Trade has been the backbone of all forms of cooperation in Europe. But this kind of economic union is anything but unprecedented in European history. In fact, the Hanseatic League united Europe before the rise of nation states in the Middle Ages.

The Hanseatic League (13th-17th century)

Also known as the Hansa or Hanse, the Hanseatic League (13th – 17th century) was an economic and trade alliance initiated by northern Germanic merchants, which stretched from the North Sea to the Baltic. The alliance inspired by the association between German coastal cities of Hamburg and Lübeck soon reached Visby in Sweden. From Visby, the League extended towards the east coast of the Baltic, putting cities such as Riga, Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), Dorpat and Reval (now Tartu and Tallin, Estonia) and Russian town Novgorod, on the medieval map as they became major transhipment centres of trade. In its prime, the Hanseatic League included more than 100 cities, covering trade from London to Russia.

The Birth

From the late 12th century onwards, with the support of economic reforms under Charlemagne, trade and commerce became a part of daily life for citizens in many cities. Trade in consumption goods, such as wax, rye, wheat, timber, stockfish and even luxury furs soared in medieval Europe. The merchants felt as if they were men of the same "nation" and each other's company provided a home away from home.

Photo: Wikipedia (PD)  
In its prime, the Hanseatic League included more than 100 cities, covering trade from Britain to Russia.

These tradesmen realised the urgent need to come together and form an alliance to protect their interests from the rather hostile locals, and even pirates. They started to create a more coordinated offensive and defensive alliance politically, economically and militarily.

Starting from mid-13th century, cooperation between mercantile cities became more regularised and extensive, drafting the foundation of the Hansa. In 1265, all the northern German towns agreed on a common legislation –The Law of Lübeck –for the defence of merchants and their goods. In the 1270s, a Hamburg-Lübeck association extended their interest and cooperation abroad to Flanders and England, uniting with its rival Rhenish counterpart, creating a trading giant. A decade or so later, with a common seal and conforming law, the core of the Hanseatic League was practically founded and consolidated.

"It was purely a bourgeois, collectively organised, pro-liberal confederacy."

A dedicated TRADE FEDERATION WITH a fluid structure

Photo: macieklew (CC-SA)
Tradesmen from across Europe often met up to exchange news. A brotherly spirit was hence created.

The Hanseatic League was one of the most remarkable trading chapters in European history. The biggest reason has to be its clear and precise goal: the Hanseatic League intended to be mercantile, and mercantile only. Within the union, there was no hierarchy; no kings, knights or any other autocratic authority to set things right. Decisions were made in periodic assemblies, called the Diets. The structure was fluid and non-bureaucratic; rules could be set if demanded but member cities were not forced to comply. "It was purely a bourgeois, collectively organised, pro-liberal confederacy," as British writer and broadcaster Jonathan Meades says. The key to this alliance is nothing but unity in monetary interest: they were not focused on the heart or the mind, what mattered was their pockets and purses. Consequently, they strongly resisted the influence of the churches and the pressure from autocrats, so that no religious beliefs or any other ideologies were imposed on any of the cities.

Member cities had to pay tariffs that would go towards road maintenance, keeping the ports open and running, and other essentials that would help the common economic good. And like any other trade union, member cities eliminated trade restrictions between themselves.