If that seems like a lot to wrap your mind around, wait till we get to the EU's setup: a parliament (elected by the voters back home), a high court, a council of ministers, an executive commission, and a presidency that rotates among member countries every six months, plus more agencies, advisory bodies, and pre-parliamentary committees than almost anybody can keep track of, divided among Brussels, Luxembourg, and Strasbourg, and attempting to adjudicate, legislate, or just keep an eye on everything from women's rights to immigration policy, the freedoms of college students to the standards for air conditioners, telecommunications practices to wine prices. And a single currency, the euro.
Sounds a bit dull, and is almost parodistically bureaucratic -- but it did seem, at the time, to be a brilliant idea, even better than NATO. With a series of voluntary suturings by several no-longer-great European nations, a new economic power was born to the west of the Soviet Union and the east of the United States. At the same time, in a succession of bold strokes, any number of old European rivalries, suspicions, and scratch-one-another's-eyes-out traditions of centuries' standing were smoothed over. Moreover, Germany got to feel respectable again. France (who hadn't exactly distinguished herself in World War II and was about to lose an empire) got to feel like the very heart and soul of something again, smiling to herself as she vetoed Britain's first application for membership.
Have there been tensions among the members? Don't get them started. Agricultural policy, in particular, can be counted on to provoke tag-team wrestling matches, with, for instance, the poorer southern countries demanding subsidies for their olive oil and tomatoes and the northern ones getting tired of being treated like easy touches. More significantly, Germany and France have long been bent on “deepening” the relationship, pushing the single currency, a common military, a unified foreign policy. Britain -- an island after all, and not sure it's even really European -- wants instead to "broaden” it, to take in as many new members as quickly as possible; at Maastricht, the small Dutch town where in December 1991 the EC became the EU, Britain opted out of the currency and made help-me-I'm-being-strangled noises at the idea of the other two. Six months later, Danish voters balked at approving the Maastricht treaty at all, which left everybody wondering where it -- and European federation – really stood. The EU pressed on, but ran into an even bigger snag in 2005, when the citizens of France and the Netherlands voted a big thumbs-down on the proposed EU constitution and the governments of several member countries nearly came to blows over the budget. At this point, nobody thinks the EU is going to fall apart, exactly, but nobody knows what's to become of it, either.
Current member of EU are: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom. (Adapted from ‘An Incomplete Education’, by Judy Jones and William Wilson; and some Internet sites)