Western European Union Is Established

The Western European Union was one of a series of institutions created in the wake of World War II to provide a framework for military collaboration among the nations of Western Europe. It originated in a series of mutual defense agreements signed between 1947 and 1949, directed initially against a potentially resurgent Germany. With the advent of the Cold War, however, its focus changed to containment of the Soviet Union and communism.

Summary of Event

The end of World War II, with its widespread destruction and loss of life, left the nations of Western Europe with one common bond: a determination to prevent anything like it from ever occurring again. In particular, they were determined to prevent the resurgence of German military power, as had occurred after World War I. They determined, therefore, to sign treaties of mutual defense in which each would come to the aid of another signatory who was the victim of German aggression. Cold War;mutual defense agreements
Western European Union
[kw]Western European Union Is Established (Oct. 23, 1954)
[kw]Union Is Established, Western European (Oct. 23, 1954)
Cold War;mutual defense agreements
Western European Union
[g]Europe;Oct. 23, 1954: Western European Union Is Established[04640]
[g]Western Europe;Oct. 23, 1954: Western European Union Is Established[04640]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct. 23, 1954: Western European Union Is Established[04640]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 23, 1954: Western European Union Is Established[04640]
[c]Cold War;Oct. 23, 1954: Western European Union Is Established[04640]
Adenauer, Konrad
Gaulle, Charles de
[p]Gaulle, Charles de;Cold War
Pleven, René
Spaak, Paul-Henri

The earliest manifestation of this commitment to mutual defense was the Treaty of Dunkirk, Dunkirk, Treaty of (1947) signed by Great Britain and France in March, 1947. But the Dunkirk agreement soon morphed into a broader coalition that was formally initialed in the Treaty of Brussels Brussels, Treaty of (1948) (March 17, 1948). The Brussels Treaty had five signatories: Britain, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. The Western Union Defense Organization Western Union Defense Organization was created to draw up plans for mutual defense, envisaging the creation of a joint army, navy, and air force. Headquarters were established in London and Fontainebleau, France (echoing the collaboration of World War II), and a hero of World War II, Bernard Law Montgomery, was appointed to head this defense organization. It never became more than a planning organization, however: World events overtook the inchoate organization.

The risk of German resurgence was fading in the early 1950’s. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was emerging as the major threat to future European peace. The Soviet Union’s threat manifested itself in the tightening of Soviet control over Eastern Europe, where its army was the dominant force; in the blockade of Berlin; and in the attempt to convert the government of Greece to a communist government, which provoked the United States into action. Under the leadership of President Harry S. Truman and his visionary secretary of state, George C. Marshall, the United States began to put together another “allied” force to protect Western Europe. This new alignment was embodied in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), formally inaugurated on April 4, 1949. As part of NATO, the United States continued to dominate the defense of Western Europe, but it demanded the active participation of the other countries that had signed the Brussels Treaty.

The defense activities of the Brussels signatories were grouped together as the European Defense Community European Defense Community (EDC), proposed by the French prime minister, René Pleven. As Pleven envisaged it, the EDC would be, collectively, a part of NATO, but it would have its own internal organization. In particular, it would incorporate a revived German military organization, because the French believed that by establishing defense units as part of a collaborative system, any tendency of the Germans to pursue objectives of their own would be contained. The Americans favored such a scheme, mainly because they wanted to include a new, democratic German army in the mutual defense arrangements that were emerging as part of NATO.

Pleven’s EDC concept, had it ever been carried out, would have created institutions similar to those of the European Coal and Steel Community. However, the French parliament was unable to agree to French participation in an organization that also included German military men, and it voted down the EDC. Accordingly, the Germans were invited by the United States to become part of NATO, and this decision was accepted by the other Western European nations. (French intransigence reached its height in 1966, when France withdrew from NATO at the behest of Charles de Gaulle, its charismatic president: NATO headquarters, hitherto in Paris, was forced to move to Brussels.)

