The Edinburgh Europa Institute began in November 1968 as the Centre of European Governmental Studies. The driving force behind its creation was Prof JDB Mitchell, the first holder of the Salvesen Chair of European Institutions at the University of Edinburgh. The Europa Institute can claim to be the longest-established specialist institute of its kind in the United Kingdom, and it is one of the oldest in Europe. From its inception, the Europa Institute has developed as one of the pre-eminent centres in the UK for the study of the institutions, policies and law of the European Union.

Although Prof Mitchell was a lawyer, his concern from the outset was that the Europa Institute should include economics and political science. At different points in its history, the Institute has been located in the former Faculty of Law and the former Faculty of Social Sciences. Over the years, the Institute's activities have evolved to reflect the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the study of European integration. It is now a research centre bringing together academic staff, postdoctoral fellows and research students from across Edinburgh Law School and the School of Social  and Political Science. The Europa Library forms part of the Edinburgh University Law Library, itself a European Documentation Centre

The work of Europa Institute members encompasses a wide variety of research projects, including a number attracting substantial external funding; a programme of teaching at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels in their respective Schools; and consultancy and engagement with policymakers, policy practitioners, civil society and the private sector. The Europa Institute itself organises and supports a range of events and activities bringing academic colleagues and these stakeholders together.

The Europa Institute operates at the highest level of debate on the future of Europe, and benefits from close connections with senior members of the Scottish Government, UK Government, European institutions and other national and subnational governments. Consequently, the Institute provides a forum for the exchange of ideas between representatives of government and the EU institutions and local and international practitioners from the academic, business, legal and other spheres. To maintain its vibrant, research-oriented environment, the Europa Institute welcomes study visits from practitioners, academics and students from around the world involved in academic work relating to any aspect of European integration.

The Europa Institute was designated a Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence by the European Commission for 2010-2013. In 2010, the Institute launched the Edinburgh Europa Paper Series to showcase work by Europa members and other colleagues, including presentations given at Institute seminars and conferences. In 2015, the Europa Institute launched European Futures, its academic blog on Europe and European affairs, jointly with the University of Edinburgh.