A beginner’s guide to the European Union

What is the European Union (the EU?)

The European Union is a political-economic union, made up of 28 member states (countries) and a total population of approximately 508 million people. It was founded after the Second World War in 1951 in the form of the European Coal and Steel Community with just six member states.

In 1957, the six member states created the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community. In 1967, these institutions merged to become the European Communities, which in 1993 changed to the EU, following the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht. Further changes in 2009 saw the establishment of the EU as a single legal entity in its current form.

What happens in the EU?

There are three principal institutions of the EU: the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU.

The European Commission is the institution proposing legislation, which is then examined and amended by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU.

The EU Parliament is made of elected representatives from each Member State, much like a national parliament. For more on their role, scroll down to the MEP section below.

The Council of the EU (or Council of Ministers) consists of civil servants/diplomats from each Member State and at the highest level is represented by government ministers. The European Council is comprised of heads of government or state (such as David Cameron and Germany’s Angela Merkel) and defines the general political direction and priorities of the EU.

Other institutions include the European Court of Justice (which is the highest level court in matters of European Law), the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, both of which are advisory bodies on legislative proposals.

What and who is an MEP?

A Member of the European Parliament (MEP) is an elected representative of the people in the European Parliament. There are  751 MEPs in total, split between different members states based on each country’s population (Germany, for example, has more MEPs than Malta).

An MEP’s main function is to scrutinise and amend legislation proposed by the European Commission. For legislation to be enacted, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU both have to agree on a joint text.

The Enlargement of the EU

The UK joined the European Economic Community (now the EU) in 1973, as part of the bloc’s first enlargement. The Union’s enlargement history is as follows:

  • 1957: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
  • 1973: UK, Denmark, Ireland
  • 1981: Greece
  • 1986: Spain and Portugal
  • 1995: Austria, Finland, Sweden
  • 2004: Czech Republic, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
  • 2007: Romania and Bulgaria
  • 2013: Croatia