The European Union (EU) is a supranational union of European countries, established as a result of coordination and integration processes which started in the 1950s. The EU is neither an international organization nor a state. Rather, it represents a unique economic and political partnership between 28 European countries that together cover much of the European continent.
Former French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman is regarded as a founder of the European Union. The Schuman Declaration was presented on 9 May 1950. It proposed that Franco-German production of coal and steel be placed under a common High Authority and initiated the creation of the first union between European countries.
The European Economic Community (EEC) was created in the late 1950s.The Community's initial aim was to bring about economic integration among its six founding members: Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The result was the creation of a large common market.
In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty established the European Union under its current name. Since then the activities of the EU span many spheres from politics, health and economic policy to foreign affairs and defence. The EU is defined as a federation in the area of monetary relations, agriculture, trade, and environmental protection; as a confederation regarding social and economic policy, consumer protection and internal affairs; and as an international organisation in the field of foreign affairs. Central to the idea of the EU is the common market area, based on the customs union and a uniform currency. The Presidents and Prime Ministers of the EU member countries adopted the first Constitution of the European Union on 29 October 2004. This Constitution awaits ratification by every member country that has signed it.
The enlargement process has seen the EU grow beyond its six founding members. In 1973 Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland joined the European Union. In 1981 Greece joined, in 1986 Spain and Portugal, and in 1995 Austria, Finland and Sweden.
2004 marked a new wave of enlargement when the following countries joined the EU: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Bulgaria and Romania became EU members in 2007 and Croatia in 2013.
In order to ensure the efficient functioning of an enlarged EU, a modern decision-making system was adopted. The system is grounded in the Lisbon Treaty which served to strengthen democracy within the EU and came into force on 1 December 2009.
The EU has no official capital and its institutions are located in several cities. Brussels hosts the European Commission and the Council of the European Union. The European Parliament is officially based in Brussels and Strasbourg and holds its plenary sessions in both cities.
Luxembourg hosts the European Court of Justice and the Secretariat of the European Parliament, while the European Central Bank is based in Frankfurt.
Any European country may request membership of the EU providing that the aspiring country respects the principles of liberty, democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law. The applicant country may be granted accession only once it has fulfilled all the conditions for membership, known as the Copenhagen criteria. The latter were determined by the European Council in Copenhagen in 1993 and elaborated further in Madrid in 1995. The criteria are as follows:
- Political: stable institutions that guarantee democracy, rule of law, respect of human rights and protection of minorities;
- Economic: functional market economy and capacities that enable competitiveness and ability to deal with EU market forces;
- Ability to take over obligations deriving from membership, including dedication to the political, economic and monetary goals of the EU;
- Adoption of the acquis communautaire (accumulated body of EU law) and its effective application through relevant administrative and judicial structures.