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The European Union (EU) is an economic and political union of 27 member states, located primarily in Europe. Committed to regional integration, the EU was established by the Treaty of Maastricht on 1 November 1993 upon the foundations of the European Economic Community. With almost 500 million citizens, the EU combined generates an estimated 30% share (US$18.4 trillion in 2008) of the nominal gross world product and about 22% of the PPP gross world product.
The EU has developed a single market through a standardised system of laws which apply in all member states, ensuring the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital. It maintains common policies on trade, agriculture, fisheries and regional development. Sixteen member states have adopted a common currency, the euro, constituting the Eurozone. The EU has developed a limited role in foreign policy, having representation at the WTO, G8, G20 and at the UN. It enacts legislation in justice and home affairs, including the abolition of passport controls by the Schengen agreement between 22 EU and 3 non-EU states.
As an international organisation, the EU operates through a hybrid system of supranationalism and intergovernmentalism. In certain areas, decisions are made through negotiation between member states, while in others, independent supranational institutions are responsible without a requirement for unanimity between member states. Important institutions and bodies of the EU include the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, the European Council, the European Court of Justice, and the European Central Bank. The European Parliament is elected every five years by member states’ citizens, to whom the citizenship of the European Union is guaranteed.
The EU originates from the European Coal and Steel Community formed among six countries in 1951 and the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Since then, the EU has evolved through a process of enlargement, while new policy areas have been added to the remit of its institutions.
After the end of the Second World War, moves towards European integration were seen by many as an escape from the extreme forms of nationalism which had devastated the continent. One such attempt to unite Europeans was the European Coal and Steel Community which, while having the modest aim of centralised control of the previously national coal and steel industries of its member states, was declared to be “a first step in the federation of Europe”. The originators and supporters of the Community include Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Paul Henri Spaak and Alcide de Gasperi. The founding members of the Community were Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany.
In 1957, these six countries signed the Treaties of Rome which extended the earlier cooperation within the European Coal and Steel Community and created the European Economic Community, (EEC) establishing a customs union and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) for cooperation in developing nuclear energy. In 1967 the Merger Treaty created a single set of institutions for the three communities, which were collectively referred to as the European Communities (EC), although commonly just as the European Community.
In 1973 the Communities enlarged to include Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Norway had negotiated to join at the same time but Norwegian voters rejected membership in a referendum and so Norway remained outside. In 1979 the first direct, democratic elections to the European Parliament were held.
Greece joined in 1981, and Spain and Portugal in 1986. In 1985 the Schengen Agreement led the way toward the creation of open borders without passport controls between most member states and some non-member states. In 1986 the European flag began to be used by the Community and the Single European Act was signed.
In 1990, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the former East Germany became part of the Community as part of a newly united Germany. With enlargement toward Eastern and Central Europe on the agenda, the Copenhagen criteria for candidate members to join the European Union were agreed.
The European Union was formally established when the Maastricht Treaty came into force on 1 November 1993, and in 1995 Austria, Sweden and Finland joined the newly established EU. In 2002, euro notes and coins replaced national currencies in 12 of the member states. Since then, the eurozone has increased to encompass sixteen countries, with Slovakia joining the eurozone on 1 January 2009. In 2004, the EU saw its biggest enlargement to date when Malta, Cyprus, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary joined the Union.
On 1 January 2007, Romania and Bulgaria became the EU’s newest members and Slovenia adopted the euro. In June 2009 the 2009 elections which later led to a renewal of Barroso’s Commission Presidency and in July of that year Iceland formally applied for EU membership. On 1 December 2009 the Lisbon Treaty came into force after a protracted and controversial birth. This reformed many aspects of the EU but in particular created a permanent President of the European Council, the first of which is Herman van Rompuy, and a strengthened High Representative; Catherine Ashton.
The European Union is composed of 27 sovereign Member States: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
Only six of these – France, (then-West) Germany, Italy, and the three already integrated Benelux countries; Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg – were members at the start, with membership having grown as countries willingly accede to the treaties and by doing so, pool sovereignty in exchange for representation in the institutions. To join the EU a country must meet the Copenhagen criteria, defined at the 1993 Copenhagen European Council. These require a stable democracy that respects human rights and the rule of law; a functioning market economy capable of competition within the EU; 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 provides a clause dealing with how a member leaves the EU.
There are three official candidate countries, Croatia, Macedonia and Turkey. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Iceland are officially recognised as potential candidates. Kosovo is also listed as a potential candidate but the European Commission does not list it as an independent country because not all member states recognise it as an independent country separate from Serbia.
Four Western European countries that have chosen not to join the EU have partly committed to the EU’s economy and regulations: Iceland, which has now applied for 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.
The territory of the EU consists of the combined territories of its 27 member states with some exceptions, outlined below. The territory of the EU is not the same as that of Europe, as parts of the continent are outside the EU, such as Switzerland, Norway, European Russia, and Iceland. Some parts of member states are not part of the EU, despite forming part of the European continent (for example the Isle of Man and Channel Islands (two Crown Dependencies), and the Faroe Islands, a territory of Denmark). The island country of Cyprus, a member of the EU, is closer to Turkey than to mainland Europe and is often considered part of Asia.
