European Union

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The European Union (EU) is a group of 27 countries that share a common political ideology. It is governed jointly by Ministers of member countries' governments and a directly-elected Parliament. It is an association of sovereign states, but its constitution provides for the central control of defined aspects of political, social and economic policy. 18 of its members have joined in an economic and monetary union known as the eurozone, membership of which involves the adoption of the euro as their common currency, the delegation of monetary policy to a European Central Bank, and the acceptance of agreed limits on the conduct of fiscal policy. The future of the eurozone is under review,


"The European Union is something ... very precious, not only for us in Europe, but also for the rest of the world. Because the European Union is, in fact, the result of a project for peace that brought together nations emerging from the ruins of the Second World War. It was the European Union that united them in peace around the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, justice, rule of law and respect for human rights."
Merci Olsson, of Nobel Media, congratulating President Barroso on the award of The Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union, 12 October 2012.

The transition from the European Common Market of 1957 to the European Union of 2011 has involved a major deepening and widening of coooperation among the countries of Europe. Among the most recent of the moves toward the founders' objective of economic and political union was the creation by the Maastricht Treaty of an economic and monetary union, to form in 1999 what came to be known as the eurozone. Two of the existing members of the European Union (The United Kingdom and Denmark) were unwilling at the time to accept the surrender of control over monetary policy that was required of eurozone members, but willingness to join the eurozone became a condition of membership of the European Union for subsequent applicants. The Maastricht Treaty required all members of the European Union to relinquish a limited degree of control over their fiscal policies by abiding by agreed limits on their budget deficits and their public debt. The widening of tne scope of membership, from 6 countries, in 1957 to 27 in 2011 has involved a further surrender of national sovereignty because it has been accompanied by a widening of the range of policy issues that are decided by majority voting, and thus a reduction of the degree of influence that any country can exert upon the policies of the Union.

The development of the eurozone crisis in the aftermath of the Great Recession has added to the urgency of the ongoing debate concerning the desireability of further surrenders of national sovereignty. There is a widely-held view that a major increase in the degree of central control over fiscal policy would be needed to solve the problems raised by that crisis, but there is uncertainty about the willingness of people to accept the implied reduction in their influence over public expenditure and taxation. Since there seems to be little prospect that all of the existing member countries of the European Union would accept such a development, it would appear necessary, on that view, to envisage a number of departures from the eurozone.


Although it started as an economic association, the anticipation of economic benefits was not the only rationale that inspired its founders. It was also seen as a means of bringing political stability to a Europe that had been torn apart by two world wars in the course of the previous 50 years. That advantage has since been taken for granted, and its rationale has been perceived mainly in terms of economic advantage.

The principal economic advantage of membership to a country has been seen as the unrestricted access that it provides to wider markets for its products. The adoption of a common currency as part of the Economic and Monetary Union was seen as further lowering barriers to those markets by reducing transaction costs and eliminating exchange rate risks. Some of the Union's smaller members may also have anticipated further advantages arising from the improvement in their creditworthiness that membership would generate. It was generally accepted that there could be offsetting disadvantages arising from loss of control over the domestic economy, but most of the continent's governments judged the balance to be positive. Some have since come to question that judgement because of the unsymmetrical impact of recent demand shocks upon the domestic economies of member countries.

The EU Treaties

In 1992 the Treaty on the European Union - also known as the Maastricht Treaty[1] - broadened the scope of the Treaty of Rome's "European Economic Community" [2] by the addition of provisions for political cooperation, creating a structure referred to as the "three pillars of the Union". (It also shortened its name to "the European Community"). The three pillars established by the treaty are (1): the European Community (and Euratom), (2): the common foreign and security policy; and, (3): police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters. The treaty introduced the concept of European citizenship which confers upon the nationals of member state the right to:

- circulate and reside freely in the Community;
- vote and to stand as a candidate for European and municipal elections in the state in which he or she resides;
- protection by the diplomatic or consular authorities of a member state other than the citizen's member state; and,
- petition the European Parliament and to submit a complaint to the Ombudsman[3].

