European Union (EU) was founded in 1957 with the aim of creating 'an ever
closer union between the peoples of Europe'.
Initially concerned with improving economic co-operation between member
states, the EU has expanded its role in recent decades to play a significant
part in areas of policy that had traditionally been the reserve of nation
states. The EU operates on a mixture of
supranational and intergovernmental models, where
nation states pass the right to decide on certain issues to the EU but retain the
power for independent action in others.
The EU was founded by
six countries: France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and
Luxembourg. It has since undergone several
waves of enlargement. In 1973, Britain,
Ireland and Denmark joined. The 1980s
saw the entry of Spain, Portugal and Greece, and in 1995 Austria, Sweden and
Finland also became members. After the fall of Communism, many former Communist countries in
central and eastern Europe, who began to introduce democracy and market
economies, applied to join.
Subsequently, on 1 May 2004 ten new countries were admitted: Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Cyprus, Malta, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They were followed
by Romania and
Bulgaria, on 1 January 2007. Croatia signed its Accession Treaty in December 2011 and is set to become a member on 1 June 2013. Turkey and Iceland are currently negotiating membership. FYR Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are also official candidate countries, but have not yet begun formal membership negotiations. Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Kosovo are considered potential candidate countries.
The EU is based on a
series of legal treaties between the member states. The first treaty, which established the European Economic
Community (EEC), was signed in Rome in 1957.
There have been five subsequent treaties - the Single European Act (1986), the Treaty of Maastricht (1992), the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997), the Treaty of Nice (2001) and the Treaty of Lisbon (2007). In 2003, the EU
produced a draft Constitution for Europe, which was
designed to replace all the existing treaties as the sole legal
document governing the operation of the EU. However the EU Constitution was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands
in 2005. The Lisbon Treaty was drafted as a replacement in 2007, but there was huge controversy when Ireland rejected it in a referendum in 2008. Following a second referendum in Ireland, the Lisbon Treaty was ratified by all member states in 2009.
The EU has a complex government structure made up of bodies known collectively as the EU institutions. They are responsible for making EU laws,
managing EU projects, distributing EU money and deciding the future direction
of the EU.
The Commission is the most
powerful EU body and has many different responsibilities. It is the only institution which has the
power to propose EU laws and is also responsible for enforcing them. The European Council is headed by a President and it is made up of the heads
of state and government of the member states and the President of the European
Commission. It meets for summits four
times a year to discuss the direction of EU policy and has a key role in guiding
policy alongside the Commission. However, any laws proposed by the Commission are passed to the Council of the European Union, which is made up of government ministers from all the
member states, and to the European
Parliament. Both institutions must approve a law for it to pass. The European Parliament is the only directly elected EU institution, and currently consists of 754 members (MEPs) - it is seen as giving
democratic legitimacy to the EU, but it cannot propose legislation, only discuss
and vote on laws proposed by the Commission.
Finally, the Court of Justice of the European Union is made up of 27 judges, assisted by 8 advocates-general. A General Court deals with cases brought by private individuals and competition law cases. The EU Civil Service Tribunal rules on disputes between the EU and its staff.
European Union has influence over a very wide range of policy areas. In economic policy, it has sole responsible for
the Euro, external trade negotitations, overseeing the single market, competition policy and the EU budget.
It also operates various funds, including the Common Agricultural Policy
(CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
In addition the EU has responsibilities in many areas of justice and home affairs, foreign policy and social policies, such as working hours, and health and safety. Finally it regulates numerous areas of peoples' lives relating to issues including the environment and
'We want European Union, a
United States of Europe'. Helmut Kohl, German Chancellor,
'[Is] British democracy,
parliamentary sovereignty, the common law, our ability to run our own affairs -
to be subordinated to the demands of a remote bureaucracy, resting on very
different traditions?' Margaret Thatcher, UK Prime Minister 1979-1990
Supranationalism: a form of organisation through which decisions are
made by international institutions, not by individual states.
Intergovernmental: a form of international
organisation where governments work together to achieve shared goals.
Ratify: to approve an agreement and make it legal.