The house of Europe is built on solid foundations. A Parliament elected by universal suffrage ensures the Union's institutional system democratic legitimacy. The euro has now taken the place of the national currencies of 12 of the current EU member states, the free circulation of citizens is an established reality, and common, coordinated policies are applied in strategic sectors such as foreign policy, defence, competitiveness, security, the environment, agriculture and social and economic cohesion.
The original core of six founding members (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) have been joined, at different stages, by another 21, bringing the current EU membership to 27.
Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom joined what was then called the EEC on 1 January 1973, Greece in 1981, Spain and Portugal in 1986, and Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995.
After this gradual growth from 6 to 15 members, on 1 May 2004 the European Union saw the biggest expansion in its history, in terms of both breadth and diversity. All of 10 countries joined the EU on that date: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
And they have now been joined by Bulgaria and Romania, who became members of the Union on 1 January 2007.
From its Origins to the Single European Act
The road to the European community as we know it today has been a long one marked by substantial pauses for reflection on growth as well as by a number of obstacles.
In 1941 Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi had already outlined a Federal Europe in their Ventotene Manifesto. It was only after the war, however, that Europe really began to feel the political need to eliminate the causes of conflict between the major players on this side of the Iron Curtain.
Thus in 1949 the Council of Europe was born - a body with an exclusively consultative function founded by France, Great Britain, Belgium and Ireland which, however, has always remained outside the institutional framework of the European Community.
Jean Monnet's project, which led to the European Coal and Steel Community, was presented in Paris by French Foreign Minister Robert Schumann on 9 May 1950, a date which is now commemorated as the Festival of Europe.
Almost a year later, on 18 April 1951, the first stone of the community construction was laid: the six founding countries signed the Treaty establishing the ECSC, setting up an independent supranational High Authority in Luxembourg with the task of enforcing common rules for the production and trade of coal and steel.
Soon afterwards the first obstacle arose. In 1952, on France's initiative, the Six signed the Treaty for the European Defence Community (EDC) in Paris. The Treaty was never implemented, however, since it failed to be ratified by the French Parliament.
The Conferences of Messina (1955) and Venice (1956), followed by the signing in Rome in 1957 of the Treaties establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), gave impetus to the idea of an increasingly integrated Europe.
The process of integration continued during the 1960s through the creation of the customs union and the signing of a Treaty unifying the executive bodies of the three Communities and establishing the principle of budgetary unity.
In 1972, to facilitate a coordinated currency exchange policy between European countries, and to guarantee stability by setting maximum fluctuation margins in order to preserve the price system underlying the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), something called the "currency snake" was created. The currency snake was transformed in 1979 into a formal exchange agreement that came to be known as the European Monetary System (EMS). In the same year, the European Parliament was elected for the first time by universal suffrage.
In February 1984 the bill for the European Union Treaty (basically, a first draft of the European Constitutional Treaty) first advanced by Spinelli, was approved by a large majority in the European Parliament. The Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985 by France, Germany and the Benelux countries to facilitate the elimination of border controls within the EU and promote the free circulation of people and judicial cooperation within the institutional framework of the Community. In December of the same year the European Council in Luxembourg decided to modify the Treaty of Rome and give new impetus to the process of European integration by drawing up a Single European Act, signed in The Hague in February 1986. In addition to making important institutional reforms, the Single European Act made it possible to move towards completion of the single market. To translate the goals established under the Single Act into reality by 1992, Jacques Delors, in his role as President of the European Commission, in 1987 presented an ambitious regulatory and operational plan to ensure the elimination of all remaining obstacles to the free circulation of persons, goods, capital and services. The creation of the single economic area opened the way for the subsequent introduction of the single currency.
The Community becomes a Union at Maastricht
The late 1980s brought a wave of significant changes on the international scene with Mikhail Gorbachev's "perestroika" and the fall of the Berlin wall. Following in their footsteps, EEC member countries started down the road to the single currency and the present-day institutional system in 1990. That year saw the first phase of Economic and Monetary Union go into effect as well as the introduction, at the Rome European Council, of the Inter-Governmental Conferences on Economic and Monetary Union and on Political Union which would conclude in 1992 in Maastricht with the signing of the treaty of the same name.
With the institution of a European Union (EU), destined to mark a new stage in the process of creating ever-increasing unity among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly and with the citizen in mind as possible”, Maastricht represented an authentic turning point in the process of European integration. What had until then been commonly known as the EEC (European Economic Community) became The European Community (EC) and the first pillar of the European Union. The Maastricht Treaty also introduced new policies and forms of cooperation in the sector of foreign policy and security (the second pillar), and in the sector of justice and internal affairs (third pillar). With Maastricht, then, the Union expanded and grew in strength as it waited to welcome other States of the continent.
With the Treaties of Amsterdam and Nice, the community made other important steps forward. The Schengen Agreement was incorporated into the legislative framework of the Union, new impetus was given to cooperation between police forces in the fields of justice and defence, the possibility of increased cooperation between small groups of EU countries was facilitated and the figure of High Representative of the EU for Common Foreign and Security Policy was introduced, a position initially held by Javier Solana, Spain's former Minister for Foreign Affairs and former Secretary General of NATO.