It has since been amended by three further treaties:

- in 1997 the Treaty of Amsterdam[4] created a Community employment policy, reformed the common foreign and security policy, and extended qualified-majority voting;
- in 2003 the Treaty of Nice[5] changed the size and composition of the Commission, altered the weighting of votes in the Council; and further extended the scope of qualified-majority voting;
- in 2007 Treaty of Lisbon[6] strengthened the role of the European Parliament, provided for greater involvement of national parliaments, and introduced provisions for withdrawal from membership of the Union.


The term "european constitution" commonly refers to a document[7] published in 2004, whose proposals have not been given formal effect because they have not received universal ratification. In 2009 it was replaced as a defining expression of the constitution of the European Union by the Treaty of Lisbon[8][9].

The conditions for membership of the Union are defined in two clauses:

Article I-58: The Union shall be open to all European States which respect the values referred to in Article I-2, and are committed to promoting them;

Article I-2: The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.

Those joining after 1992 are also expected to meet the eurozone entry criteria.

The Treaty defines the powers delegated to the Union as follows:

exclusive competence is ascribed to the Union as regards:
- the customs union, competition rules, monetary policy (for eurozone members), conservation of marine biological resources, the common commercial policy, and certain (defined) categories of international agreement.
shared competence between the Union and member states is deemed to apply to:
- internal markets, specified aspects of social policy, economic, social and territorial cohesion, agriculture and fisheries, the environment, consumer protection, transport, trans-European networks, energy, freedom, security and justice, and public health.

Those powers are exercised solely by the Council of the European Union as regards matters defined as sensitive (including taxation, industrial policy, and agricultural policy); and jointly by the Council and the European Parliament for all other matters. Responsibility for the execution of their decisions and is conferred on the European Commission. They are required to exercise them in accordance with the principal of subsidiarity, which was enacted by Article 5 of the Maastricht Treaty as

In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can, therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community.


The European Council

The European Council[10] (not to be confused with the 47-member Council of Europe) was created in 1974 as an informal forum for discussions between Heads of State (or of Government). It rapidly developed into the body which fixed goals for the Union and set the course for achieving them. It acquired a formal status in the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht[11], which defined its function as providing the impetus and general political guidelines for the Union's development.

The Council of the European Union

The Council of the European Union [12] (also known as the "Council of Ministers") is the main decision-making body of the Union. It is made up of the ministers that are responsible to their national governments for the areas on which decisions are to be made. The Treaty of Lisbon[13] defines the number of votes allocated to each country and the matters requiring simple majority, qualified majority or unanimity. (A qualified majority is normally defined as at least 55 per cent of the members of the Council, comprising at least fifteen of them, and representing member states comprising at least 65 % of the population of the Union). Unanimity is required for decisions on foreign and defence policy, the Union budget, the admission of new members, emergency financial assistance to members and penalties for breaches of the Union's rules. The Presidency of the Council is held for six months by each country in turn. The Council enacts legislative proposals initiated by the Commission, after modifying them if necessary. It also co-ordinates economic policies, implements foreign and security policy, concludes international agreements, coordinates crime prevention, and adopts the Union's budget. On all but certain "sensitive" issues it has joint authority on equal terms with the Parliament. Its legislative proceedings are then open to the public[14].

The European Parliament

The 705 members of the European Parliament[15] are elected every 5 years by the adult citizens of the European Union, with seats allocated in proportion to the populations of the member countries. It has significant but limited legislative powers. It does not initiate legislation, but frequently asks the Commission to do so. On "sensitive" questions (e.g. taxation, industrial policy, agricultural policy) it has only an advisory rôle, but on other matters, including the budget, it legislates jointly, and on equal bicameral terms with the Council of Ministers. Its five party groups differ on policy, not national, grounds. It has powers of investigation that enable it to exert an influence over the conduct of the Union's other institutions.

The European Commission

The European Commission[16] is the EU's executive body, consisting of a President and 26 Commissioners[17], their special advisers[18], 40 Director-Generals[19] and their supporting staffs of about 25,000 European civil servants. It drafts proposals for new European laws and is responsible for the implementation of the Union's policies, the allocation of its funds, and the enforcement of its laws; and for the conduct of international negotiations. Its operating procedures are set out in a governance statement[20].

