In 1990, the government of the Federal Republic of Germany chose the University of California as one of the original three "Centers of Excellence" in the United States, along with Harvard and Georgetown. The UC decided to base its Center in Berkeley. Its mission was to encourage activities that increase American understanding of contemporary developments in Europe, and particularly in Germany. The establishment of the "University of California Center for German and European Studies" (CGES) was accompanied by a generous long-term grant from the German government with the contractual agreement that when the grant period ended in the year 2000, the Center would continue in its mission with the support of the University. The Center was inaugurated in the presence of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
In 1999, the University established the Institute of European Studies (IES). It represented the unification of staff, resources, and programs of UC Berkeley's Center for German and European Studies (CGES) and UC Berkeley's Center for Western European Studies (CWES), which housed the France-Berkeley Fund, French Cultural Studies Program, Finnish Studies Program, Italian Studies Program, Portuguese Studies Program, and Spanish Studies Program.
In 2009, the Institute of European Studies and the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley established a European Union Center. The joint effort of these two Institutes was funded with a grant from the European Commission and is working in cooperation with the School of Public Health, the Institute of Governmental Studies, the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy, and the Boalt Hall School of Law.
In 2015, the Finnish Studies Program merged into a Nordic Studies Program and the Italian Studies Program was reestablished as the Program for the Study of Italy. Also, a BENELUX Program was created.
In 2017, the German Historical Institute decided to open a West Coast branch called "GHI West" at IES. In cooperation with the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation, the Institute also created a Program for the Study of Austria.
Today, IES is home to the leading concentration of researchers and teachers on Europe in the Western United States. Along with Harvard and Columbia, it is among the top three such organizations in the nation.