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What is the EU?


The European Union is international political body which represents a group of independent countries. These countries have agreed to co-operate with one another in economics and politics. They also share some powers with each other.

The Anthem of the EU is Beethovens ‘Ode to Joy’ – listen to it HERE

The EU is always expanding, and adding new countries and these must reach certain standards to be allowed to join.  Countries inside the EU are allowed to trade easily with each other.  The main currency of the EU is the Euro.  The EU was founded in 1957 when the first treaty was signed.  Many famous people have helped to make the EU that we see today.

The key institutions of the EU are the European Council, the Council of the European Union, The European Parliament and The Commission.
The Council and Commission are based in Brussels.
The European Parliament has two homes, one in Brussels and another in Strasbourg, in France.
Other important EU institutions are the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Central Bank.
The ECB (the European Central Bank) is Frankfurt and the Court of the European Union is in Luxenbourg.

How to join the EU

Every country that joins the EU will sign a European Union Treaty. A Treaty is a contract between countries.

The EU Treaties have developed over time, each one has more in it than the previous one. A country that wants to join the EU examines these treaties and then decides if they like the offer enough to go ahead an join. A new country will also negotiate a bit, there may be some things they feel strongly about and might want to protect, but they cannot change the core rules of the Treaties. Usually a way is found to suit all parties – but it can take years!

There is a – very – long list of laws and rules which everyone has to obey once they have joined. This is called the ‘Aqui Communitaire’.

EU Membersmidmapof_EUcrop

Who are the members of the European union? At present there are 28 countries who are members of the EU. Every few years some more are added, and so the EU keeps on growing. Some countries have been members longer than others. See below for links to the Europa website for more information.

European Union member countries with the dates they joined,

Austria (1995)
Belgium (1952)
Bulgaria (2007)
Croatia  (2013)
Cyprus (2004)
Czech Republic (2004)
Denmark (1973)
Estonia (2004)
Finland (1995)
France (1952)
Germany (1952)
Greece (1981)
Hungary (2004)
Ireland (1973)
Italy (1952)
Latvia (2004)
Lithuania (2004)
Luxembourg (1952)
Malta (2004)
Netherlands (1952)
Poland (2004)
Portugal (1986)
Romania (2007)
Slovakia (2004)
Slovenia (2004)
Spain (1986)
Sweden (1995)
United Kingdom (1973)

See here which countries are about to join next – Countries currently negotiating for membership 

The Single Market

The single market is one of the main achievements of the EU. It allows countries to do business with each other across country borders easily.

The single market Is also called the Internal Market. It is the agreement among EU countries that allows them to trade easily with each other. The traditional trade barriers of duty and import taxes have been dropped between EU countries. Rules are in place, enforced by the Commission, to make sure that there is fair competition between EU industries and businesses. .

The Four Freedoms. 

If the Single Market is to work properly then it must be easy for countries to do trade with each other, and for the people of those countries to travel in all of those countries easily as well. These requirements are called the Four Freedoms:

  • Free movement of goods (for example no border tax, agreeing to shared standards in products).
  • Free movement of people (For example European Union Citizens can work and live anywhere in the EU).
  • Free movement of services (for example better consumer protections)
  • Free movement of capital ( for example pension funds can easily choose which country to invest in).

Supporting the regions

Early on the EU realised that regions might be left behind as the EU developed unless they were given special help. The aim is to bring every area of the EU up to same standard. To this end there was special aid given to those places in the EU that were less developed.

Cohesion Funding

These were funds given to disadvantaged regions within the EU to help them to catch up and also to help them overcome problems caused by increased competition when they joined the single market.

Funds were given to any region that was 25% less well off than the rest of the EU (or it can be said like this too – ‘where GDP is less than 75% of the EU Average’).

The EurotheeuroCoin

The Euro is the single currency used by a group of EU countries so that they all have the same currency.

The Euro is the single currency used by a group of EU countries so that they all have the same currency. The Euro was introduced in 1999 at which point all the EU countries that wanted to join began to use it and replaced their old currencies with the new one. In some places this change over was very quick and in others it took several weeks.

Go here to see what the Euro coin national side looks like in each country on the website of the European Central Bank.

Not all EU countries are in the Euro it was a matter of choice for some and others would like to join but have to Wait until they reach the correct standards to be allowed.

See here for an interactive map of Eurozone membership on the website of the European Central Bank

Balancing Power

The European Union must balance the various interests of all of its members. It also has to balance the power of all of its institutions and parts. There is also an ongoing debate about how much power and influence the European Union should have.

Decision making is shared between the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament and the Commission.

Each of these must have their say and must find agreement on each decision. The process for this is quite complicated, but in the end the idea is that everyone has their opinion heard.

European Citizens Initiative

This is a system to allow citizens of the EU to ask the Commission to make a new rule or law. See here for all the details.

The Charter of Fundamental RightsCharter_of_FR

The Charter of Fundamental Rights is a legal document that lists the rights of EU citizens. It includes human rights as well as workers rights. It is a very serious influence on EU laws

It is divided into six Chapters:

  • TITLE I Dignity
  • TITILE II Freedoms
  • TITLE III Equality
  • TITILE IV Solidarity
  • TITLE V Citizens Rights
  • TITLE VI Justice

See here for the Commission website about the Charter

See here for the text – it’s in Pdf. Remember, it’s a legal document so it is very formal.

Here are some of the key ideas and terminology. 

Shared Sovereignty

Another way of saying that a country has independent power of its own is to say that it has sovereignty. A country can make its own rules and laws for its own people to follow. When countries come together to sign a treaty they all agree to follow the rules in that treaty. They have agreed to be bound by rules and agreements outside of just their own country. By doing this they are sharing power. We say they are sharing sovereignty.

Countries that join the European Union share sovereignty. They all obey the rules in the treaties as well as their own laws.


This is a very important principle in the EU. The definition of Subsidiarity is “‘decisions are taken as close to the citizen as possible”.

This is a word to describe the idea that the EU will only do those things that it can do best – local decisions about local matters should be taken locally. The EU will concentrate on those things that have to be coordinated across the whole of the EU – like protecting water standards for example.

Widening & Deepening

This is the term used to describe the historical development of the EU. It widens to include new members and new treaties are agreed which increases the amount of power they will share – this is described as ‘deeper integration’.

Federalism v Inter-governmentalism

There are two approaches to sharing of power between countries, one is to be very closely integrated where all the most important decisions would be taken by a central power. This is called federalism. A good example of this is the USA. The other is to have totally independent countries making separate agreements each time they work together, and each country keeps total control of the most important decisions. This is inter-governmentalism. A good example of this is the United Nations.

The EU is a bit of a blend of both of these – some power is completely shared (environmental standards for example) other powers are totally separate (the army for example).

The Democratic Deficit
This is the term used to describe the concern that the EU is not as democratic as it could or should be.

 The EU Treatiesmaastricht

The European Union is built on a series of treaties. Each one is signed by the governments of the participating countries and by signing these treaties they agree to cooperate and be part of the EU.

Maastricht Treaty Illustrated

There are Foundation Treaties and Accession Treaties.

Accession Treaties are made when new countries join the EU. See here for more information about the Enlargement of the EU.

The Founding Treaties are made when the countries in the EU want to increase the amount of powers and tasks they want to share.

The earliest of these treaties was the treaty establishing the European Coal and steel community signed in Paris in 1951 but the one regarded as the beginning of the EU is the Treaty of Rome signed in 1957.

For more information on the treaties see here.