European Union


The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of certain European states. There are currently 27 member states of the EU.

Ireland has been a member of the EU since 1973, and is part of the euro area. Irish citizens are also EU citizens.

The EEA is an area of free trade and free movement of people made up of the member states of the EU, plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Switzerland has an agreement that extends the single market to include it, though it is not part of the EEA. Ireland, along with the countries in the EU and EEA are part of the single market.

This means that Irish citizens have the right:

  • To live and work in another EU/EEA country
  • To move money between countries of the EU/EEA
  • To sell and buy goods in other EU/EEA countries
  • To receive and provide services in other EU/EEA countries

These are known as the ‘4 freedoms’.

Ireland must follow EU law, and must conform to the rules and standards that have been agreed between member states through treaties, legislation and directives.

This document provides an overview of how the EU works and the rights of its citizens.

The aims and values of the EU

The Treaty of Lisbon set out the aims of the European Union:

  • To promote peace and the well-being of EU citizens
  • To offer EU citizens freedom, security and justice, without internal borders, while also controlling external borders
  • To work towards the sustainable development of Europe, promoting equality and social justice
  • To establish an economic union, with the euro as its currency
  • To contribute to the sustainable development, peace and security of the Earth

The Treaty of Lisbon (and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights) also sets out the values of the EU:

  • Human dignity
  • Freedom
  • Democracy
  • Equality
  • Rule of law
  • Human rights

EU law

The EU has the power to make laws in defined areas, and these laws take primacy over national law. This means that Ireland must follow EU laws and decisions of the Court of Justice of the EU which affect Irish law.

  • Treaties are the most important EU laws, and are agreed by member states. Treaties set out how the EU should operate, and give powers to EU institutions to carry out their functions, including creating new laws.
  • Regulations are laws that apply to all member states (they have direct effect). They become part of national law and can be enforced through the national courts of each member state from the time they come into force.
  • Directives are laws that set goals for member states to implement. Member states can introduce laws that transpose directives into national law. Directives normally have deadlines for countries to adopt them into national law.
  • Decisions are only relevant to specified bodies. For example, the EU Commission might issue a decision that Ireland is acting in breach of EU law. The decision has a direct effect on the country, company or organisation that the decision is issued against.
  • Recommendations and Opinions are not binding, and EU member states can follow the advice of these recommendations if they wish to or they can choose not to change anything.

You can read more about EU laws.

EU institutions

The EU has many institutions, but the most important are the institutions that can make laws that affect member states and citizens.

EU citizenship and rights

Citizens of EU member states are also automatically citizens of the European Union. EU citizens have certain rights, including:

  • The right to move freely and to live within the EU. This right also applies to the EU citizen’s family.
  • The right to equal treatment.
  • The right to have their affairs handled fairly and impartially by EU institutions and bodies, and the right to refer maladministration to the European Ombudsman.
  • The right to access documents held on them by EU institutions.
  • The right to diplomatic or consular assistance when traveling outside the EU in a country where their own country does not operate an embassy or consulate.
  • The presumption of innocence until found guilty by a court of law, the right not to be tried twice for the same offence, and the protection of other general principals of the rule of law.

You can read more about:

Economic governance

The EU, through the European Commission, tries to prevent economic shocks by monitoring the economies of member states. The Commission publishes two annual reports that try to address any economic problems it may have noticed during the year. They are:

EU member states must present their draft budgets each year to the Commission and member states can be asked to change their budgets if the Commission thought they were in breach of the Stability and Growth Pact.

The Stability and Growth Pact also has rules on the level of debt that member states can have, and introduced procedures for member states to follow if their government deficit increases above 3% of the member state’s gross domestic product.

The euro area

Nineteen EU member states are part of the euro area, or Eurozone. These countries use the euro as their national currency.

Andorra, Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City also use the euro as their national currency, although these small countries are not part of the EU or euro area.

The following countries are EU member states that do not use the euro currency:

  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Hungary
  • Poland
  • Romania
  • Sweden

Joining and leaving the EU

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.

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 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.

Member states of the EU

The EU currently has 27 member states. The table below shows how the organisation has grown in size since the European Economic Community (EEC) was founded in 1957, and has information about the major changes that have taken place during that time.

Apart from the 27 EU member states, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are also part of the single market (the EU 27, plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein form the European Economic Area (EEA))

Switzerland and the EU have a bilateral agreement (called the AFMP) which gives the right for Swiss and EU citizens to move freely in each other’s territory. In other words, Swiss citizens can live and work in the EU, and EU citizens can live and work in Switzerland. Switzerland also takes part in other aspects of the Single Market through various bilateral treaties.

EU member state timeline
Date Event
18 April 1951 Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxemburg and the Netherlands establish the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC)
25 March 1957 Treaties of Rome – The EEC and European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) founded by Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxemburg and the Netherlands (6)
1 January 1973 Ireland, Denmark and the United Kingdom (9) join the EEC
7 – 10 June 1979 First European elections for membership of the European Parliament
1 January 1981 Greece (10) joins
1 January 1986 Spain and Portugal (12) join
7 February 1992 Treaty of Maastricht creates the European Union – the 4 freedoms of the single market start on 1 January 1993
1 January 1995 Austria, Finland and Sweden (15) join
26 March 1995 The Schengen Agreement, removing border checks within participating countries, takes effect
1 January 2002 The euro becomes the currency of 12 EU countries, including Ireland (now 19 countries)
1 May 2004 Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia (25) join
1 January 2007 Bulgaria and Romania (27) join
1 July 2013 Croatia (28) joins
31 January 2020 The UK becomes the first country to leave the EU (27)

Further information

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.

Page edited: 21 June 2022