The European Union


The European Union is a post – World War II project designed to secure peace in Europe. It was founded as the European Community for Coal and Steel in 1953 and became the European Economic Community through the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The EC has expanded many times in the last 60 years.

In 2016, the the citizens of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the first time any member state has done this.

The European Union and the rest of Europe
Image: M.BittonCC BY-SA 4.0,
via Wikimedia Commons


The European Union is an organization of 28 nations. Its original aim was to form an economic union but, as time went on, the EU developed into a far greater organization.

Today the EU is developing into a political union, trying to bring together the democratic countries of Europe. It is the biggest trading bloc in the world, has more people than the United States and exports and imports more goods than any other country in the world.

After World War II

World War II caused a great deal of damage in Europe. After the war European leaders believed they had to work together to prevent another devastating conflict.

In 1952 the European Coal and Steel Community was founded by six nations: France, Italy, West Germany and the Benelux countries. Its aim was to control coal production and the steel industries of the member states, so that one single state could not build up a powerful industry without the others knowing about it.

Robert Schuman – one of the founding fathers of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC)
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-19000-2453 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
[CC BY-SA 3.0 de (]

The European Economic Community

The success of the ECSC made the leaders of the six countries cooperate even further. In 1957 two more organisations were founded in Rome. The European Economic Community (EEC) established a free trade zone in which goods and services could move freely between countries. The European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) was designed to have countries cooperate on the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

In 1967 the three organisations were combined to form the European Communities (EC) .

Enlargement of the EU

The 1970s and 80s led to the enlargement of the EC. Denmark, the United Kingdom and Ireland joined in 1973, Greece became a member in 1981, and Spain and Portugal joined the community in 1986. At the end of the 1980s communism collapsed in many eastern European countries. In 1990 a united Germany became the largest country in the community.

East and West Germans at Brandenburg Gate in 1989
Image: Lear 21 at English Wikipedia,
CC BY-SA 3.0
, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1990s EC leaders started to seek greater cooperation in other fields. In 1991 the Maastricht Treaty was signed. Member states vowed to create a political union and introduce a single currency, the euro, which replaced the currency of 12 European countries in 2002.

In 1995 Austria, Sweden and Finland enlarged the European Union to 15 countries.

In the early years of the new millennium leaders of the EU started working on a constitution for all member states. They finished and approved it in 2004 but citizens in France and the Netherlands rejected it in national referendums.

The biggest enlargement took place in 2004. Ten new countries of central, eastern and southern Europe entered the EU: Cyprus, Malta, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Romania and Bulgaria became members three years later. In 2013 Croatia became the last country to join the EU.

One and a half decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain the division of Europe had been overcome.

Enlargement of the European Union
Image: Kolja21, Public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons

Institutions and Organs

The heads of state or government get together at least twice a year. They set the goals and rules of the community and discuss plans for the future. Every six months a different country serves as president of the union.

European Council Meeting in 2011
Source :
Author : Prime Minister of the Netherlands

The Council of Ministers is the lawmaking part of the EU. It is made up of one representative from each of the member nations. The council decides how laws are made and agreements carried out. Most of the decisions that are reached here are unanimous.

Council of Ministers at the Europa Building in Brussels
Image: EU2017EE Estonian Presidency
[CC BY 2.0 (]

The European Commission is the executive branch of the EU. It is responsible for planning new laws and suggesting them to the Council of Ministers and parliament.

The commission makes sure that treaties of the union are carried out and rules are followed. There are 27 commissioners, one from each member state. Each of them is responsible for a certain area, like the environment, energy, transportation or farming.

They serve 5 year terms and must be approved by parliament. The president of the commission is thought to be the most important official of the European Union.