The European Central Bank

The European Central Bank[21] is the core of the "Eurosystem" that consists also of all the national central banks of the member countries of the eurozone). Its governing body[22] consists of the six members of its Executive Board, and the governors of the national central banks of the 17 eurozone countries. It is responsible for the execution of the Union's monetary policy. Its statutory remit requires that, "without prejudice to the objective of price stability", it is to "support the general economic policies in the Community" including a "high level of employment" and "sustainable and non-inflationary growth"[23]. The tasks of the ECB are specified in article 127.2 of the Maastricht Treaty and article 3 of the ECB Statute and the "Protocol on the Statute of the European System of Central Banks and the European Central Bank[24]. They are

  • to define and implement the monetary policy of the Union;
  • to conduct foreign-exchange operations consistent with the provisions of Article

219 (Article 219 specifies that exchange rate policy remains within the authority of the Council, which may alter exchange rates and decide on the general orientation of exchange-rate policies after consulting with the ECB);

  • to hold and manage the official foreign reserves of the Member States;
  • to promote the smooth operation of payment systems.
  • to authorise the issue of the euro banknotes (Article 128.1)The bank's governing board sets the eurozone's discount rates and has been responsible for the introduction and management of refinancing operations [25].

The Bank is an independent decision-making body, being protected from political control by article 107 of the Maastricht Treaty: " ”…, neither the ECB, nor a national central bank, nor any member of their decisionmaking bodies shall seek or take instructions from Community institutions or bodies, from any government of a Member State or from any other body".

The European Court of Justice

The European Court of Justice[26] is the supreme the judicial authority of the European Union. It reviews the legality of the acts of its institutions, and member states' compliance with their treaty obligations. It also interprets European Union law when asked to do so by national courts.

The Foreign Affairs Council

The Foreign Affairs Council [27] deals with issues relating to the external actions of the EU, including the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), development cooperation, and trade relations with non-EU countries. Its members are the Foreign Ministers of member states and (if the agenda requires) ministers responsible for defence, development and trade. It includes a Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Council, chaired by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, and a General Affairs Council presided over by The Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Miguel Ángel Moratinos.

Member countries

(for country data and links go to the states of Europe table)

To the 6 founder members in 1951, 3 were added in 1973, 1 in 1981, 2 in 1986, 3 in 1995, 10 more in 2004, 2 in 2007 and 1 in 2013; the United Kingdom left in 2020 - (see the lists on the timelines subpage)

The 27 member countries are:

Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus (the de facto authorities in Northern Cyprus do not recognize EU jurisdiction), Czech Republic, Denmark (not including the Faroe Islands or Greenland), Estonia, Finland, France (including Guadeloupe, Guiane (French Guiana), Martinique, La Réunion and Saint Martin), Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands (not including the Dutch West Indies, though their people can vote in elections to the European Parliament), Poland, Portugal (including the Azores and Madeira), Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain (including the Canary Islands, Ceuta and Melilla), and Sweden.

The candidate countries are:

North Macedonia, Turkey and Iceland.

Potential candidates are:

Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo under UN Security Council Resolution 1244, Montenegro, and Serbia.

Following the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, 11 European Union members became members of the Eurozone. They were:

Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Spain, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal and Finland,
Greece joined in 2001, Slovenia in 2007, Cyprus and Malta in 2008, Slovakia in 2009 and Estonia in 2011.


Human rights

The concept of citizenship of the European Union, that was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, added a new political dimension to the hitherto primarily economic nature of European integration. The rights of EU citizens are set out in a Charter of Fundamental Rights[28], which brings together the legally binding rights of citizens that are guaranteed by the Union's treaties, which include and extend the Council of Europe's human rights convention[29]. However, as a recent enquiry reported[30], a gap still remains between the applicable legal rules and the reality confronting citizens in their daily lives, and some 25 short- and medium-term initiatives are put forward for tackling the obstacles to citizens’ enjoyment of their rights.

The current EU treaties require all members to be also members of the Council of Europe, and therefore, under its rules, signed up to the European Court of Human Rights (not itself an EU institution).

