Taken together, the nations of the European Union today rank as one of the world's economic superpowers. They have a combined population greater than that of the United States and represent the world's largest trading bloc. Their achievements have not been won without disputes, however, which arise most often when the interests of individual nations come into conflict with the interests of the union as a whole.
The EU is administered by the Commission of the European Union, headquartered in Brussels, Belgium. It is made up of 20 members appointed for four years by the various countries and is headed by a president.
Additional bodies include the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament, and the European Court of Justice. The Council of Ministers is the chief decision-making body. It consists of the foreign ministers of the member nations, who represent the interests of their governments. The European Parliament (EP) is made up of members who are elected by the citizens of the member countries. The parliament must be consulted by the commission before proposals are sent to the council for action. It also shares responsibility for budgetary matters. The Court of Justice, located in Luxembourg, is made up of 15 judges who interpret laws and settle disputes arising from the application of treaty agreements.
The dream of a united Europe is centuries old. However, it was not until after World War II (1939-45) that any real attempt was made to achieve it. With the enormous destruction of the war still evident, a group of European leaders sought unity as a way to restore Europe's prosperity and prevent future wars. They saw economic union as the first step.
In 1951, representatives of six European countries--France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg--signed the Treaty of Paris, which created the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The ECSC eliminated national trade barriers for its members' coal and steel and allowed workers in these industries to travel freely within the ECSC.
The success of the ECSC encouraged its members to broaden their area of cooperation. In 1957 they signed two new treaties in Rome. These established the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). The EEC, better known as the Common Market, was far-reaching in scope. Its aim was to abolish the remaining trade barriers among its members by forming a single economic union in which all of their goods, services, labor, and capital could move without restraint. Euratom was organized to promote research and development in the peaceful uses of atomic energy among the member countries.
The early achievements of the EEC led to expansion in membership. In 1973, Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom joined the union, followed by Greece in 1981; Portugal and Spain in 1986; and Austria, Finland, and Sweden in 1995, making a total of 15 member nations. The community became known as the European Union in 1993.
The most far-reaching step toward European integration was the Treaty on European Union, better known as the Maastricht Treaty, signed in 1992 and ratified in 1993. Its purpose was to create a future economic and monetary union among the member states. But in order to qualify, member nations first had to get their national budgets under control by reducing debts and inflation.
On January 1, 1999, the EU introduced a common currency known as the euro. Endorsed by 12 of the 15 member nations, the euro was used at first for noncash transactions, such as stock trading. It replaced national currencies in 2002 (except in Great Britain, Denmark, and Sweden, whose leaders chose not to participate).
In 2002, ten additional countries were formally invited to join the EU in 2004. They were Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Bulgaria and Romania were scheduled to join in 2007. Membership for Turkey was also placed under consideration.
Reviewed by Derek Prag
Former Director of Publications
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