The European Union (EU) is a family of democratic European countries, committed to working together for peace and prosperity. It is not a State intended to replace existing states, but it is more than any other international organisation. The EU is, in fact, unique. Its Member States have set up common institutions to which they delegate some of their sovereignty so that decisions on specific matters of joint interest can be made democratically at European level.
The historical roots of the European Union lie in the Second World War. The idea of European integration was conceived to prevent such killing and destruction from ever happening again. It was first proposed by the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman in a speech on 9 May 1950. This date, the “birthday” of what is now the EU, is celebrated annually as Europe Day.
There are five EU institutions, each playing a specific role:
• European Parliament (elected by the peoples of the Member States);
• Council of the European Union (representing the governments of the Member States);
• European Commission (driving force and executive body);
• Court of Justice (ensuring compliance with the law);
• Court of Auditors (controlling sound and lawful management of the EU budget).
These are flanked by five other important bodies:
• European Economic and Social Committee (expresses the opinions of organized civil society on economic and social issues);
• Committee of the Regions (expresses the opinions of regional and local authorities);
• European Central Bank (responsible for monetary policy and managing the euro);
• European Ombudsman (deals with citizens’ complaints about maladministration by any EU institution or body);
• European Investment Bank (helps achieve EU objectives by financing investment projects);
A number of agencies and other bodies complete the system.
The rule of law is fundamental to the European Union. All EU decisions and procedures are based on the Treaties, which are agreed by all the EU countries.
Initially, the EU consisted of just six countries: Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom joined in 1973, Greece in 1981, Spain and Portugal in 1986, Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995. In 2004 the biggest ever enlargement takes place with 10 new countries joining.
In the early years, much of the co-operation between EU countries was about trade and the economy, but now the EU also deals with many other subjects of direct importance for our everyday life, such as citizens’ rights; ensuring freedom, security and justice; job creation; regional development; environmental protection; making globalization work for everyone.
The European Union has delivered half a century of stability, peace and prosperity. It has helped to raise living standards, built a single Europe-wide market, launched the single European currency, the euro, and strengthened Europe’s voice in the world.
Unity in diversity: Europe is a continent with many different traditions and languages, but also with shared values. The EU defends these values. It fosters co-operation among the peoples of Europe, promoting unity while preserving diversity and ensuring that decisions are taken as close as possible to the citizens.
In the increasingly interdependent world of the 21st century, it will be even more necessary for every European citizen to co-operate with people from other countries in a spirit of curiosity, tolerance and solidarity.
The European Parliament :
Voice of the people
The European Central Bank :
Stable money for Europe
The Council of the European Union :
Voice of the Member States
European Investment Bank :
Investing in the long-term future
The European Commission :
The driving force for union
The Economic and Social Committee :
Involving social partners
Court of Justice :
Upholding the law
The Committee of the Regions :
The local perspective
European Court of Auditors :
Value for your money
The European Parliament: Voice of the people
The European Parliament (EP) is the democratic voice of the peoples of Europe. Directly elected every five years, the members of the European Parliament (MEPs) sit not in national blocs but in seven political groups. Each group reflects the political ideology of the national parties to which its members belong. Some MEPs are not attached to any political group. In the European election of June 1999, nearly 30 % of the MEPs elected were women.
Parliament’s principal roles are as follows.
• To examine and adopt European legislation. Under the co-decision procedure, Parliament shares this power equally with the Council of Ministers.
• To approve the EU budget.
• To exercise democratic control over the other EU institutions, possibly by setting up committees of inquiry.
• To assent to important international agreements such as the accession of new EU Member States and trade or association agreements between the EU and other countries.
The EP has created the Sakharov Prize which is awarded annually to an individual or group that has defended the cause of human rights anywhere in the world.
As with national parliaments, the EP has parliamentary committees to deal with particular issues (foreign affairs, budget, environment and so on).
Via one of these, the Committee on Petitions, European citizens can also submit petitions directly to the European Parliament. The Parliament elects the European Ombudsman, who investigates complaints from citizens about maladministration in the EU.
Pat Cox is the President of the European Parliament.
The Council of the European Union: Voice of the Member States
The Council of the European Union – formerly known as the Council of Ministers -is the main legislative and decision-making body in the EU. It brings together the representatives of the all the Member State governments, which you elect at national level. It is the forum in which the representatives of your governments can assert their interests and reach compromises. They meet regularly at the level of working groups, ambassadors, ministers or – when they decide the major policy guidelines – at the level of presidents and prime ministers, i.e. as the European Council.
