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What is the EU (European Union)?

Nicholas K. Pederson


Animal Legal & Historical Center
Publish Date:
2009
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

What is the EU (European Union)?

 

The European Union, or "EU," as it is often called, is a political and economic association of twenty-seven countries, including virtually all European nations. [FN: Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, and Lichenstein are economically affiliated with the EU but not currently formal members. Iceland, however, has applied for full membership.] A short list of candidate countries, including Iceland, various Eastern European countries, and Turkey, has applied for membership in the EU. The EU has a common unit of currency—the Euro—and allows free travel across all national borders throughout the Union. The EU’s population currently sits at 500 million, making it almost twice as large as the United States.

The EU was formed in 1993 with a variety of policy goals in mind. The early European alliances from which today’s Union emerged were formed in the wake of World War II not only to facilitate trade between European countries, but to ensure peace between them. Today’s European Union, however, was formed primarily for other reasons. According to its founding treaty, the EU was formed to promote economic and social progress, to assert European identity on the international scene, and to protect the rights of citizens of the EU, among other things. [FN: Treaty on European Union, Official Journal C 191, 29 July 1992. Article B, available at http://europa.eu/eur-lex/en/treaties/dat/EU_treaty.html#0001000001.]

Like the United States, the EU has its own executive, legislative, and judicial branches. For its executive branch, instead of a single president, the EU has the European Commission, a body comprised of its own president and twenty-seven commissioners—one from each country in the EU. For its legislative branch, the EU has a legislature comprised of two bodies, not so different from America’s Congress. The EU’s two lawmaking bodies are the European Parliament, whose members are directly elected by EU citizens, and the European Council, composed of a government minister from each member state. Finally, in its judicial branch, the EU has the European Court of Justice, which plays a role somewhat similar to the one played by the American Supreme Court in America, interpreting and applying the EU’s treaties and laws.

There are three main types of laws in the EU, and also three procedures for passing them. As for types of law, there are regulations, the most powerful type of EU law, which become law in all member states as soon as they are passed, and override all existing domestic laws; directives, which set out a result all member states need to reach, but give them the freedom to figure out how to reach it; and decisions, narrow legal acts that apply to specific individuals. As for lawmaking procedures in the EU, the first, most common, is codecision, under which the European Commission proposes legislation, and both branches of the legislature jointly adopt legislation based upon the proposal. In the other two lawmaking procedures, called assent and consultation, the European Council (the smaller branch of the legislature) is entrusted with the power to pass legislation proposed by the Commission either by obtaining consent from, or by consulting with, Parliament (the larger legislative branch).

 

 

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