A Changing Europe

1980-1989: The Changing Face of Europe - The Fall of the Berlin Wall

The Polish trade union, Solidarność, and its leader Lech Walesa, become household names across Europe and the world following the Gdansk shipyard strikes in the summer of 1980. In 1981, Greece becomes the 10th member of the EU and Spain and Portugal follow five years later. In 1986 the Single European Act is signed. This is a treaty which provides the basis for a vast six-year programme aimed at sorting out the problems with the free-flow of trade across EU borders and thus creates the ‘Single Market’. There is major political upheaval when, on 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall is pulled down and the border between East and West Germany is opened for the first time in 28 years, this leads to the reunification of Germany when both East and West Germany are united in October 1990.

In summer 1980, shipyard workers in the Polish city of Gdansk, led by Lech Walesa, strike for more rights. Other strikes follow across the country. In August, the government capitulates and Solidarność is created as an independent trade union. The government gradually reasserts its power and imposes martial law in December 1981, ending Poland’s brief encounter with people power. But the seeds have been sown for later.


1 January 1981

Membership of the EU reaches double figures when Greece joins. It has been eligible to join since its military regime was overthrown and democracy restored in 1974.

(Orange) Member States: Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

(Yellow) New Member State: Greece.

List of all EU member states and when they joined


28 February 1984

Computers and automation are changing the way we live and work. To stay in the forefront of innovation, the EU adopts the ‘Esprit’ programme in 1984 as the first of many research and development programmes it has since funded.

A new thrill is bungee jumping. Parents gasp, but youngsters enjoy the sensation of jumping from a high place, attached to an elastic rope which breaks their fall and pulls them back before they hit the ground.


1 January 1986

Spain and Portugal enter the EU, bringing membership to 12.

(Orange) Member States: Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Ireland, United Kingdom and Greece.

(Yellow) New Member States: Spain and Portugal.

List of all EU member states and when they joined


17 February 1986

Although customs duties disappeared in 1968, trade is not flowing freely across EU borders. The main obstacles are differences in national regulations. The Single European Act of 1986 launches a vast six-year programme to sort these out. The Act also gives the European Parliament more say and strengthens EU powers in environmental protection.


15 June 1987

The EU launches the ‘Erasmus’ programme to fund university students wishing to study for up to a year in another European country. More than 2 million young people have benefited from this and similar EU schemes.

The collapse of communism across central and eastern Europe, which began in Poland and Hungary, is symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Faced by a mass exodus of its citizens to West, the East German government throws open the gates. Germany is united after more than 40 years, and its eastern part joins the EU (October 1990).