After the abolition of border controls within the EU (1998-99) and the effective introduction on 10 January 2002 of the single currency, the Union's next step will be to draw up a European Treaty-Constitution and adopt the institutional reforms necessary for ensuring the smooth operation of a Union composed of 25 countries as of 2004, up to its current membership of 27. That Treaty, signed in Rome on 29 October 2004, has not yet gone into effect however: the ratification process was interrupted following the negative outcome of a popular referendum held in 2005 in France and the Netherlands.
The European Council
The European Council plays a fundamental role in the development of European integration, which has, following the policy innovations introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, been formally included among Union institutions. At least twice a year it brings together Member State heads of state and government and has the task of providing the necessary impetus to Union development and establishing general policy. It has a stable President, who is elected by the European Council (qualified majority vote) for a period of two and a half years, renewable for a single mandate, with the task of chairing and preparing meetings ( in cooperation with the President of the European Commission and in accordance with the work of the General Affairs Council) and of representing the Union abroad on matters concerning common foreign and security policy (with the exception of the responsibilities of the High Union Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy).
The Council of the European Union, the European Parliament and the European Commission represent what is known as the Union’s 'institutional triangle' within which, according to the provisions of the Treaties, the legislative and decision-making process of the EU takes place. According to this process the Union intervenes on those issues that fall within its duties as indicated in the Treaties, and always in respect of the principle of subsidiarity, i.e. performing on a Union level only that which cannot be adequately performed by individual Member States. Only the Commission has the power to initiate legislation. To become a legal act every legislative proposal made must be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council. Legislative decisions follow ordinary legislative procedure which gives joint power to the European Parliament and Council. In cases expressly envisaged by treaties instead, special legislative procedure is followed, which attributes decision-making exclusively to the EU Parliament or to the Council, with the respective participation of one or the other. The Council of the European Union, usually composed of the competent Member State ministers, is divided into ten formations, two of which specifically envisaged by the Treaty on European Union (General Affairs and External Affairs) and the others corresponding to the areas outlines following the European Council of Seville in June 2002. The country currently holding the Presidency—which falls for six months to one of the three Member States that make up the group of Member States tasked with ensuring the Presidency of the Council for an 18-month period according to an impartial rotational system—establishes the calendar of Council sessions. The EU Council meets in Brussels, and in April June and October in Luxembourg. The European Parliament, elected for five years by the citizens of the Member States, brings the peoples of the Union into the decision-making process and, over the years, has become increasingly powerful. Along with the Council, it performs the Union’s legislative functions and grants final approval for the community budget. It also participates in the nomination of the European Commission.The European Commission represents the Union's driving force. It is made up of 27 members with a 5-year mandate who are proposed by the various Member States but operate entirely independently of their national authorities. It has the role of introducing legislative proposals, in addition to performing executive functions, defending the general interests of the Union and acting as "guardian" of the Treaties. It oversees application of Union law under the control of the Court of Justice. Following the innovations introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon, it now has a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy who also performs the function of its Vice President.
The Court of Justice is based in Luxembourg and ensures respect for and exclusive interpretation of community law. The Court is assisted by the Court of First Instance, set up in 1989, which deals in particular with administrative disputes of European institutions and with the disputes raised by the community rules of competition.
The European Court of Auditors performs tasks similar to those of its national counterparts, ensuring the legitimacy of Union income and expenditure and sound financial management of the EU budget.
The desire to encourage the growth and extension of the Union, and to strengthen the structured dialogue between European citizens, local governments and institutions of the Union, has encouraged the development of the original institutional structure.
The European Central Bank (ECB) , along with the central banks of the countries that have adopted the euro (the so-called "Eurosystem"), is responsible for monetary policy and ensures the correct functioning of cross-border payment systems, performs exchange transactions, holds and manages the official foreign currency reserves of the countries of the euro zone and provides for the minting and printing of currency. The main objective of the ECB, which is based in Frankfurt, is to maintain price stability in the euro zone, thus defending the buying power of the euro. The structure and functions of this independent and supranational body were established under the Maastricht Treaty.
The European Investment Bank (EIB) is the real financial branch of the Union: its chief aim is to support investment projects that foster the balanced development of the Member States. The Board of Governors of the EIB is composed of the Ministers of Economic Affairs of the Member States.
The task of representing the interests of employers, employees and social groups before the Commission, the Council and Parliament is the responsibility of the Economic and Social Committee, while the Committee of the Regions, composed of the regional representatives of the countries in the Union, ensures respect for the identity and prerogatives of local authorities. This Committee must be consulted in sectors such as regional policy, the environment and education, as part of the community decision-making process.
The year 1995 saw the creation of the European Ombudsman, to whom any citizen, as well as institutions and companies based in the Union, can appeal if they consider themselves victims of an act of improper administration by community institutions or bodies.
Since the 1970s, 15 Agencies have also been operating throughout the community territory. These bodies perform specific tasks and meet both the wish to decentralise certain duties of EU bodies, and the need to deal with new issues of a technical or scientific nature. The first of these - the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training and the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions - were set up in the 1970s. In the 1990s, during the process of completion of the internal market, a second generation of agencies was introduced that led to the community model we know today. These agencies operate in a wide range of sectors: the environment safety in the workplace, drug abuse and racism, food security, and sea and air transport safety.
Lastly, under the Maastricht Treaty signed on 7 February 1992, in 1995 a European police office was set up, Europol, which has the task of improving police cooperation between the Member States in preventing and combating terrorism, illegal drug trafficking and other serious forms of international organised crime, by means of the collection and exchange of information between competent authorities.
Latest update: 16/01/2012