A simple trade pact that grew and grew over the space of four decades, the EU integrated and replaced at least two previous European bonding experiences, including the so called Common Market.
It all began modestly enough in 1952, when six industrialized nations of Western Europe -- France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg --pooled their coal and steel resources and abandoned protective tariffs on them in the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), thus permitting the ready flow of those two commodities across their borders, under the direction of a "high authority" to which each nation surrendered a little of its sovereignty. Soon enough the group had eliminated all shared tariff barriers and facilitated the free movement of workers and money among themselves, as well as hit upon a unified trade policy with regard to the rest of the world. By 1992, the ECSC -- which in the interim had done business as the European Economic Community (EEC, nicknamed the Common Market and nick-nicknamed the Inner Six) and the European Community (EC)-- was finally the European Union (EU), committed to nothing less than the exploration of complete economic and, even more amazing, political union (although citizens of member nations would presumably still be permitted to hum their own favorite folk songs). Now there were twelve countries aboard, with the addition of Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Greece, Spain, and Portugal, stretching from the Atlantic to the Aegean, containing close to 350 million people, and accounting for an annual output considerably bigger than that of the United States and double that of Japan. Three more countries -- Austria, Sweden, and Finland -- signed on the dotted line in 1995 (three others-Norway, Sweden, and Iceland -- said no thanks), and in 2004, the EU underwent its biggest expansion yet when it took in ten new states – the Eastern European nations of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all formerly Communist, plus Malta and Cyprus -- bringing the total number of members to twenty-five. Bulgaria and Romania joined EU in 2007, but Turkey, which has been waiting in the wings forever, tries to content itself with membership talks that could take another decade.
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)