Cultural policy

Culture was officially given a place in the European Union by Article 151 of the Maastricht Treaty, which states that "The Community shall contribute to the flowering of the cultures of the Member States, while respecting their national and regional diversity and at the same time bringing the common cultural heritage to the fore". Cultural cooperation has been supported by three experimental programmes in this sector (Kaléïdoscope, Ariane and Raphaël), covering the performing, plastic and visual arts, heritage and books. The European Community has also supported the Member States' initiative to designate a "European City of Culture" each year since 1985.

Following the introduction of the concept of European citizenship in the Treaty of Maastricht[31] introduced, there have been attempts to combine it with the concept of "cultural citizenship". The management of the European Union is believed to be actively promoting the idea of a "European cultural identity"[32], which would imply a mutual obligation to accept the free exercise of the differing practices and beliefs of the cultures of all of its citizens. However, there is widespread popular resistance to the idea among those who prefer to associate citizenship with ethnic identity [33], and those who believe that immigrants and ethnic minorities in their countries should be expected to adopt the cultural practices of the indigenous majority.


The protection of the community's agricultural industry from overseas competition by a "Common Agricultural Policy" was among the principle objectives of the founders of the European Common Market (as set out in article 39 of the Treaty of Rome), and it is even now the most costly of the activities of the Union, accounting for about 40 per cent of its annual budget [34]. Its principal instruments are price support payments, export subsidies and taxes on agricultural imports. The subsidies were initially production-related but since 2003 they have decoupled from production levels and made dependent on animal welfare and environmental protection. Its principal recipients in 2006 were France (20%), Spain (13%), Germany (13%), and Italy (11%)[35] [36]


The purpose of EU competition policy is to regulate those business practices that restrict competition, to limit the ability of firms to combine in such a way as to enable them to restrict competition, and to prevent member governments from assisting national enterprises in ways that would inhibit competition from firms in other countries. It is coordinated and operated by the Competition Directorate of the European Commission[37]. It depends for its legal authority upon legislation governing the behaviour of firms[38] and upon legislation concerning the provision of governmental assistance to member firms[39]. The Commission and the competition authorities of the member states have the power to require that an infringement of the rules governing the behaviour of firms to ended, or to accept an ameliorating commitment from those concerned, or to impose fines. he Commission also has the power to order structural remedies (such as the divestiture of acquisitions or splitting up of a company). The Commission may also impose fines for infringement of the rules. The Commission alone is responsible for enforcement of the rules governing state aid.

Economic and Monetary Policy

Member countries of the eurozone have adopted a common monetary policy determined by the European Central Bank. Member countries of the European Union that are not members of the Eurozone are free to conduct their own monetary policy. The fiscal policies of all European Union member countries are conducted independently but they are required to keep within the limits on public debt and budget deficit stipulated in the Stability and Growth Pact[40] [41].

Defence Policy

The principle of a common foreign and security policy[42] was formalised in the Maastricht Treaty. With the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, Article 42.7 of the Treaty on the European Union now sets out that, if a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, but also states that commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments in NATO, which for its members remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation. Foreign and security policy is an area in which authority remains with member governments, although the European Commission and, to a lesser extent the European Parliament, are associated with the process. Unanimity is required on decisions with military or defence implications. The Union has no standing army. Instead it relies on ad hoc forces contributed by member countries. In order to respond quickly, it has established battlegroups of about 1500 troops, of which two are on standby at any given time. There have military operations in Bosnia, in border areas of Chad and the Central African Republic, and naval operations to protect ships from pirates along the Somali coast.

Employment Policy

The European Social Fund[43] accounts for about 10 per cent of the Union's budget. It provides financial support to activities in member countries that are designed to improve access to employment, increase the adaptability of workers and enterprises and develop institutional capacity in disadvantaged regions. The European Globalisation Adjustment Fund[44] provides personalised support to workers made redundant as a result of global trade liberalisation and increased competition. The Fund is also be used to help workers who have lost their jobs due to the financial crisis to retrain and find new employment.

Freedom of movement

The Maastricht Treaty confers on every citizen of the European Union the right to live in any of its member countries. It is an unconditional right of residence for up to 3 months, after which it is subject to conditions specified in the relevant Council Directive[45] - but is generally available as of right, to workers, students and others with adequate resources[46].


