in Milan in June, 1985, representatives of the member states accepted the suggestions of the White Paper as a blueprint for the establishment of an internal market. The most perplexing problem, however, was the issue of the voting procedure to implement the single market. If the prevailing unanimity rule was followed, any member could block progress. Delors called for a “qualified majority vote” on European Council reform proposals. However, in order to introduce this voting method, the 1957 Treaty of Rome would have to be amended—which Britain would not accept. To break the deadlock, Italian prime minister Bettino Craxi, with the support of his foreign minister Giulio Andreotti, used EEC Article 236, allowing a vote on whether to convene a special intergovernmental conference (IGC) by majority vote of the council. Although Britain, Denmark, and Greece opposed this move, it won the support of the other seven members of the EEC.

The IGC drafted the SEA, and then in five meetings between October and December 1, 1985, the leaders and foreign ministers of the member states negotiated the final act. In order to win consensus, they rejected demands for a broad reform and limited their activities to creating a free internal market by 1992. Although a qualified majority vote on internal market issues was accepted, it excluded social and fiscal policies. At the Luxembourg Summit on December 2-3, the European Council obtained approval for the SEA from the various national delegations, and the act was ratified. The new act still had to be approved by all the legislatures of the EEC. The representatives of nine countries signed the new treaty on February 17, 1986, in Luxembourg. Initially, the Danish parliament rejected the SEA, but a subsequent referendum on February 27, approved it. After the Danish referendum, Denmark, Italy, and Greece signed the SEA on February 28, at The Hague in the Netherlands. The implementation of the SEA was, however, delayed by a court challenge in Ireland, which was overturned by a referendum. On July 1, 1987, the SEA became EEC law.


The SEA amended the Treaty of Rome of 1957 and helped gradually to convert the EEC into the European Union. The act granted new powers to the European Parliament in Strasbourg to influence the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. It also assisted in overcoming the Euro-pessimism so prevalent since 1973. Initially, some observers expressed doubt or even disdain for the act, as did the Economist, which called it a “smiling mouse.” Because the public was not directly involved in the genesis of the SEA, a major effort in 1987 and 1988, ranging from television campaigns to a European Commission-sponsored publication, was created to publicize “Europe 1992.” The economic success of the SEA (combined with the pressures created by German unification in 1990) contributed to Delors’s efforts to deepen the union that culminated in the Maastricht Treaty, Maastricht Treaty (1992) signed in 1992, which created a common European citizenship and currency. Single European Act (1986) European Economic Community

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Budden, Philip. “Observations on the Single European Act and ’Relaunch of Europe’: A Less ’Intergovernmental’ Reading of the 1985 Intergovernmental Conference.” Journal of European Public Policy 9 (February, 2002): 76-97. Based on his Oxford dissertation, Budden argues that “actors other than governments were important” in the creation of the SEA. Notes and references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Colchester, Nicholas, and David Buchan. Europower: The Essential Guide to Europe’s Economic Transformation in 1992. New York: Times Books, 1990. Thorough account of the implementation of the SEA by two British journalists. Appendix listing the most important proposals of Cockfield’s White Paper.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Genscher, Hans-Dietrich. Rebuilding a House Divided. Translated by Thomas Thornton. New York: Broadway Books, 1998. Boastfully claims credit (along with the Italian foreign minister Emilio Colombo) for the gradual emergence of a European Union during the early 1980’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johannson, Karl Magnus. “Party Elites in Multilevel Europe: The Christian Democrats and the Single European Act.” Party Politics 8 (July, 2002): 423-439. Examines the Christian Democrats’ relationship with the European People’s Party during the 1985 Intergovernmental Conference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moravcsik, Andrew. “Negotiating the Single European Act: National Interests and Conventional Statecraft in the European Community.” International Organization 45 (Winter, 1991): 19-56. Brief, detailed account of the origins of the SEA. Claims Delors was more important to the SEA as French foreign minister than he was as president of the commission. Extensive notes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pelkmans, Jacques. “The Aspirations of the White Paper.” Journal of Common Market Studies 25 (March, 1987): 182-192. Part of five journal essays on the White Paper presented originally at a 1986 conference in Maastricht. Argues that the paper was the “landmark for European integration.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ross, George. Jacques Delors and European Integration. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Allowed to observe the operations of Delors’s European Commission for six months in 1991, Ross credits Delors with solving “Euro-pessimism.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swann, Dennis, ed. The Single European Market and Beyond: A Study of the Wider Implications of the Single European Act. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. David Allen’s chapter on “European Union and the Single European Act” is particularly revealing about British attitudes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Urwin, Derek W. The Community of Europe: A History of European Integration Since 1945. New York: Longman, 1991. Very detailed academic survey culminates in a chapter titled “Toward 1992.”

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Categories: History