The European Union (EU) is an organisation of 28 sovereign states. It has a population of half a billion people and covers a total area of some 4.3 billion square kilometres.
The EU was founded in the post-Second World War era. The idea was that countries that trade with each other should integrate economically and thus avoid armed conflicts. In 1950 six countries – Belgium, West Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – founded the European Coal and Steel Community. The Treaty of Rome entered into force in 1958. Among other things it created the European Economic Community (EEC).
Today the EU is a community of values whose members are committed to democracy, the rule of law, freedom and human rights. Its 28 Member States also form the world’s biggest internal market.
In 2009 the EU acquired legal personality. That means it can conclude international agreements and accede to international conventions. Within the Schengen Area, which comprises 22 EU Member States plus Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Island, there are no border controls.
As a supranational organisation of sovereign states the EU forms a unique political entity. The Member States have transferred certain sovereign rights to the EU as well as legislative competences. That means that the EU can enact legislative acts that are binding on its Member States. Unlike a federal state, though, the EU cannot itself distribute the competences within its political system, as these lie with the Member States. That is also why the EU performs state functions but is not itself a sovereign state.
The European Council is responsible for setting general policy priorities. It comprises the heads of state and government of the 28 Member States, the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission. Donald Tusk is the current President of the European Council.
The citizens of the EU are represented by members in the European Parliament in Brussels who are directly elected. There are presently 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The current legislative term ends in 2019. The distribution of seats in the European Parliament is as follows: The Christian Democrats hold 218 seats, the Social Democrats 190. The Conservatives/Reformists have 73 MEPs, the Liberals 70, the Left 52. The Greens hold 50 seats, the Eurosceptics 46. There are 52 non-attached MEPs.
The European Commission in Brussels represents the general interests of the EU. The governments of the 28 Member States each nominate one Commissioner, who then has to be approved by the European Parliament. Once the Parliament has given its approval the Commission is appointed by the European Council. The EU Commissioners serve a five-year term. Jean-Claude Juncker is the current President of the European Commission.
Measured in terms of its gross domestic product (GDP) – just under 14 billion euros in 2014 – the European Single Market is the world’s biggest internal market. Although the EU’s share of the world’s population is only 7 per cent, trade between the EU and the Rest of the World (RoW) accounts for some 20 per cent of global imports and exports. Around two thirds of the EU countries’ total trade is done with other EU countries. Trade in the EU was also hit by the global recession. However, the EU remains the world’s largest player, accounting for 16.4 per cent of global imports in 2011, followed by the United States (15.5 per cent). The EU was also the biggest exporter, accounting for 15.4 per cent of all exports, ahead of China (13.4 per cent).
There are 19 EU countries that use the euro as their common currency. The EU’s strongest economic sectors are industry and services.
The EU has regularly taken part in all meetings since the G7 Summit in Ottawa in 1981. It never holds the Presidency, though, and therefore never organises a summit. Nevertheless, the 2014 G7 Summit was hosted by the EU in Brussels. This was on account of Russia’s membership having been suspended, and because Russia originally held the G8 Presidency that year. As one of the world’s most powerful economic areas it is important that the EU takes part in the G7 process. Another factor is the EU’s increased security policy commitment.
The European Union is represented at G7 summits by the incumbent Presidents of the European Commission and of the European Council.