The European Union, the EU in short, is a closely-knit group of currently 28 countries on the European continent, with a combined population of about 510 million, which puts it roughly on par with North America. In June 2016, the United Kingdom decided in a referendum to leave the EU – a first in the 65-year history of the European project.
The EU unites large countries such as Germany with a population of 81 million, or France with 66 million, with small ones such as Malta (420.000) or Luxemburg (550.000). It ranges from the Mediterranean Sea in the south to the Arctic Circle in the north, and from the Black Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west.
The cultural diversity of the EU is, inter alia, witnessed by its 24 official languages, which come on top of many more languages spoken by regional or migrant populations. 16% of EU citizens have German as their native tongue, followed by English and Italian (13% each), French (12%), and Polish as well as Spanish (8% each). The main everyday working languages of the EU Institutions are English and French.
With a gross domestic product (GDP) of around €14 trillion, the EU is in the same bracket as the United States, and accounts for 20% of global trade. It is the world’s biggest exporter, before China and the US.
The domestic single market is one of the key qualities of the EU. It means that goods, services, money, and people can move freely between EU Member States without restrictions – the often quoted “four freedoms”. Among other things, this allows for greater economic efficiency and a more diverse supply.
EU Member States share a body of common laws, rights, obligations, and court decisions usually referred to by the French term Acquis communautaire (common achievement). In principle, the EU Acquis supersedes national laws and regulations, and deals with all topics where the Member States have determined that action at EU level is more effective or more efficient than at national level.
Moreover, the EU has a binding Charter of Fundamental Rights, which enshrines inalienable human rights such as life, personal dignity, freedom of thought and expression, equality and inclusion, democracy, and the rule of law. Only countries which guarantee these fundamental rights in full can be, or can become, a member of the European Union.
Even as the EU does not have an official capital, Brussels de facto plays that role because it has the highest concentration of EU institutions. However, many other European cities host important EU institutions as well, among them Strasbourg, Frankfurt, and Luxemburg.
The EU’s finances rely primarily on a share of normally 0,7% of the Member States’ gross national incomes. Other sources of revenue are import duties, a small percentage of value added taxes, and contributions by third countries such as Norway. For 2016, the EU’s budget provided for commitments in the amount of €155 billion.
According to the current Multiannual Financial Framework, almost 86% of the EU’s budget gets spent on growth and jobs, competitiveness, regional cohesion, and agricultural policy. The growth agenda, which represents 47% of the budget, includes education, research and innovation, infrastructure, and the strengthening of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This recognises that a prosperous economy needs a highly qualified work force and that, in turn, a vibrant labour market yields direct social benefits for Europe’s population as well. Moreover, all Member States and regions must be enabled to compete at eye level with the more highly developed geographical areas.
Agriculture, including fisheries, rural development and environmental policy accounts for another 39% of the EU’s budget, thereby making sure that a sufficient amount of high-quality food is produced without over-exploiting natural resources. Foreign policy, including the European Neighbourhood Policy, amounts to almost 6% of the financial framework, which is about the same as administration.
Why was the EU founded?
At its core, the European Union is a peace-building initiative. The motivation behind the EU originates from the experience of the devastating First and Second World Wars during the first half of the 20th century. These wars had been so catastrophic at many levels that a number of visionary politicians – the Founding Fathers, among them French foreign minister Robert Schuman, German chancellor Konrad Adenauer and British prime minister Winston Churchill – developed the concept of what was eventually to become the European Union.
The basic idea was that a very close and sustainable economic cooperation between European countries would make them interdependent to such a degree that they simply could not afford, nor manage, to fight each other anymore. For starters, the coal and steel industries would be put under collaborative oversight. This happened for two reasons: coal and steel were not only essential for the reconstruction of Europe after the war, but they were also key factors in the production of weapons. No country, and especially not Germany, which had started World War II, was supposed to be able to re-arm itself autonomously.
Another important driving factor was the reconciliation between Germany and France that was promoted by the first post-war chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer, who was also seeking a close integration with the western powers in the emerging Cold War.
From these beginnings, it became ever more obvious to the participating countries that they would collectively benefit from close cooperation and coordination in many more areas – starting with other crucial parts of the economy (such as agriculture), and extending to additional policy areas over time. Once enduring peace was firmly established, the economy, freedom, and human rights increasingly entered the spotlight.
What are the main historical steps of the EU?