The Council – together with the European Parliament – sets the rules for all the activities of the European Community (EC), which forms the first “pillar” of the EU. It covers the single market and most of the EU’s common policies, and guarantees freedom of movement for goods, persons, services and capital.
In addition, the Council is the main responsible for the second and third “pillars”, i.e. intergovernmental cooperation on common foreign and security policy and on justice and home affairs.
That means, for example, that your governments are working together within the EU to combat terrorism and drug trafficking. They are joining their forces to speak with one voice in external affairs, assisted by the High Representative for common foreign and security policy.
Javier Solana gives EU diplomacy a face as High Representative
for common foreign and security policy.
The European Commission: The driving force for union
The European Commission does a lot of the day-to-day work in the European Union.
It drafts proposals for new European laws, which it presents to the European Parliament and the Council. The Commission makes sure that EU decisions are properly implemented and supervises the way EU funds are spent. It also keeps an eye out to see that everyone abides by the European treaties and European law.
The European Commission consists of 20 women and men (more in 2004), assisted by about 24 000 civil servants. The President is chosen by the governments of the EU Member States and must be approved by the European Parliament. The other members are nominated by the member governments in consultation with the incoming president and must also be accepted by Parliament. The Commission is appointed for a five-year term, but it can be dismissed by Parliament.
The Commission acts independently of the governments of the Member States. Many, but not all, of its staff work in Brussels, Belgium.
Romano Prodi heads the EU executive as President of the European Commission.
Court of Justice: Upholding the law
When common rules are decided in the EU, it is of course vital that they are also followed in practice – and that they are understood in the same way everywhere. This is what the Court of Justice of the European Communities ensures. It settles disputes over how the EU treaties and legislation are interpreted. If national courts are in doubt about how to apply EU rules they must ask the Court of Justice. Individual persons can also bring proceedings against EU institutions before the Court. It consists of one independent judge from each EU country and is located in Luxembourg.
European Court of Auditors: Value for your money
The funds available to the EU must be used legally, economically and for the intended purpose. The Court of Auditors, an independent EU institution located in Luxembourg, is the body that checks how EU money is spent. In effect, these auditors help European taxpayers to get better value for the money that has been channeled into the EU.
The European Central Bank: Stable money for Europe
The European Central Bank is in charge of the single currency, the euro. The Bank independently manages European monetary policy – deciding, for example, how high interest rates should be. The Bank’s main objective is to ensure price stability, so that the European economy will not be damaged by inflation. But the monetary policy also supports other political objectives decided in the EU. The European Central Bank is based in Frankfurt in Germany. It is managed by a president and an executive board in close cooperation with the national central banks of the EU countries.
European Investment Bank: Investing in the long-term future
The Bank lends money for investment projects of European interest, in particular projects that benefit less well-off regions. It finances, for example, rail links, motorways, airports, environmental schemes, and (via partner banks) investment by small businesses (SMEs) that helps create jobs and growth. Loans also support the Union’s enlargement process and its development aid policy. The Bank is based in Luxembourg and raises its funds on the capital markets. As a non-profit organization it is able to lend on favorable terms.
The Economic and Social Committee: Involving social partners
Ranging from employers to trade unions and from consumers to ecologists, the 222 members (more in 2004) of the Economic and Social Committee represent all of the most important interest groups in the EU. It is an advisory body and has to give its opinion on important aspects of new EU initiatives. This is part of the common European tradition of involving civil society in political life.
The Committee of the Regions: The local perspective
Many decisions taken in the EU have direct implications at the local and regional level. Through the Committee of the Regions, local and regional authorities are consulted before the EU takes decisions in fields such as education, health, employment or transport. The Committee’s 222 members (more in 2004) are often leaders of regions or mayors of cities.
Euro – a single currency for Europeans
The euro is the name of the single European currency that was put into circulation on 1 January 2002. The symbol of the euro is €.
The euro has replaced the old national currencies in 12 European Union countries: Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.
Having a single currency makes it easier to travel and to compare prices, and it provides a stable environment for European business, stimulating growth and competitiveness.
Free to move
You can travel, study and work wherever you want in the 15 European Union countries, if you are an EU citizen. The EU is working constantly to give its citizens greater freedom of movement as a fundamental right and to get rid of all discrimination based on nationality.
