European Union

AuthorGrant Eldridge, Judith Nixon

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The European Union (EU) is an economic and political federation comprising 25 countries. The 15 original member nations are: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, the Republic of Ireland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Ten new members as of May 2004 are: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The EU represents the latest and most successful in a series of efforts to unify Europe, including many attempts to achieve unity through force of arms such as those seen in the campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte and World War II.

In the wake of the Second World War, which devastated the European infrastructure and economies, efforts began to forge political union through increasing economic interdependence. In 1951 the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was formed to coordinate the production and trading of coal and steel within Europe. In 1957 the member states of the ECSC ratified two treaties creating the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) for the collaborative development of commercial nuclear power, and the European Economic Community (EEC), an international trade body whose role was to gradually eliminate national tariffs and other barriers to international trade involving member countries. Initially the EEC, or, as it was more frequently referred to at the time, the Common Market, called for a twelve to fifteen year period for the institution of a common external tariff among its members, but the timetable was accelerated and a common tariff was instituted in 1967.

Despite this initial success, participation in the EEC was limited to Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Immediately following the creation of the EEC a rival trade confederation known as the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) was created by Austria, Britain, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland. Although its goals were less comprehensive than those of the EEC, the existence of the EFTA delayed European economic and political unity.

By 1961 the United Kingdom indicated its willingness to join the Common Market if allowed to retain certain tariff structures which favored trade between Britain and its Commonwealth. Negotiations between the EEC and the United Kingdom began, but insurmountable differences arose and Britain was denied access to the Common Market in 1963. Following this setback, however, the Common Market countries worked to strengthen the ties between themselves, culminating in the merger of the ECSC, EEC, and Euratom to form the European Community (EC) in 1967. In the interim the importance of the Commonwealth to the British economy waned considerably and by 1973 Britain, Denmark, and the Republic of Ireland had joined the EC. Greece followed suit in 1981, followed by Portugal and Spain in 1986 and Austria, Finland, and Sweden in 1995.

Even as it expanded the EC worked to strengthen the economic integration of its membership, establishing a European Monetary System (EMS), featuring the European Currency Unit (ECU, later known as the Euro), in 1979 and passing the Single European Act, which strengthened the EC's ability to regulate the economic, social, and foreign policies of its members, in 1987. The EC took its largest step to date toward true economic integration among its members with the 1992 ratification of the Treaty of European Union, after which the EC changed its name to the European Union (EU). The Treaty of European Union also created a central banking system for EU members, established the mechanisms and timetable for the adoption of the Euro as the common currency among members, and further strengthened the EU's ability to influence the public and foreign policies of its members.

Although the EU has accomplished a great deal in its first four years of existence, many hurdles must still be crossed before true European economic unity

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can be achieved. Many EU nations experienced great difficulty in meeting the provisions required by the EU for joining the EMS, although eleven countries met them by the 1 January 1999 deadline. Meeting these provisions forced several EU members, including Italy and Spain, to adopt politically unpopular domestic economic policies. Others, such as the United Kingdom, chose not to take politically unpopular action and thus failed to qualify for participation. Even though the Euro was introduced according to schedule, economic unity has far outstripped political cooperation among EU members to date and real and potential political disagreements within the EU remain a threat to its further development.


The EU maintains four administrative bodies dealing with specific areas of economic and political activity.


The Council of Ministers comprises representatives, usually the foreign ministers, of member states. The presidency of the council rotates between the members on a semiannual basis. When issues of particular concern arise, members may send their heads of state to sit on the council. At such times the council is known as the European Council, and has final authority on all issues not specifically covered in the various treaties creating the EU and its predecessor organizations. The Council of Ministers also maintains the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER), with permanent headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, to sit during the intervals between the council's meetings; and operates an extensive secretariat monitoring economic and political activities within the EU. The Council of Ministers and European Council decide matters involving relations between member states in areas including administration, agriculture and fisheries, internal market and industrial policy, research, energy, transportation, environmental protection, and economic and social affairs. Members of the Council of Ministers or European Council are expected to represent the particular interests of their home country before the EU as a whole.


The European Commission serves as the executive organization of the EU. Currently each country has one commissioner except for the five largest countries that have two. The Commission enlarges as more countries join. The European Commission seeks to serve the interests of Europe as a whole in matters including external relations, economic affairs, finance, industrial affairs, and agricultural policies. The European Commission maintains twenty-three directorates general to oversee specific areas of administration and commerce within the EU. It also retains a large staff to translate all EU documents into each of the EU's twenty official languages. Representatives sitting on the European Commission are expected to remain impartial and view the interests of the EU as a whole rather than the particular interests of their home countries.


The European Parliament comprises representatives of the EU member nations who are selected by direct election in their home countries. Although it serves as a forum for the discussion of issues of interest to the individual member states and the EU as a whole, the European Parliament has no power to create or implement legislation. It does, however, have some control over the EU budget, and can pose questions for the consideration of either the Council of Ministers or the European Commission.


The Court of Justice comprises thirteen judges and six advocates general appointed by EU member governments. Its function is to...

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