Deprived of its role as a vehicle for mutual defense of Western Europe, and shortly preempted by the European Common Market as a coordinator of economic policy, the union created by the Brussels Treaty might have just faded away. Instead, on October 23, 1954, West Germany and Italy joined the signatories of the original Treaty of Brussels to form the Western European Union (WEU). The chancellor of West German, Konrad Adenauer, was particularly pleased at the chance to join with Western Europe against the communist threat he perceived not only from the Soviet Union but also from his East German counterparts.

The reinvention of the EDC as the WEU began to have practical effects in 1955, when European leaders masterminded a referendum in the Saarland, a border community between France and Germany that had been contested for centuries. The inhabitants appeared to be predominantly culturally German, and, under the supervision of the Western European Union, the referendum confirmed that cultural alignment. The inhabitants voted to be politically incorporated into western Germany. That adhesion took place, formally, on January 1, 1957.

On May 6, 1955, what had previously been called the Western Union was formally renamed the Western European Union. It had a structure similar to the Council of Europe: a council of ministers consisting of the foreign ministers of all the member governments met twice each year. The WEU had a parliamentary assembly, though this body had basically only advisory powers, because all the operative decisions were made by the council of ministers, whose decisions in turn were determined by the governments of those ministers’ nations. The members of the parliamentary assembly were chosen by the parliaments of the individual member countries as well; to avoid duplication, the members of the WEU parliamentary assembly were the same as the parliamentary representatives in the assembly of the Council of Europe.

The WEU was designed to coordinate defense activities of the various European nations that belonged to the union, including Great Britain. It existed alongside NATO but was separate from it, as NATO included the United States and Canada, neither of which were members of the Western European Union. When the union was established in 1955, military power in Europe was divided between the Soviet Union and the NATO countries (overwhelmingly dominated by the United States). Under the aegis of the Western European Union, the defense establishments of the various members were gradually expanded so that defense was increasingly a collective responsibility. This development was encouraged by the United States, as it entailed other countries taking on some of the obligations that, through NATO, had been almost entirely American but partly relieved by the much smaller defense establishment of Great Britain.

The Western European Union was given a headquarters in London and a permanent council that functioned when the Council of Ministers was not in session. The permanent council was composed of ambassadors of the various countries accredited to the United Kingdom, except for the representative of Great Britain, who was a senior official of the British Foreign Office. A small bureaucracy carried out security studies for the use of the council as well.

The Western European Union, through its Council of Ministers, monitored the armaments of the different members. In its earliest stages, this involved the gradual build-up of new armaments, especially those of West Germany, which was a WEU member, as were Portugal and Spain, not then members of the Common Market. As the years passed, one of the most contentious issues became the extent of nuclear armament of the various WEU defense establishments.


The Western European Union, a scaled-back version of the European Defense Community rejected by France, operated largely behind the scenes. It collaborated closely with the officials of NATO, but its basic purpose remained that behind the Brussels Treaty: reintegrating German armed forces into the European defense establishment under conditions prevailing in the Cold War. Its precise effects are difficult to gauge, given the more obvious role of NATO in the Cold War-era defense of Western Europe. However, the existence of a counterpart to NATO that comprised only European nations helped set the stage for the emergence of the European Union as a significant political and economic entity with separate interests from those of the United States in the post-Cold War world. Cold War;mutual defense agreements
Western European Union

Further Reading

  • Godson, Joseph, ed. Thirty-Five Years of NATO: A Transatlantic Symposium on the Changing Political, Economic, and Military Setting. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1984. A collection of essays by political leaders of the various members of NATO on its changing mission.
  • Lewis, David W. P. The Road to Europe: History, Institutions, and Prospects of European Integration, 1945-1993. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. A comprehensive account of the various European organizations that have moved the notion of European integration forward since World War II.
  • Rees, G. Wyn. The Western European Union at the Crossroads: Between Trans-Atlantic Solidarity and European Integration. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. Focuses primarily on developments in the 1990’s but has an introductory chapter summarizing the history of the Western European Union.
  • Urwin, Derek W. The Community of Europe: A History of European Integration Since 1945. New York: Longman, 1995. A compact, yet detailed history of the various organizations carrying out European integration after World War II.

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