The European Union (EU), founded with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, represents a large project of economic and political integration between an evergrowing group of European countries. The EU quickly became the world’s major trading power and enjoyed fast economic growth.
Free internal trade and common customs duties, which member countries enjoyed since the beginning of the union, led to significant trade development among the different members. The EU, by 2006, included 25 member states.
Bulgaria and Romania became members in January 2007. Croatia and Turkey were negotiating their membership, which was prevented by concerns over human rights violations in both countries. Of the 25 members, 12 adopted a single currency—the euro—for financial transaction in 1999. The euro entered circulation in January 2002.
As the union expanded, however, it increasingly found resistance and obstacles on its way. A powerful movement of Euro-skeptics emerged throughout the EU in the late 1990s, pointing to a supposed lack of democracy in the EU institutions and to the danger of losing national sovereignty to a centralized body.
Some politicians in those countries with more developed economies looked upon the enlargement of the union with suspicion, fearing a wave of uncontrollable migration. These concerns led to several serious defeats: Referenda in Denmark and Sweden showed that the majority of citizens were against adopting the euro; French and Dutch voters rejected the European Constitution in 2005.
Although the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, the idea of a united Europe dates back to the aftermath of World War II. After two world wars had divided European countries and massacred their people, statesmen such as German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Italian prime minister Alcide De Gasperi, and French foreign minister Robert Schuman agreed on the necessity of building a lasting peace between previous enemies.
|European Union map|
The cooperation between these countries led to the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which established the European Economic Community (EEC) and the first European Commission, led by the German Christian Democrat Walter Hallstein.
Customs duties among member states were entirely removed from 1968, and common policies for trade and agriculture were also devised. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 progressively shifted eastern European countries toward the EU.
The most important EU institutions include the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, the European Court of Justice, the European Central Bank, and the European Parliament. The origins of the European Parliament, which convenes in Strasbourg, date back to the 1950s.
It has been elected since 1979 directly by the European people. Elections are held every five years. The European Central Bank manages the union’s single currency, and the EU has a common policy on agriculture, fisheries, and foreign affairs and security.
Although the policies devised by the EU range across a wide variety of areas, not all have binding power for the union’s members. The EU status, therefore, varies accordingly to the matters discussed. The union has the character of a federation for monetary affairs; agricultural, trade, and environmental policy; and economic and social policy, while each member state retains wider independence for home and foreign affairs. Policy making in the EU results in an interplay of supranationalism and intergovernmentalism.
Following the Maastricht Treaty, the areas of intervention of the EU can be divided into three pillars: European Communities, Common Foreign and Security Policy, and Police and Judicial Cooperation in Criminal Matters. Supranational concerns are strongest in the first pillar, while the Council of Europe and thus intergovernmental opinions count the most in the second and third pillars.
The Council of the EU, together with the European Parliament, form the legislative branch of the union, while the European Commission represents its executive powers. The council is formed by ministers of all the member states.
The presidency of the council rotates between the members, and the council is made up of nine subcommissions, which meet in Brussels. The European Commission, whose president is chosen by the Council of Europe and is then confirmed by the European Parliament, has 25 members, one for each member state.
Yet, unlike the Council, the commission is completely independent from member states. Commissioners, therefore, are not supposed to take suggestions from the government of the country that appointed them. Their only goal should be to propose legislation to favor the development of the whole union.
The major setback for the EU was the rejection of the constitution by two of its founding members, France and the Netherlands. Signed in 2004, the constitution—whose elaboration was particularly difficult and thorny—aimed to make human rights uniform throughout the union as well as to make decision-making more effective in an organization that now includes as many as 25 members, each with priorities and agendas of their own.
The main challenge that the EU will have to face in years to come is, paradoxically, a direct result of its success and its capacity to attract new nations. With more member countries, the EU is threatened by increasing regional interests that endanger the deployment of shared policies.