What is the European Union?
The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of certain European states. At present, it has 28 member states: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and the United Kingdom (UK). In 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU, and negotiations about this are currently ongoing. You can read more about the UK leaving the EU in our guide to Brexit.
The EU - background, aims and institutions
The EU grew out of 3 communities that were founded after World War II to establish peace and prosperity in Europe. The European Coal and Steel Community was set up in 1951, the European Atomic Energy Community in 1957 and the European Economic Community also in 1957.
The fundamental laws of the EU are set out in the various treaties agreed and ratified by the member states. A treaty is ratified when it is formally accepted by the member state.
The most important treaty is the Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic Community in 1957. Since the Treaty of Rome, the following treaties have been agreed and ratified by all the Member States: the Merger Treaty in 1967, the Single European Act in 1986, the Treaty on European Union (the Maastricht Treaty) in 1992, the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, the Treaty of Nice in 2002 and the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009.
The EU has 4 main aims:
- To establish European citizenship. This means protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms.
- To ensure freedom, security and justice. This means co-operation in the field of justice and home affairs.
- To promote economic and social progress. This involves the single market, the euro, environmental protection and social and regional development.
- To assert Europe's role in the world.
The EU is run by 5 main institutions:
- The European Parliament
- The Council of the European Union
- The European Commission
- The European Court of Justice
- The Court of Auditors
There is also the European Council, which is not a legislating institution, but defines the EU's overall political direction and priorities.
Joining the European Union
Under Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union, any European state may apply for membership if it respects the democratic values of the EU and is committed to promoting them. A state wishing to join the EU submits a membership application to the Council of the European Union, which asks the European Commission to assess the applicant’s ability to meet the conditions for membership (Copenhagen criteria). If the Commission’s opinion is positive, the Council of the European Union must then agree upon a negotiating mandate. Negotiations are then formally opened.
Information on the steps towards joining the EU is available on the European Commission’s website.
Leaving the European Union
Under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union any member state may decide to withdraw from the EU. The member state must notify the European Council of its intention. The EU must negotiate an agreement with the member state, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the EU. The agreement is negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
The agreement is concluded on behalf of the EU by the Council of the European Union, if it has the approval of a qualified majority of the member states, not including the member state that is leaving. The qualified majority must be at least 72% of the members of the Council of the European Union and representing at least 65% of the population of the member states.
The EU treaties cease to apply to the member state from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, if there is no agreement, 2 years after the original notification unless the European Council unanimously decides to extend this period.
On 23 June 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU - known as Brexit. Read more in our guide to Brexit.
Europe Direct is a free telephone and e-mail service that provides information about the EU. It offers information on a wide range of subjects including legislation, policies, institutions, programmes and the rights of EU citizens. It can also refer users to the best source of advice at EU, national, regional and local levels. There are several Europe Direct local information centres in Ireland.