The European Union (EU) was founded in 1957 and is based on a series of legal treaties between the member states. It was initially created to improve economic co-operation and has since expanded as member states have agreed to co-operate on more and more policy areas. To achieve this, national governments pass the right to make decisions on certain issues to the EU but retain the power for independent action in others.
The EU was founded by six countries: France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. It has since undergone several waves of enlargement, shown by the figure below. There are currently 28 EU member states. There are five countries currently negotiating membership, Turkey, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and FYR Macedonia.
The EU is made up of several institutions. They are responsible for making EU laws, managing EU projects, distributing EU money and deciding the future direction of the EU.
The Commission is the most powerful EU body and has many different responsibilities. It is the only institution which has the power to propose EU laws and is responsible for enforcing them. It has a President appointed by the European Council and approved by the European Parliament.
The European Council is made up of the heads of state and government from all 28 member states, as well as an appointed President of the European Council. It holds summits four times a year to discuss the direction of EU policy and has a key role in informing Commission policy direction. The President of the European Commission also attends the European Council summits.
European Court of Justice
The Court of Justice is made up of 28 judges, one from each EU country. Its rulings cannot be appealed and it outranks national supreme courts on EU matters. Its judgements can affect the whole EU, member states and individuals. If a member state is not following EU law correctly the court can instruct them to do so, imposing fines if they do not.
Council of the European Union
Any laws proposed by the Commission are passed to the Council of the European Union, which is made up of government ministers from all 28 member states. Ministers meet regularly to discuss, examine and vote on whether to approve EU laws. In most cases laws must be approved by the Council of the EU and the European Parliament.
The parliament is made up of 751 elected MEPs. It is the only directly elected EU institution and is seen as giving democratic legitimacy to the EU. It cannot propose legislation. It discusses, amends, and votes on EU laws. In most areas it passes laws jointly with the Council of the European Union.
The EU has influence over a very wide range of policy areas. In economic policy, it has sole responsibility for overseeing the single market, the euro currency, external trade negotiations, competition policy and the EU budget. It also operates the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). In addition the EU has responsibilities in justice and home affairs, foreign policy, social policies such as working hours, and health and safety. It also regulates areas like the environment and consumer protection.