With the Treaty of Paris in 1951, Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxemburg and the Netherlands founded the European Steel and Coal Community (ECSC). This was the first instance in world history where several sovereign states transferred part of their power to an outside organisation. Such a kind of supranational union had been pretty much inconceivable only a few years earlier.
The ECSC already laid the foundations for the governance of the European Union as it is today: It had an executive High Authority (which developed into the European Commission), a Common Assembly (later renamed into European Parliament) composed of members of parliament from the participating countries, a Special Council of the responsible national ministers, and a Court of Justice.
The momentum created by the ECSC soon inspired the creation of two more European institutions by the same set of countries: In 1957,the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community (EEC), and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Both organisations shared the same Common Assembly and Court with the ECSC, but had their own executive branches, now called Commissions. While Euratom looks after the nuclear power market, the EEC laid the groundwork for the European Single Market by progressively reducing customs duties and setting up common policies in the areas of agriculture, transport, and employment.
The Treaty of Rome governs the European Union to this day. It was amended several times and is now officially called Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). One of its most important amendments was the Single European Act of 1986, which eventually enforced the European Single Market after a phase of only lacklustre progress. The act also gave real power to the European Parliament, allowed the Council to decide by majority rather than unanimity voting in more policy areas, and initiated a coordinated European foreign policy.
The early 1970s saw the first enlargement of the European Communities. In 1973, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark became members.
In 1979, the first European Elections were held. Rather than delegate members of national parliaments to the European Parliament, citizens since then elect dedicated Members of the European Parliament directly.
Greece joined the EU in 1981, followed by Spain and Portugal in 1986.
The late 1980s saw the disintegration and eventual collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the subsequent re-unification of Germany in 1990. The geopolitical change and the fact that the Single Market finally brought palpable benefits broke ground for the founding document of the European Union as we know it today: The Maastricht Treaty of 1992, also known as the Treaty on European Union (TEU).
The Maastricht Treaty had two main objectives: first, the signatory states extended the responsibility of the EU to many more policy areas than only the economy, among them law enforcement, asylum, civil judicial cooperation, and foreign policy. Second, the treaty created the Euro (€) as a single European currency and specified the Maastricht Criteria or Euro Convergence Criteria, which determine the conditions under which a country may adopt the Euro. The currency’s introduction from 1992 to 2002 established the Eurozone within the European Union.
After a process dating back to the mid 1980s, the Schengen Area was introduced in 1995, effectively abolishing passport controls at the borders between many European countries in exchange for stricter control of the external border and a common visa policy.
The Amsterdam Treaty of 1997 made major changes to the treaties governing the European Union. It gave the EU responsibility for all matters that concerned the free movement of persons, integrated the Schengen cooperation into the EU Acquis, established a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), and assigned even more powers to the European Parliament. The Amsterdam Treaty was modified in 2001 by the Nice Treaty with the intention to improve the governance of the European Institutions ahead of the EU’s 2004 enlargement.
In 1995, Austria, Finland, and Sweden acceded to the European Union. In 2004, the biggest enlargement of the EU took effect as Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia acquired membership, now truly extending the union across the greater part of the European continent. Romania and Bulgaria followed in 2007, and Croatia in 2013.
In the early 2000s, initiatives emerged to create an even more integrated European Union that would have its own, genuinely European constitution rather than be based on agreements between Member States. However, the proposal for the constitution was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands and thus never adopted. Nonetheless, it paved the way for the latest substantial reform of the EU, the Lisbon Treaty of 2007.
The Lisbon Treaty’s intention was to foster the democratic foundations of the EU and to improve the coherence and efficiency of its policy making. The treaty enhanced the powers of the European Parliament once more, reformed voting rights in the Council to allow weighted majority decisions in many more policy areas than previously, made the Charter of Fundamental Rights legally binding, created a long-term office period for the President of the European Council (before, the presidency had been held by another Member State every six months), and gave more responsibilities to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. For the first time, it also introduced the option for Member States to pull out of the EU.
In 2012, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its achievements for peace, democracy, and human rights in Europe.
In 2016, the United Kingdom held a referendum that led to the country’s decision to leave the European Union. At the same time, a number of countries are aspiring to join the EU. Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey are currently in active negotiations, while Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo are in various pre-negotiation stages regarding their respective pre-candidacy status. Iceland has started but later stopped negotiations.
Which countries are members of the European Union?
The current Member States of the European Union are in overview:
The information and views set out in this text are those of the OPEN Media Hub authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.