European Union

Structure & Aims

The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of 28 states, which arose out of the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community established by 6 nations in 1950. This developed into the European Economic Community in 1957, and the European Union was established by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1991. On 23 June 2016, the British people voted to leave the EU in a referendum by a margin of 52%-48%, meaning that the UK will become the first member state to leave the EU. Article 50, formally notifying the UK’s wish to withdraw, was triggered by Theresa May in March 2017, following a vote in Parliament to approve the triggering. The UK has two years to negotiate the terms of its withdrawal before it ceases to become a member in March 2019 (although the negotiating time can be extended if all parties agree).

Aims of the EU

To promote peace: one aim of the initial establishment of an economic union between European nations was to lessen the likelihood of another major conflict like that of World War One and World War Two.

To establish economic integration (the single market): The Single European Act of 1985 aims to establish ‘four freedoms’- the free movement of goods, services, people and capital. This was achieved in a few ways, for example the abolishment of customs controls at borders, and the creation of EU-wide standards for products. The free movement of EU citizens to live and work in member states was agreed by the 1995 Schengen agreement, although opt-outs to this were negotiated by the UK and Ireland. Temporary restrictions on this have been established in some states in response to the rising number of refugees arriving in Europe from countries such as Syria.

To establish and economic and monetary union: a single currency for EU member states, the Euro, was introduced in 1999. In addition, a European Central Bank was created. The aim was to make trade and travel more straightforward by eliminating fluctuating values of different currencies. In 2014, 19 states were members of the Eurozone. Britain and Denmark chose to opt out of the Euro, not wishing to cede economic sovereignty. The 2008 financial crisis created problems for some Eurozone countries such as Greece and Ireland, who had run up large amounts of government debt. These nations were required to be bailed out with EU funds. In return for the bailouts, they had to sign up to agree to implement more controlled budgetary actions in the future.

To enlarge/expand: 10 new members were admitted to the EU in 2004 (mostly former Soviet Union states). The aim was to ensure further unity amongst European nations and create a larger and potentially more prosperous trading bloc. States wishing to join needed to demonstrate that they were liberal democracies with functioning market economies. Concerns were raised over the possible increase in people from Eastern Europe moving to other nations in search of work and prosperity, potentially increasing the demand for jobs at the expense of the ‘host’ state’s population. Anxiety over these issues was perhaps a contributing factor to the UK voting to leave the EU.

To create social policy: the aim in this area was to ensure fair and equal treatment of workers and a level playing field for business. Worker’s rights are protected under EU laws (although this varies between states).

To establish political union: some institutions of the EU work in a balanced, intergovernmental way. Member states need to cooperate with each other in these when making decisions. Some decision-making power is held in ‘supranational’ bodies, which operate independently of nation-states:

  • European Commission (supranational)

    • Officials nominated by member states
    • Proposes and enforces EU laws
    • Prepares EU budget
  • European Council (intergovernmental)

    • Consists of heads of member states
    • Takes strategic decisions, e.g. whether to admit new members
  • Council of the European Union (intergovernmental)

    • Consists of ministers from member states
    • Discusses policy areas (e.g. environment)
    • Works with European Parliament to adopt legislation
  • European Parliament (supranational)

    • Elected members
    • Works with Council of the EU to adopt legislation
    • Has influence on adoption of EU budget
    • Accepts/rejects appointments to the Commission
  • European Court of Justice (supranational)

    • Enforces EU law
    • Resolves disputes between states

In the Council of the EU, qualified majority voting is used- each state gets a number of votes in proportion to their population. Moves have been made to create a common foreign and security policy (for example, states pooling their resources for humanitarian reasons). The European arrest warrant allows wanted individuals to be moved from one member state to another. The Lisbon Treaty (2009) established the creation of a permanent European Council president, allowed for legislative proposals to be established with 55% of member state support, and established the Charter of Fundamental Rights, containing rights to education and healthcare, amongst other things (the UK refused to accept this as legally binding).