The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union consisting of 27 member states.
Established in 1993, the European Union’s headquarters are currently located in Brussels, Belgium.
It functions by a three-pronged governing system including a council, a parliament, and a commission, and uses a common currency.
A monetary union was established in 1999, coming into full force in 2002, and is composed of 19 EU member states which use a common currency.
Its official currency is the euro.
More than 340 million EU citizens now use it as their currency and enjoy its benefits.
Thanks to the abolition of border controls between EU countries, people can travel freely throughout most of the continent.
All EU citizens have the right and freedom to choose in which EU country they want to study, work, or retire.
Every EU country must treat EU citizens in exactly the same way as its own citizens when it comes to matters of employment, social security, and tax.
The EU’s main economic engine is the single market. It enables most goods, services, money, and people to move freely.
The EU aims to develop this huge resource to other areas like energy, knowledge, and capital markets to ensure that Europeans can draw the maximum benefit from it.
What’s the history of the European Union?
The predecessor of the EU was created in the aftermath of World War II.
The first steps were to foster economic cooperation: the idea being that countries that trade with one another become economically interdependent and so more likely to avoid conflict.
The result was the European Economic Community (EEC), created in 1958, and initially increasing economic cooperation between six countries.
The original members came to be known as the “Inner Six“: Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany
The EEC was formed out of a previous group called the European Coal and Steel Community – which had its own start in 1951.
However, it wasn’t until 1993 that the EEC morphed into the European Union following the new Maastricht Treaty (also known as the Treaty on European Union).
Additionally, the Treaty of Lisbon, enacted in 2009, gave the European Union more broad powers that included being authorized to sign international treaties, increase border patrol, and other security and enforcement provisions.
Since then, 22 other members joined and a huge single market (also known as the “Internal Market”) has been created and continues to develop towards its full potential.
On 31 January 2020, the United Kingdom left the European Union.
What began as a purely economic union has evolved into an organization spanning policy areas, from climate, environment, and health to external relations and security, justice, and migration.
According to the European Union’s official website, the union’s purpose is to:
- promote peace,
- establish a unified economic and monetary system,
- promote inclusion and combat discrimination,
- break down barriers to trade and borders,
- encourage technological and scientific developments,
- champion environmental protection,
- promote goals like a competitive global market and social progress.
A name change from the European Economic Community (EEC) to the European Union (EU) in 1993 reflected this.
How is the European Union governed?
There are seven official EU institutions, which can be roughly grouped by their executive, legislative, judicial, and financial functions.
- European Council
- European Commission (“EC”)
- European Parliament
- Council of the European Union
- European Central Bank
- Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU)
- European Court of Auditors (ECA)
The European Council, a grouping of the EU’s top political leaders, consists of the president or prime minister of every member state. Its summits set the union’s broad direction and settle urgent high-level questions. Its members elect a president, who can serve up to two two-and-a-half-year terms.
The European Commission, the EU’s primary executive body, wields the most day-to-day authority. It proposes laws, manages the budget, implements decisions, issues regulations, and represents the EU around the world at summits, in negotiations, and in international organizations. The members of the commission are appointed by the European Council and approved by the European Parliament.
The European Parliament is the only directly elected EU body, with representatives apportioned by each member state’s population. Unlike traditional legislatures, it can’t propose legislation, but laws can’t pass without its approval. It also negotiates and approves the EU budget and oversees the commission.
The Council of the European Union, also known as the Council of Ministers to avoid confusion, is a second legislative branch whose approval is also needed for legislation to pass. This council consists of the government ministers from all EU members, organized by policy area. For instance, all EU members’ foreign ministers meet together in one group, their agriculture ministers in another, and so on.
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is the EU’s highest judicial authority, interpreting EU law and settling disputes. The CJEU consists of the European Court of Justice, which clarifies EU law for national courts and rules on alleged member state violations, and the General Court, which hears a broad range of cases brought by individuals and organizations against EU institutions.
The European Central Bank (ECB) manages the euro for the nineteen countries that use the currency and implements the EU’s monetary policy. It also helps regulate the EU banking system.
The European Court of Auditors (ECA) audits the EU budget, checking that funds are properly spent and reporting any fraud to Parliament, the commission, and national governments.
The offices of these institutions are located across the EU, with headquarters in Brussels, Frankfurt, Luxembourg City, and Strasbourg.
How do the institutions work with each other?
These EU institutions form a complex web of powers and mutual oversight.
First, the European Council, which sets the bloc’s overall political direction, is composed of democratically elected national leaders.
Second, the European Parliament is composed of representatives, known as Members of the European Parliament (“MEPs”), who are directly elected by the citizens of each EU member state.
The European Council and Parliament together determine the composition of the European Commission (“EC”), the council nominates its members, and Parliament must approve them.
The EC has the sole authority to propose EU laws and spending, but all EU legislation requires the approval of both Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
Additionally, the European Central Bank oversees the EU’s monetary policy.
With such a complicated structure, it’s amazing anything gets done in the EU.
Individual citizens allegedly have to say in the democratically structured union.
According to the official site, citizens have a variety of ways to contribute, including “by giving their views on EU policies during their development or suggest improvements to existing laws and policies. The European citizens’ initiative empowers citizens to have a greater say on EU policies that affect their lives. Citizens can also submit complaints and inquiries concerning the application of EU law.”
What Countries Are in the European Union?
The European Union has 27 members.
The countries comprising the European Union are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden.
As of 2021, the population of the EU is estimated to be over 440 million people.
France has the largest surface area of any other country (nearly 16%), while Malta has the smallest (less than 1/10 of 1%).
The Schengen Area
To ensure free passage between countries, the Schengen Area was established for residents of certain countries, including some non-EU countries.
For residents in these countries, passage to and from other Schengen Area countries is much easier since visas nor passports are required.
What’s the difference between the European Union and the eurozone?
The EU is not the same thing as the eurozone.
The eurozone, which was created in 2005, is simply the collection of all the countries that use the euro.
The eurozone is the group of nineteen of the twenty-seven EU members that use the euro currency.
Their monetary policy is subject to the European Central Bank, which issues and manages the euro.