The EU traces its origins from the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Economic Community (EEC), formed by the Inner Six countries in 1951 and 1958, respectively. In the intervening years, the community and its successors have grown in size by the accession of new member states and in power by the addition of policy areas to its remit. The Maastricht Treaty established the European Union under its current name in 1993 and introduced the European Citizenship. The latest major amendment to the constitutional basis of the EU, the Treaty of Lisbon, came into force in 2009.
The EU has developed a single market through a standardised system of laws that apply in all member states. Within the Schengen Area, passport controls have been abolished. EU policies aim to ensure the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital, enact legislation in justice and home affairs, and maintain common policies on trade, agriculture, fisheries, and regional development.
The monetary union was established in 1999 and came into full force in 2002. It is currently composed of 19 member states that use the euro as their legal tender. Through the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the EU has developed a role in external relations and defence. The union maintains permanent diplomatic missions throughout the world and represents itself at the United Nations, the WTO, the G8, and the G-20.
With a combined population of over 500 million inhabitants, or 7.3% of the world population, the EU in 2012 generated a nominal gross domestic product (GDP) of 16.584 trillion US dollars, constituting approximately 23% of global nominal GDP and 20% when measured in terms of purchasing power parity. As of 2014 the EU has the largest economy in the world, generating a GDP bigger than any other economic union or country. Additionally, 26 out of 28 EU countries have a very high Human Development Index, according to the UNDP. In 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Member statesThe following 28 sovereign states constitute the union: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.
Through successive enlargements, the Union has grown from the six founding states — Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands — to the current 28. Countries accede to the union by becoming party to the founding treaties, thereby subjecting themselves to the privileges and obligations of EU membership. This entails a partial delegation of sovereignty to the institutions in return for representation within those institutions, a practice often referred to as "pooling of sovereignty".
To become a member, a country must meet the Copenhagen criteria, defined at the 1993 meeting of the European Council in Copenhagen. These require a stable democracy that respects human rights and the rule of law; a functioning market economy; and the acceptance of the obligations of membership, including EU law. Evaluation of a country's fulfilment of the criteria is the responsibility of the European Council. No member state has ever left the Union, although Greenland (an autonomous province of Denmark) withdrew in 1985. The Lisbon Treaty now contains a clause providing for a member to leave the EU.
There are six countries which are recognized as candidates for membership: Albania, Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey. However, on 13 June 2013, Iceland's Foreign Minister, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, informed the European Commission that the newly elected government intended to "put negotiations on hold". Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are officially recognised as potential candidates, but have not submitted membership applications. Due to the lack of recognition by five of the 28 EU member states, the European Commission refers only to "Kosovo", with an asterisked footnote containing the text agreed to by the Belgrade–Pristina negotiations: "This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo Declaration of Independence."
Four countries forming the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) (that are not EU members) have partly committed to the EU's economy and regulations: Iceland (a candidate country for EU membership), Liechtenstein and Norway, which are a part of the single market through the European Economic Area, and Switzerland, which has similar ties through bilateral treaties. The relationships of the European microstates, Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican include the use of the euro and other areas of co-operation.
EconomyThe EU has established a single market across the territory of all its members. 19 member states have also joined a monetary union known as the eurozone, which uses the Euro as a single currency. In 2012, the EU had a combined GDP of 16.073 trillions international dollars, a 20% share of the global gross domestic product (in terms of purchasing power parity). According to Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2012, the EU owns the largest net wealth in the world; it is estimated to equal 30% of the $223 trillion global wealth.
GDP (in PPS) per inhabitant by NUTS 2 regions in 2009. Of the top 500 largest corporations measured by revenue (Fortune Global 500 in 2010), 161 have their headquarters in the EU. In 2007, unemployment in the EU stood at 7% while investment was at 21.4% of GDP, inflation at 2.2%, and current account balance at −0.9% of GDP (i.e., slightly more import than export). In 2012, unemployment in the EU stood, per August 2012, at 11.4%
There is a significant variance for GDP (PPP) per capita within individual EU states, these range from €11,300 to €69,800 (about US$15,700 to US$97,000). The difference between the richest and poorest regions (271 NUTS-2 regions of the Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics) ranged, in 2009, from 27% of the EU27 average in the region of Severozapaden in Bulgaria, to 332% of the average in Inner London in the United Kingdom. On the high end, Inner London has €78,000 PPP per capita, Luxembourg €62,500, and Bruxelles-Cap €52,500, while the poorest regions, are Severozapaden with €6,400 PPP per capita, Nord-Est with €6,900 PPP per capita, Severen tsentralen with €6,900 and Yuzhen tsentralen with €7,200.