President of the European Commission : Ursula von der Leyen
Image: Etienne Ansotte, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

It is the only body of the EU that is elected directly by the people of the member countries. Every five years citizens in all member states elect a total of 785 MEPs (Member of the European Parliament). Countries with a large population like Germany, Italy, and France have more MEPs, smaller countries like Luxembourg have few MEPs. European Parliament is different from other parliaments because it cannot pass laws. It discusses the suggestions of the Commission and the Council of Ministers, but it must be heard by the lawmaking organs. The Parliament has the strongest powers in budget and money matters.

European parliament in session in Strasbourg
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

The ECJ runs the courts of the EU. It is located in Luxembourg and is made up of 28 judges who decide if the actions of the Commission, member states or private citizens comply with the rules of the EU. The court’s decisions are final and everyone, including governments, must follow them.

European Court of Justice building in Luxembourg

The European Central Bank controls the amount of money in the euro zone and tries to keep the euro a strong currency. The ECB was founded in 1998, its headquarters is in Frankfurt, Germany.

European Central Bank in Frankfurt
Image : Oliver Wendel c_ow, CC0,
via Wikimedia Commons

The Euro

On January 1, 2002 the euro became the single currency of 12 member states of the European Union. Next to the US dollar it has become the most important currency in the world.

There are seven bank notes ranging from the smallest, 5 euros, to the largest, 500 euros. The design competition was won by the Austrian Robert Kalina. The eight coins, ranging in value from 1 cent to 2 euros have different sizes and shapes so that you can better tell them apart. One side of the coin is the same in all member states, the other side has specific national symbols on them and designs that are different in each country.

Currently there are twenty countries in the euro zone: Belgium, Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Cyprus. Small countries like Monaco, the Vatican, San Marino and Andorra also use the euro as a form of payment.

The first series of Euro banknotes
Image: Bericht, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Countries of the Eurozone (Kosovo and Monenegro use the euro as their official currency
but are not part of the Eurozone)
Image: AlphathonCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Advantages of the euro

Many experts have argued over the past years that a single currency can help member states move closer together and unify the EU. But there are also other positive sides of a single currency:

  • Businesses that traded with other EU countries were often not sure how much they had to pay in foreign currencies because the exchange rates often changed.
  • Consumers can compare prices in different EU countries more easily.
  • Tourists who cross borders on their way to holiday destinations no longer have to exchange their money.
  • Through the euro, trade between countries has increased.
  • Making payments to banks in other countries has become easier.
  • The European Central Bank controls the amount of money in each country. The value of the euro is always the same , inflation is very low.

Problems and Challenges in the Eurozone

Throughout the years there have been some challenges and problems within the Eurozone.

  • Many people argue that the euro has made living more expensive in various countries. Prices have gone up.
  • The financial crisis of 2008 led to economic problems in some EU countries. Hardest hit was Greece, which suffered a severe recession and received financial support from the EU
  • Some nations including the United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark have chosen not to introduce the single currency, because they fear it would weaken their independence and they would lose power in their own country.

Turkey and the European Union

More than 40 years ago Turkey started cooperating with the EEC. In October 2005 the country began official talks on becoming a full member. However, in contrast to other countries that have joined the EU over the past years, Turkish membership brings along many problems.

Inside the EU many arguments can be heard against a full Turkish membership:

  • Turkey belongs to Asia not to Europe.
  • Thousands of Turkish immigrants will spread to Europe.
  • Turkey is too big and will have too much power in the EU.
  • Turkey is too poor and will cost the EU too much.

Others say that Turkey will have positive effects on the union.

  • The country will help bring together the western Christian and the Muslim world.
  • Turkey may help to make the Middle East more stable and peaceful.
  • Turkey is a member of NATO. It could give Europe more military power.
  • Europe’s population is getting older an older. Young Turkish workers may help Europe’s economy.
  • The EU can do business with a large market of over 70 million people.

Problems blocking Turkish membership

One of the problems that is blocking Turkey’s membership is Cyprus. The southern part of the divided island is a member of the EU and has a Greek population. The northern part is under Turkish influence.

The EU says that Turkey must recognise Cyprus as an independent country. It also must open up its harbours and airports to Cyprus.

