The EU has its roots in the European Community (EC), composed of three originally separate organizations: the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), created in 1951, and the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM), both established in 1957. These three institutions merged in 1967, creating the EC and setting up headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
French statesman and European integrationist Jean Monnet, along with French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, believed that France and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) might cooperate economically to avoid future conflict, so on 9 May 1950 Schuman proposed the creation of a common authority to regulate the coal and steel industries of West Germany and France that would be open to other West European nations. Thus West Germany, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, along with France, signed the Treaty of Paris in 1951. The ECSC was formally established in August 1952.
In June 1955 the foreign ministers of the ECSC promoted a better integration of the six economies, which resulted in the two Treaties of Rome of March 1957, forming the EEC and EURATOM. The basic economic features of the EEC treaty were gradually implemented, and the three communities (the EEC, the ECSC, and EURATOM) merged in July 1967 under one umbrella institution, the EC.
The Single European Act (SEA), introduced in December 1985 and approved by all twelve members by July 1987, established the first major changes to the EC structure since 1957. Among these was the introduction of the weighted-majority system that helped speed up implementation of the single market.
Representatives from each of the EC countries negotiated the Treaty on European Union in 1991, and in December the European Council met at Maastricht, the Netherlands, to finalize the treaty. The treaty mandated that the population of each member state had to approve the EU by popular referendum. The treaty was duly ratified by all members in October 1993, and the EU was established on 1 November when the treaty went into effect.
Initially, the EC consisted of just six countries: Belgium, West Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom joined in 1973, Greece joined in 1981, and Spain and Portugal joined in 1986. Austria, Finland, and Sweden voted in 1994 to enter the EU and did so in 1995, while Norway failed twice by popular referendum to enter. Norway's economic strength was one reason for its decision to remain independent, although the country entered the Schengen Treaty and adopted the EU legislation. Ten more European countries began membership negotiations for entrance into the EU in 1996.
Other potential EU applicants included members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). In 1991 the EC and the EFTA completed an agreement to establish the European Economic Area (EEA), which would provide a single, unified market for goods, services, and capital. The EEA, which took effect on 1 January 1994, eliminated trade barriers between the EU and the EFTA, each of which is the other's largest trading partner.
In 2004 the EU's greatest enlargement took place with the admittance of ten new countries: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The treaties signed by the member states ensure that the rule of law is fundamental to the EU and member states and give force to all EU decisions and procedures.
The EU has five main institutions: the European Parliament (EP), elected by the people of the member states every five years; the Council of the European Union, representing the governments of the member states; the European Commission (CEC), acting as the executive body; the Court of Justice, ensuring that the various bodies act according to the European law; and the Court of Auditors, tasked with budget management. To these should be added the European Central Bank (ECB), responsible for monetary policy within the Eurozone; the European Economic and Social Committee (ESC), representing the opinions of civil society on economic and social issues; the Committee of the Regions, which gives voice to the local authorities; the European Ombudsman, to whom the European citizens may direct complaints; and the European Investment Bank, used to finance capital investment to further European integration policies.
From the beginning, cooperation among EU states was focused on trade and economic issues, building a single European market, and launching the Euro, the single European currency to ease money transfer and free flow of capital. The cooperation among the member states ensured half a century of peace during the Cold War and stability in Europe, but the EU now must deal with several problems, including the development of economically indigent regions, environmental protection, and internal security.
The EU is a major economic rival to North America and Asia, and the establishment of an EU military force rivaling the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is also in the works.
Piening, Christopher. Global Europe: The European Union in World Affairs. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1997.; Pinder, John. The European Union: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.; Urwin, Derek W. The Community of Europe: A History of European Integration since 1945. 2nd ed. London: Longman, 1995.