The European Union
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
You're probably sick to death of hearing about the EU, why we should stay and why we should leave. But how much do you actually know about the EU, and how it came to be?
This is your whistle-stop guide to all things European Union.
A brief history of the EU
How to make your own European Union in three steps:
Step 1: Pick up your nearest economically and politically fragile post-war Europe and realise that preventing another conflict between Germany and France would be optimal. As such, establish an organisation such as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951 through the Treaty of Paris.
Step 2: With growing ambition, the success of the ECSC, and your lust for major international treaties, establish the European Economic Community (EEC) with the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Not only does this take over the role of the ECSC, but it also expands its scope of economic integration.
Step 3: Now your organisation has a formidable membership, it can now be expanded into all the new room that has been made available at the end of the Cold War. How nice. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 will do perfectly. It will expand the general scope of your organisation and of European integration, all under an oddly familiar name of the European Union.
Functionality and functions
Now let’s assume you’ve ended up with the same EU that we have in our current reality. What does it do, and how does it do it?
Well, international organisations imitate life, and so just like Europe itself, the EU is vast and often not quite straightforward. However, unlike life, it does have specific principles and aims which it attempts to meet.
European economic integration
Internal single market - the trading of goods, capital, people, and services between member states of the EU is free and largely without boundaries.
Common customs union - meaning that all member states apply the same tariff/fee to all goods coming into the EU. No passports, no fees mean maximum fun, maximum capitalism.
Common currency - it was decided that money printers within EU member states would be set to just one currency, the Euro (€). Well, at least for the 19 countries that so far have done that.
Various other plans and funds have been created to help and grow national industries across the EU, such as for energy, agriculture, and fisheries. After all, even fishing is better with friends, and government grants.
European political integration
The European Council - made up of the heads of states from all member states. Establishes the broad direction and focuses of the EU, which are adopted by consensus.
European Commission - cabinet of public officials which acts as somewhat of an executive and introduces laws that are passed down to the European parliament.
European Parliament - 705 representatives sit in the chamber in Brussels, elected from across all the member states, and vote on such legislation.
Council of the European Union - comprised of ministers of member states’ government departments. Its approval is needed for any law to pass.
The limitations and relations within and between all of these institutions are quite unusual and often not always clear, but we can only assume simplicity is but a virtue when it comes to organisations of this calibre.
Beyond this, the EU also has other functions, such as:
Having their own court and justice system which upholds signed EU treaties and the European Convention of Human Rights (which protects the human rights of all citizens in European states), and attempts to protect democracy and the rule of law in member states.
Providing the largest amount of humanitarian aid in the world
This list is absolutely in no way exhaustive but still gives a good idea of the variety of roles the EU has.
How these treaties are treated
All this theory and fancy treaties sound nice on paper, but how do they fare in actual practice?
To get a glimpse into this, we can talk about:
1. In terms of meeting its aims, the European Union can be said to have done quite well for itself. The unity created was strong enough to prevent another conflict in Europe. The cooperation of European states means that the EU is also now viewed as one strong nation, and almost as a global superpower.
2. Its commitment to the protection of democracy, social equality, and human rights, as well as the humanitarian aid it gives out is a very positive aspect. The EU received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, which displays its wider significance on peace and development.
3. The funding the EU commits to varying countries’ culture, and economic and political development is another positive. It especially helps the smaller nations within the union to become more economically stable. It has been especially recently relevant when it set a small budget of €1.82 trillion for a coronavirus recovery package, which will certainly help the nations hit by the pandemic.
It also develops infrastructure, and has a space project on the way. Plus, it encourages for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and sets targets for the use of renewable energy. Hooray for long-term thinking!
1. Though being rather successful at meeting its aims, it is not without criticism and scepticism. Euroscepticism. The level of integration that the EU has achieved, and tries to grow, can be seen to impair the ability of its member states to act independently, or their national sovereignty. All this through a political system that may be seen to be convoluted, often inefficient, and sometimes not actually elected by EU citizens.
2. The national sovereignty issue is brought up again when it comes to legal and justice issues within the union. Some may fear that it is a direct violation of sovereignty. On the other hand, some nations just ignore them.
The EU occasionally has a slight issue in enforcing the laws it upholds.
3. On the issue of providing funding, the richer member states often criticise the EU of ‘siphoning’ money from them to poorer states. With this criticism, there is a belief that these funds could be better used within each member state individually.
So, as you can see there are valid arguments for both sides of the EU debate and it is not as simple as some newspapers would like you to believe (not naming names).
Still, it is up to you to make your own mind up on the issue and we will be publishing more guides and articles to give you more information on the workings of the EU as well as Brexit negotiations in the near future.
Hopefully though, after reading this guide you have a better understanding of the EU and how it works!
Interested in the UK's relationship with the EU? Head to our Brexit section.