Links to the State Department’s website for background on the country’s political environment.
Last Published: 7/19/2017
For background information on the political and economic environment of individual Member States, please click on the link below to the U.S. Department of State Background Notes.

How the E.U. Emerged
In 1950, after World War II, six European countries, Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Luxembourg created the European Coal and Steel Community to help unify and rebuild Europe after the war. The Community was designed to prevent any future wars between France and Germany by promoting peaceful economic cooperation, political stability, secure economic growth, and increasing economic ties among countries, all for the purpose of moving towards a single market.

Under the threat of a more divided Europe during the Cold War, the six Western European states adopted the Treaty of Rome in 1957 to establish a common European market known as the European Economic Community (EEC).
By 1991, the Cold War was nearly over and the EEC with its twelve members (Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Ireland, United Kingdom, Greece, Spain, and Portugal) signed The Maastricht Treaty which radically changed the functioning of the organization.  It officially created the European Union, expanded the scope of the EU’s competencies, and set budgetary and mandatory monetary criteria for Member States that led to the creation of the Euro Area.

After the Cold War, Central and Eastern European nations were no longer bound to the Soviet Union. The political and economic benefits of the EU’s democratic integration became appealing to the new Eastern European countries.  As of 1993, in addition to budgetary commitments, new Member States had to adhere to the Copenhagen Criteria requiring nations to have stable institutions that guarantee democracy, a working market economy to handle the EU’s competitive market, and the ability to commit to the obligations of EU membership (i.e. observing the goals of a political, economic, and monetary union).  Additional members of the European Union are Austria, Sweden, Finland, Malta, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia.

In June 2016, the UK voted in a referendum to leave the EU.  On March 29, 2017, the UK formally triggered Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, the formal start of an expected two-year process by which Britain will leave the European Union. 

Lisbon Treaty
In 2009, the Lisbon Treaty created various amendments to the existing Treaty of Rome and the Maastricht Treaty, revising the constitutional basis of the European Union.  The major changes of the Lisbon Treaty were the creation of a long-term President of the European Council, recognizing the European Council as an official EU institution, and the creation of a new role of High Representative on Foreign and Security Policy.  Under the Lisbon Treaty, Council decisions in most policy areas are now made under double majority, requiring the support of a minimum of 55 percent of Council of the European Union members and representing at least 65 percent of EU citizens.  At the same time, for legislation to pass, the Parliament must have a simple majority (majority of parliamentarians present) or 50 percent of the votes in favor. The
need for consent by both the Parliament and the Council of the European Union is called co-decision.

The Lisbon Treaty significantly increased the influence of the European Parliament including in the nomination of Commissioners and equally dividing budgetary authority between the Parliament and the Council of the European Union.

Main EU Institutions
European Commission:  As the executive branch of the EU, the European Commission holds the right to initiate and propose legislation and the budget to the Council of the European Union and to the Parliament.  It is also charged with implementing decisions and acts as guardian of the EU’s treaties.  Each of the 28 Commissioners holds a different member state nationality but is obligated to remain neutral and above national politics.

European Parliament: The Parliament’s role is several-fold and includes: 1) debating and passing European laws along with the Council once they have been proposed by the European Commission; 2) scrutinizing the work of the European Commission and other EU institutions; 3) debating and adopting the EU's budget along with the Council; and 4) vetting new Commissioner nominees.

Elections are every five years, the last taking place in May 2014 with citizens voting in national elections for their Members of European Parliament (MEPs).  The total number of MEPs elected is 751. 

Council of the European Union (Council of Ministers):  The Council of the European Union represents the governments of the 28 Member States in the EU.  The Presidency of the Council rotates every six months between the 28 Member States.  In addition to the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers shares the main legislative role of the EU.  In January 2017 Malta assumed the Council Presidency; in July 2017, Estonia will take the reins through the end of the year, followed by Bulgaria.  The concept of the Council Presidency is not to be confused with the European Council which gathers heads of states to steer the EU’s political direction.

European Court of Justice (ECJ):  The purpose of the ECJ is to interpret EU law to make sure it is applied evenly across all EU Member States. Additionally, it may also engage in settling legal disputes between EU governments and EU institutions.  Individuals, companies and organizations have the ability to bring cases before the ECJ if they feel their rights have been violated by an EU institution.

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European Union 28 Government