The European Council, meeting at Hampton Court on 27 October 2005, adopted a Global Approach to Migration[47] that was subsequently endorsed by the Council of Ministers. It set out actions deemed necessary to "ensure that migration works to the benefit of all countries concerned", including action to "reduce illegal migration flows and the loss of lives", and action to "ensure safe return of illegal migrants, strengthen durable solutions for refugees", "while fully respecting human rights and the individual's right to seek asylum". Limited progress has been made in implementing that approach[48], and in 2010 the Council called for further action to develop a balance among the three areas concerned - legal migration, illegal migration, and migration and development [49].

Foreign policy

The Common Foreign and Security Policy[50] undertakes (in collaboration with the Organisation for Security and Collaboration in Europe (OSCE)) conflict prevention and crisis management, and the use of diplomatic and economic sanctions against policies that violate international law or human rights. It also serves to combat the illicit accumulation and trafficking of small arms and light weapons. The European Neighbourhood Policy [51] consists of a series of bilateral agreements with bordering countries, affording them privileged relations with the European Union in return for progress toward the establishment of democracy and human rights, and market economies. Within it, relations with the NIS (former Soviet Union) countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine, are the subject of the Eastern Partnership Programme"[52] [53].

Other policy areas

There are also departments of the European Commission that develop policy on climate action, communication, culture, energy, environment, health, justice, science and technology, transport and tourism.

Recent developments

The economies of all member countries suffered major downturns during the Great Recession of 2007-10 (as described on the Addendum subpage of the article on that subject). One effect of the recession was to reduce revenues from taxation and increase public expenditure, as a result of which there were increases in member countries' budget deficits and public debt, and multiple breaches of the limits required by the Stability and Growth Pact. Particular concern developed in early 2010 concerning the fiscal sustainability of the economies of the "PIIGS" countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) following rating downgrades by the credit rating agencies (their problems are described in the article on the eurozone crisis). In May 2010, a €500 billion European financial stabilisation mechanism was established[54], enabling member states in difficulties to get loans from the European Central Bank (subject to the adoption of measures to restore fiscal sustainability) and the Bank launched a securities market programme, designed to calm the bond market[55]. During 2010, the governments of Greece and Ireland decided that, without help, they would not be able to continue to finance their budget deficits, and they sought - and received - loans from other European governments. Those loans failed to reassure potential investors, and in November and December of 2010 the international bond market forced further increases in interest rates on the governments of all five governments (including those of Portugal, Spain and Italy, because of fears of contagion from Greece and Ireland).

In accordance with the result of a 2016 referendum, the United Kingdom left in 2020.


By November 2011 there was widespread uncertainty about the survival of the eurozone. Eurozone leaders had accepted the need to restructure Greece's public debt and to recapitalise the banks that would consequently suffer. But, despite attempts to contain the damage, there was serious contagion of Greece's problems, by Italy and Spain; and despite increases in the funds available for the purpose, it was clear that they would not be sufficient to give effective assistance to those larger countries. As a result, there was a fall in the bond market's confidence in the prospects for the eurozone that was reflected in the application of risk premiums to bond issues by the governments of Austria, Belgium and France. There was general agreement that the eurozone's long-term survival depended upon its transformation into a fiscal union, and some speculation that might involve a division of the European Union into a "federal" core of the 17 members of the euro zone, with a looser "confederal" outer band of the 9 non-euro members[56].


The total land area of the EU is over 4200000 km2. Most of this is in or near Europe, but the French overseas departments are more remote. Thus France is the easternmost, southernmost and westernmost member, with Finland the northernmost. The EU includes territory in Africa and the Americas, while Cyprus is variously included in Europe or Asia. The EU has land borders with 24 political entities: Albania, Andorra, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Gibraltar, Liechtenstein, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, North Macedonia, Norway, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Sint Maarten (a Dutch overseas territory not in the EU), Suriname, Switzerland, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (a de facto entity not recognized by the EU or most of the world), Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the Vatican.


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  55. ECB decides on measures to address severe tensions in financial markets, European Central Bank press release, 10 May 2010
  56. [ Two-speed Europe, or two Europes, Financial Times, Nov 10th 2011}