Structural Funds and Cohesion Funds are supporting the development of underdeveloped regions of the EU. Such regions are primarily located in the states of central and southern Europe. Several funds provide emergency aid, support for candidate members to transform their country to conform to the EU's standard (Phare, ISPA, and SAPARD), and support to the former USSR Commonwealth of Independent States (TACIS). TACIS has now become part of the worldwide EuropeAid programme. EU research and technological framework programmes sponsor research conducted by consortia from all EU members to work towards a single European Research Area.
Institutions of the European UnionThe institutions of the European Union are the seven principal decision making bodies of the European Union. They are, as listed in Article 13 of the Treaty on European Union:
- the European Parliament
- the European Council
- the Council of the European Union
- the European Commission
- the Court of Justice of the European Union
- the European Central Bank
- the Court of Auditors
European ParliamentThe European Parliament (EP) shares the legislative and budgetary authority of the Union with the Council of the European Union (not to be confused with the European Council). Its 751 members are elected every five years by universal suffrage and sit according to political allegiance. They represent nearly 500 million citizens (the world's second largest democratic electorate) and form the only directly elected body in the Union. Despite forming one of the two legislative chambers of the Union, it has weaker powers than the Council in some sensitive areas, and does not have legislative initiative. It does, however, have powers over the Commission which the Council does not. It has been said that its democratic nature and growing powers have made it one of the most powerful legislatures in the world.
The Parliament's President (its speaker) is Martin Schulz (S&D/PES), who was elected from the Parliament's members in 2012.
European CouncilThe European Council is the group of heads of state or government of the EU member states. It meets four times a year to define the Union's policy agenda and give impetus to integration. The President of the European Council is the person responsible for chairing and driving forward the work of the institution, which has been described as the highest political body of the European Union.
The current president is Donald Tusk.
Council of the European UnionThe Council of the European Union (informally known as the Council of Ministers or just the Council) is a body holding legislative and some limited executive powers and is thus the main decision making body of the Union. Its Presidency rotates between the states every six months, but every three Presidencies now cooperate on a common programme. This body is separate from the European Council, which is a similar body, but is composed of national leaders.
The Council is composed of twenty-eight national ministers (one per state). However the Council meets in various forms depending upon the topic. For example, if agriculture is being discussed, the Council will be composed of each national minister for agriculture. They represent their governments and are accountable to their national political systems. Votes are taken either by majority or unanimity with votes allocated according to population. In these various forms they share the legislative and budgetary power of the Parliament, and also lead the Common Foreign and Security Policy.
The presidency is held by Latvia since 1 January 2015.
European CommissionThe European Commission (EC) is the executive arm of the Union. It is a body composed of one appointee from each state, currently twenty-eight, but is designed to be independent of national interests. The body is responsible for drafting all law of the European Union and has a near monopoly on proposing new laws (bills). It also deals with the day-to-day running of the Union and has the duty of upholding the law and treaties (in this role it is known as the "Guardian of the Treaties").
The Commission is led by a President who is nominated by the Council (in practice the European Council) and approved by Parliament. The remaining 27 Commissioners are nominated by member-states, in consultation with the President, and have their portfolios assigned by the President. The Council then adopts this list of nominee-Commissioners. The Council’s adoption of the Commission is not an area which requires the decision to be unanimous, their acceptance is arrived at according to the rules for qualified majority voting. The European Parliament then interviews and casts its vote upon the Commissioners. The interviews of individual nominees are conducted separately, in contrast to Parliament’s vote of approval which must be cast on the Commission as a whole without the ability to accept or reject individual Commissioners. Once approval has been obtained from the Parliament the Commissioners can take office. The current President is Jean-Claude Juncker (EPP); his commission was elected in 2014.
Court of Justice of the European UnionThe Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is the EU's judicial branch. It is responsible for interpreting EU law and treaties. It comprises the main chamber: Court of Justice, the General Court and the Civil Service Tribunal.
The CJEU is located in Luxembourg.
European CommissionThe European Central Bank (ECB) is the central bank for the eurozone (the states which have adopted the euro) and thus controls monetary policy in that area with an agenda to maintain price stability.
It is at the centre of the European System of Central Banks which comprises all EU national banks. The bank is governed by a board of national bank governors and a President.
The ECB is located in Frankfurt.
The current president is Mario Draghi.
Court of AuditorsThe European Court of Auditors, despite its name, has no judicial powers. It ensures that taxpayer funds from the budget of the European Union have been correctly spent. The court provides an audit report for each financial year to the Council and Parliament. The Parliament uses this to decide whether to approve the Commission's handling of the budget. The Court also gives opinions and proposals on financial legislation and anti-fraud actions.
The Court of Auditors was set up in 1975. It was created as an independent institution due to the sensitivity of the issue of fraud in the Union (the anti-fraud agency, OLAF, is also built on its independence). It is composed of one member from each state appointed by the Council every six years. Every three years one of them is elected to be the president of the court, who is currently Vítor Manuel da Silva Caldeira.
For more information you can visit the official web-site of EU europa.eu