In most of the EU you can travel without carrying a passport and without being stopped for checks at the borders. With very few exceptions, you may buy anything you want anywhere you want and take it all back home with you.
The EU does not decide what you learn in school, but it does work to ensure that your educational and professional qualifications are properly recognized in other EU countries. The EU is working to provide access to learning opportunities for everyone, at home and abroad, through partnerships and exchange schemes and by removing bureaucratic obstacles. Over a million young people have taken advantage of EU programmes, such as “ERASMUS”, to pursue their studies and personal development in another European country.
Keeping the peace
War between EU countries is now unthinkable, thanks to the unity that has been built up between them over the last 50 years. Given this success, the EU is now increasingly involved in preserving peace and creating stability in neighbouring countries.
The European Union wants to prevent conflicts. The EU is the biggest donor of financial assistance to troubled places in the world. It is active in peacekeeping and peacemaking actions, and it runs many projects that help to make human rights and democracy succeed in practical terms.
To enable its Member States to speak and act in unison on the world stage, the EU is developing its common foreign and security policy and there are plans for more co-operations on defense questions.
An area of freedom, security and justice
We all want safety and security in our lives. Some of the unrest that might threaten everyday life in our local neighborhood has international roots, and European countries are making a joint effort to tackle these problems. They include international terrorism, drug trafficking and abuse, trafficking in human beings and the illegal exploitation of foreign women for prostitution. The EU countries are determined to fight these evils by adopting common rules and through co-operation between their police, customs and law courts.
The EU also plays a role in asylum and migration policy. It guarantees respect for the right to seek asylum. At the same time, the EU countries are co-ordinating their policies for refugees and trying to tackle the problem at source by combating poverty and preventing conflicts in the countries from which people might want to flee.
Fewer frontiers: more jobs!
Safeguarding employment in Europe and creating new jobs is one of the European Union’s key tasks. European industry will not be able to provide more jobs unless the economic conditions are right. And the right conditions are exactly what the Union is working to achieve.
By creating a frontier-free single market and a single currency, the euro, the EU has already given a significant boost to trade and employment in Europe. It has an agreed strategy for stimulating growth and generating more and better jobs. Tomorrow’s jobs will be created through research, training and education, a spirit of entrepreneurship, adaptability to new working methods and equal opportunities for everybody.
A third of the entire EU budget is taken up by the Structural Funds which promote growth and jobs in less well-off regions, in order to ensure that wealth in Europe is more evenly distributed.
An information society for everybody
In a world of rapid technological change, the EU is increasingly active in helping European research to achieve scientific excellence. In a variety of sectors covering the whole spectrum of modern technology, the EU finances projects undertaken by research centres, universities and industry.
The emphasis is on putting research and innovation to work for precise socio-economic objectives, such as job creation and improved quality of life. The EU’s research priorities include among others life sciences, nano-technology; the space; food quality, sustainable development and the knowledge-based society.
The EU also tries to create the conditions that allow us to actually use new technology in our everyday life. It is due to EU decisions on the technical standards of “GSM” that Europeans are now world leaders in the use and manufacture of mobile telephones.
Caring about our environment
Pollution has no respect for national frontiers. That is why the European Union has a special role to play in environmental protection. Many environmental problems in Europe could not be tackled without joint action by all EU countries.
The EU has adopted over 200 environmental protection directives that are applied in all Member States. Most of the directives are designed to prevent air and water pollution and encourage waste disposal. Other major issues include nature conservation and the supervision of dangerous industrial processes. The EU wants transport, industry, agriculture, fisheries, energy and tourism to be organised in such a way that they can be developed without destroying our natural resources – in short, sustainable development.
We already have cleaner air because of the EU decisions in the 1990s to put catalytic converters into all cars and to get rid of the lead added to petrol.
In 1993, the Union set up the European Environment Agency, based in Copenhagen. The Agency gathers information on the state of our environment, enabling protective measures and laws to be based on solid data.
Enlargement for a stronger and more stable Europe
Until May 2004 there are 15 EU Member States with a total of 380 million citizens. Ten more countries, mainly from central and Eastern Europe, are expected to join the EU in 2004. Bulgaria and Romania are likely to join in 2007, bringing the EU’s total population to nearly 500 million. Turkey is also a candidate country and could join later, when all the conditions for membership are met.
In order to become a member of the EU, a country must have a stable democracy that guarantees the rule of law, human rights and protection of minorities, and it must have a functioning market economy as well as a civil service capable of applying and managing EU laws.