Several territories associated with member states that are outside geographic Europe are also not part of the EU (such as Greenland, Aruba, the Netherlands Antilles, and all the non-European British overseas territories). Some overseas territories are part of the EU even though geographically not part of Europe, such as the Azores, the Canary Islands, Madeira, Lampedusa, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Réunion, Ceuta and Melilla. As well, although being technically part of the EU, EU law is suspended in Northern Cyprus as it is under the de facto control of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, a self-proclaimed state that is recognised only by Turkey.
The EU’s member states cover an area of 4,422,773 square kilometres (1,707,642 sq mi). The EU is larger in area than all but six countries, and its highest peak is Mont Blanc in the Graian Alps, 4,807 metres (15,771 ft) above sea level. The landscape, climate, and economy of the EU are influenced by its coastline, which is 65,993 kilometres (41,006 mi) long. The EU has the world’s second-longest coastline, after Canada. The combined member states share land borders with 19 non-member states for a total of 12,441 kilometres (7,730 mi), the fifth-longest border in the world.
Including the overseas territories of member states, the EU experiences most types of climate from Arctic to tropical, rendering meteorological averages for the EU as a whole meaningless. The majority of the population lives in areas with a Mediterranean climate (Southern Europe), a temperate maritime climate (Western Europe), or a warm summer continental or hemiboreal climate (Eastern Europe).
The EU’s work is divided into three areas of responsibility, called pillars. The original European Community policies form the first pillar, while the second consists of Common Foreign and Security Policy. The third pillar originally consisted of Justice and Home Affairs, however owing to changes introduced by the Amsterdam and Nice treaties, it has been reduced to Police and Judicial Co-operation in Criminal Matters (other matters were transferred to the Community). Broadly speaking, the second and third pillars can be described as the intergovernmental pillars because the supranational institutions of the Commission, Parliament and the Court of Justice play less of a role or none at all, while the lead is taken by the intergovernmental Council of Ministers and the European Council (which operate more by consensus than majority in these pillars). Most activities of the EU come under the first, Community pillar. This is mostly an economically oriented pillar and is where the supranational institutions have the most influence.
The activities of the EU are regulated by a number of institutions and bodies that carry out the tasks and policies set out in the Treaties. These procedures are all subject to the principle of subsidiarity which requires that action only be taken at EU level where an objective cannot be sufficiently achieved by the member states alone.
The EU receives its political leadership from the European Council, which usually meet four times a year. It comprises one representative per member state-either its head of state or head of government-plus its President as well as the President of the Commission. The member states’ representatives are assisted by their Foreign Ministers. The European Council uses its leadership role to sort out disputes between member states and the institutions, and to resolve political crises and disagreements over controversial issues and policies. On 19 November 2009, Herman Van Rompuy was chosen to become the first permanent President of the European Council. He took office on 1 December 2009. The European Council should not be mistaken for the Council of Europe, an international organisation independent from the EU.
By virtue of a rotating presidency, every member state takes the helm of the EU for a period of six months during which that country’s representatives chair the meetings of the Council of Ministers. The member state holding the presidency typically uses it to drive a particular policy agenda such as economic reform, reform of the EU itself, enlargement, or furthering European integration.
The European Commission acts as the EU’s executive arm and is responsible for initiating legislation and the day-to-day running of the EU. It is intended to act solely in the interest of the EU as a whole, as opposed to the Council which consists of leaders of member states who reflect national interests. The commission is also seen as the motor of European integration. It is currently composed of 27 commissioners for different areas of policy, one from each member state. The President of the Commission and all the other commissioners are nominated by the Council. Appointment of the Commission President, and also the Commission in its entirety, have to be confirmed by Parliament.
The European Parliament forms one half of the EU’s legislature. The 736 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are directly elected by EU citizens every five years. Although MEPs are elected on a national basis, they sit according to political groups rather than their nationality. Each country has a set number of seats. The Parliament and the Council of Ministers form and pass legislation jointly, using co-decision, in certain areas of policy. This procedure has extend to many new areas under the Treaty of Lisbon, and hence increase the power and relevance of the Parliament. The Parliament also has the power to reject or censure the Commission and the EU budget. The President of the European Parliament carries out the role of speaker in parliament and represents it externally. The president and vice presidents are elected by MEPs every two and a half years.
The Council of the European Union (sometimes referred to as the Council of Ministers) forms the other half of the EU’s legislature. It consists of a government minister from each member states and meets in different compositions depending on the policy area being addressed. Notwithstanding its different compositions, it is considered to be one single body. In addition to its legislative functions, the Council also exercises executive functions in relations to the Common Foreign and Security Policy.
The judicial branch of the EU consists of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the Court of First Instance. Together they interpret and apply the treaties and the law of the EU. The Court of First Instance mainly deals with cases taken by individuals and companies directly before the EU’s courts, and the ECJ primarily deals with cases taken by member states, the institutions and cases referred to it by the courts of member states. Decisions from the Court of First Instance can be appealed to the Court of Justice but only on a point of law.
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