The European Union is a political union of 27 countries which facilitates trade and collective action between its member states. The Union has its roots in the drive for continental unity in the aftermath of the Second World War. It has steadily evolved into a complex and sophisticated network of institutions with a simple goal: unity and peace between the governments and peoples of Europe.
Below are details of the history of the EU as it has adapted and expanded, with a summary of the European institutions as they stand today.
From the ashes
The philosophical basis of shared sovereignty between the nations of Europe goes back centuries. The concept of an economic union which would make peace between these often warring countries not just a theoretical goal but a practical necessity was touted by the liberal nationalist movements of the 19th Century, and by the internationalists of the inter-war period.
Europeanism borrowed from Left and Right, as Christian Democrats and Socialists on the continent laid out their plans for economic union. This culminated in 1941 with the Ventotene Manifesto, a federalist blueprint for a rudimentary EU written by anti-fascist activist Altiero Spinelli who later became both a European commissioner and MEP.
Immediately after the Second World War, from a continent ruined by the pursuit of national self-interest, war and terror, sprang a number of pan-European organisations. The European Movement itself was founded in 1948 to make the case for European unity. After the Council of Europe (a separate organisation, largely concerned with co-operation on culture and human rights), six states in Western Europe founded an economic union focussing on the shared production and consumption of coal and steel (the Coal and Steel Community) – indispensable war goods. Euratom, a community concerned with sharing nuclear infrastructure, was created simultaneously. France was the first to commit, as Prime Minister Robert Schumann declared France’s willingness to participate in a speech on 9th May 1950, now celebrated as ‘Europe Day’. ‘The Six’, as they became known, were Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg and West Germany.
The EU comes of age
‘The Six’ later agreed to establish a full Customs Union in the Treaty of Rome, which inaugurated the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957.
A single set of institutions was created to govern the three institutions. The next decades saw neighbouring countries joining the Communities, as the economic benefits of membership became clear. Denmark, Ireland and the UK joined in 1973. Greece (1981), Portugal and Spain (both 1986) acceded next, before East Germany was absorbed in 1990. Austria, Finland and Sweden followed suit in 1995 before the great wave of (mainly) central and eastern European/ex-communist states in 2004 and Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, with Croatia the final entrant for now in 2013. Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey are all official candidates for future membership with others mulling this over.
The institutions were continually modernised throughout this period; replacing a consultative assembly whose members were nominated by the Member States, a directly elected European Parliament, with seats in Brussels and Strasbourg, was created in 1979 to add democratic oversight to that provided by the national governments in the European Council/Council of Ministers. Movement towards currency union began as early as the 1980s.
The Maastricht Treaty of 1993 directed the EU toward expansion in Eastern Europe, and to closer co-operation on social and environmental policy. It also laid the groundwork for Monetary Union. The Schengen Area, allowing free movement of people between member states, was created in 1995. The Euro was introduced in 2002 in 12 of the 15 then-EU Countries. Today it is used in 19 of the 27.
The EU today
The EU today allows countries to make common policy on a wide range of issues.
The ‘European Council’ is the body which represents the 27 heads of state and government. The Council of Ministers comprises representatives from the respective governments of Member States, whose approval – usually by supermajority – is required for the passage of all legislation.
The European Parliament is an assembly directly elected by proportional representation which, like the Council, must pass each legislative proposal before it becomes law. Its legislative reach (co-decision power) has extended since its foundation in 1979.
The European Commission is the Executive and Civil Service of the EU. The Commission alone can initiate new legislation. It is led by 27 Commissioners (one from each Member State), whose President is decided by the European Council on advice from the Parliament.
The laws of the EU are overseen by the European Court of Justice, to which National Supreme Courts defer on matters of European Law. It consists of 27 judges (one from each Member State).
The ECB acts as the Central Bank for the 19-strong eurozone.
The European Union can strike collective trade deals with non-EU Governments and has Trade Agreements with over 70 third countries. It also has the authority to donate collective Development Aid to third countries.
The EU Budget (Multiannual Financial Framework or MFF) is a programme of shared spending over seven years agreed unanimously every seven years by the Member States. It sets out spending priorities and budget arrangements for the work of the Commission.
Rule of law
One of the EU’s main goals is to promote human rights both internally and around the world. Human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights: these are the core values of the EU.
Since the 2009 signing of the Treaty of Lisbon, the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights brings all these rights together in a single document. The EU’s institutions are legally bound to uphold them, as are EU governments whenever they apply EU law.
Transparent and democratic institutions – As it continues to grow, the EU remains focused on making its governing institutions more transparent and democratic. More powers are being given to the directly elected European Parliament, while national parliaments are being given a greater role, working alongside the European institutions. In turn, European citizens have an ever-increasing number of channels for taking part in the political process.