The Kurds are another problem that Turkey has. They make up about 20% of the country’s population, but they don’t have their own country and the Turkish government has been oppressing them for decades.

The EU has stated that Turkey will not become a member unless it improves human rights. In the end, it could take many years for Turkey to become a full member of the EU , but there are many who want Turkey to stay out of the European club.

United Nations peacekeepers in Cyprus
Image : ThaizacastilhoCC BY-SA 4.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

Brexit – The UK leaves the European Union

Brexit is a short word for British Exit. 43 years after becoming a member of the EEC Great Britain decided to leave the EU. On June 23rd 2016 a referendum took place to decide whether Britain should stay in the EU or leave the community. A slight majority of 51.9% decided that it was better for the country to leave, while 48.1% thought that remaining a part of the EU was right. A total of 30 million people (almost 72% of the population) took part in the referendum.

After Article 50 of the EU charter was triggered , the United Kingdom was set to leave the EU on March 29th 2019. However, British Parliament couldn’t find a way to agree on the withdrawal treaty that the government negotiated with the EU. In April 2019, EU heads of state agreed to grant the UK an extension until October 31, 2019

In summer 2019 Theresa May resigned as Prime Minister and Boris Johnson became head of the government. But he, too, found it impossible to get a majority of votes in British Parliament to pass Brexit. After winning the general election in December 2019, Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party finally got the votes to pass the withdrawal agreement.

On January 31, 2020 the United Kingdom officially left the European Union.

Arguments for Leaving

  • Britain would no longer have to pay money into the EU budget.
  • Britain can become more independent and can negotiate its own trade deals
  • It would also be allowed to pass its own laws without having to implement EU rules.
  • Immigration can be better controlled. Especially citizens from eastern European countries would not automatically be allowed to work and live in the UK.

Arguments for Remaining

  • Britain can trade freely with other EU countries.
  • Open borders means free movement of goods, people, services and money.
  • London could lose its status as one of Europe’s most important financial hubs.
  • There would be a hard border between the UK and Ireland.
  • Economists warn that leaving the EU would be an economic disaster.

Hard and Soft Brexit

A hard Brexit means leaving the single market and the customs union. Britain would take over control of its borders . It could make its own laws on jobs and employment, as well as negotiate its own trade deals with countries outside the EU. A hard Brexit also means a physical border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which remains a part of the UK. This is a state neither the British government nor the EU wants.

In a softer Brexit, Britain would still have some kind of access to the EU market. The country would have to make it easier for EU immigrants to work in Britain. Staying in the customs union only would allow free movement of goods but not free movement of people. In most cases Britain would have to follow EU trade rules. There would be no border between Ireland and the UK.

Border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Irish Republic
Image: Oliver Dixon / The Border on Killeen School Road / CC BY-SA 2.0



Writing Tasks

Europe’s Youth , a magazine for 15 to 19-year-olds wants to find out what teenagers think about being a European. The best articles will be published in the next edition.

You have decided to take part and send in an article . In your article you should

  • explain what being a European means to you.
  • give your opinion on why people are critical of the EU.
  • state why or why not joining the EU was a good idea.

Write an article of 300 – 400 words . Give your article a title !

As a young citizen, you are worried about many things at the moment. Write an email to your MEP (Member of the European Parliament) in which you

  • describe what problems you and other young people face.
  • suggest what the EU can do to help.
  • outline what the future role of the European Union should be.

Write about 250 words.

You have just come across this blog on Brexit:

You decide to comment on this blog entry. In your comment you should

  • ask the writer why he/she thinks Britain is better off without the EU.
  • emphasize the positive aspects of being in the EU.
  • suggest ways in which Europe and Britain should still cooperate.

Write about 250 – 300 words.

From what you have read in this course and the videos you have seen write a summary of the history of the European Union.

Do not write more than 300 words and include the most important facts and events.

Young people meet with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
Image :European Parliament from EUCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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