The EU provides substantial financial assistance and advice to help the candidate countries prepare themselves for membership. This unprecedented co-operation has brought benefits to people in both present and future Member States. Trade has increased massively, and it has become easier to deal with the problems that effect us all, such as cross-border pollution and the fight against crime.
This is the European Union’s most ambitious enlargement ever. Never before has the EU embraced so many new countries, grown so much in terms of area and population or encompassed so many different histories and cultures. This historic opportunity will unite the European continent, consolidating peace, stability and democracy, and enabling its peoples to share the benefits of progress and welfare generated by European integration.
Keeping the EU democratic, fair and efficient
The EU needs a streamlined and efficient decision-making system as it enlarges from 15 to 25 and eventually more members. But the arrangements must be fair to all member states, old and new, large and small.
Each EU country has a certain number of votes it can cast when the Council of Ministers takes decisions. The people of each country also elects a certain number of members of the European Parliament. These numbers roughly reflect the relative size of the country’s population. They will change in 2004, after ten countries have joined and following the European Parliament elections.
The new numbers will be as follows (in alphabetical order according to the country’s name in its own language): A decision by the Council often requires that countries representing about 72% of the votes are in favour.
The European Union also needs a simpler treaty – a Constitution clearly setting out the EU’s aims and values, and saying who is responsible for doing what. To draft this document, a Convention was set up in 2002, bringing together representatives of all the member states and candidate countries as well as the EU institutions.
The Convention will lead to an Inter-Governmental Conference, at which the leaders of the governments of the EU countries will sign the new Treaty.
This is the European flag. It is the symbol not only of the European Union but also of Europe’s unity and identity in a wider sense. The circle of gold stars represents solidarity and harmony between the peoples of Europe.
The number of stars has nothing to do with the number of Member States. There are twelve stars because the number twelve is traditionally the symbol of perfection, completeness and unity. The flag will therefore remain unchanged regardless of future EU enlargements.
History of the flag
The history of the flag goes back to 1955. At that time, the European Union existed only in the form of the European Coal and Steel Community, with just six Member States. But a separate body with a larger membership – the Council of Europe – had been set up several years earlier and was busy defending human rights and promoting European culture.
The Council of Europe was considering what symbol to adopt for its own use. After much discussion, the present design was adopted – a circle of twelve gold stars on a blue background. In various traditions, twelve is a symbolic number representing perfection. It is also, of course, the number of months in a year and the number of hours shown on a clock face. The circle is, among other things, a symbol of unity. So the European flag was born, representing the ideal of unity among the peoples of Europe.
The Council of Europe then encouraged other European institutions to adopt the same flag and, in 1983, the European Parliament took up the call. Finally, in 1985, the flag was adopted by all EU heads of State and government as the official emblem of the European Union – which, in those days, was called the European Communities.
All European institutions have been using it since the beginning of 1986.
The European flag is the only emblem of the European Commission – the EU’s executive arm. Other EU institutions and bodies use an emblem of their own in addition to the European flag.
This is the anthem not only of the European Union but also of Europe in a wider sense. The melody comes from the Ninth Symphony composed in 1823 by Ludwig Van Beethoven.
For the final movement of this symphony, Beethoven set to music the “Ode to Joy” written in 1785 by Friedrich von Schiller. This poem expresses Schiller’s idealistic vision of the human race becoming brothers – a vision Beethoven shared.
In 1972, the Council of Europe (the same body that designed the European flag) adopted Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” theme as its own anthem. The well-known conductor Herbert Von Karajan was asked to write three instrumental arrangements – for solo piano, for wind instruments and for symphony orchestra. Without words, in the universal language of music, this anthem expresses the ideals of freedom, peace and solidarity for which Europe stands.
In 1985, it was adopted by EU heads of State and government as the official anthem of the European Union. It is not intended to replace the national anthems of the Member States but rather to celebrate the values they all share and their unity in diversity.
On the 9th of May 1950, Robert Schuman presented his proposal on the creation of an organised Europe, indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations.
This proposal, known as the “Schuman declaration”, is considered to be the beginning of the creation of what is now the European Union.
Today, the 9th of May has become a European symbol (Europe Day) which along with the single currency (the euro), the flag and the anthem, identifies the political entity of the European Union. Europe Day is the occasion for activities and festivities that bring Europe closer to its citizens and peoples of the Union closer to one another.