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History of the EU

  • 1950

    European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC)

    French Minister of Foreign Affairs Robert Schuman proposed the creation of a European Coal and Steel Community, the first step in the process that led to the European Union. The anniversary of the Schuman Declaration has become the annual celebration known as “Europe Day”.

  • 1952

    Treaty of Paris

    The Treaty of Paris was signed and established the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), with its six members: Belgium, West Germany, Luxembourg, France, Italy and the Netherlands. The aims of the ECSC were economic expansion, employment growth, and a higher standard of living, to be encouraged through the common market for coal and steel. The Paris Treaty came into force in 1952.

  • 1957

    Treaty of Rome

    The six members of the ECSC signed the Treaty of Rome and created the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC or Euratom). With this, the ECSC Member States aimed to expand their cooperation beyond coal and steel. The Rome Treaty came into force in 1958.

  • 1966

    Treaty of Brussels

    The Treaty of Brussels – also called the Merger Treaty – was signed. The Merger Treaty streamlined the work of the European institutions by merging the executives of the three Communities (ECSC, EEC, Euratom), after which, a single Commission, a single Council and a European Parliament began to serve all three Communities. Thereafter, they were known as the European Communities (EC). The Brussels Treaty came into force in 1967.

  • 1973

    New Members

    Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom joined the EC.

  • 1981

    New Members

    Greece joined the EC.

  • 1986

    The Single European Act (SEA)

    Portugal and Spain joined the EC. The Single European Act (SEA) was signed and its main aim was to create a Single Market within the European Community by 1992. The SEA came into force in 1987.

  • 1992

    Treaty of Maastricht

    The Treaty of Maastricht or the Treaty on the European Union was signed. The Treaty turned the Communities into a Union. The Maastricht Treaty was a major milestone for the EU, as it set clear rules for the future single currency, foreign and security policy, and closer cooperation in justice and home affairs. Under the Maastricht Treaty, the name “European Union” officially replaces “European Community/Communities”. The Single Market was completed and the four freedoms were established. The completion of the single market implemented the “four freedoms”— of people, goods, services, and capital, enabling EU citizens to study, live, shop, work, and retire in any EU country. The Maastricht Treaty came into force in 1993.

  • 1995

    Schengen Agreement

    Austria, Finland, and Sweden joined the European Union. The Schengen Agreement took effect, allowing freedom of travel between certain Member States.

  • 1997

    Treaty of Amsterdam

    The Treaty of Amsterdam was signed to reform EU institutions in preparation for the arrival of new Member States, specifically those from Central and Eastern Europe. The Amsterdam Treaty came into force in 1999.

  • 2001

    Treaty of Nice

    The Treaty of Nice was signed and it opened the way for upcoming enlargements by reforming EU voting laws. The Nice Treaty came into force in 2003.

  • 2002

    Introduction Euro

    A single currency, the euro, replaced national currencies in 12 of the 15 countries of the EU. In 2021, the Eurozone consists of 19 Member States.

  • 2004

    New Members

    In its largest expansion, the EU welcomed 10 new countries as Member States: Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

  • 2007

    Treaty of Lisbon

    Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU. In December 2007, the Treaty of Lisbon was signed. Among its other reforms, the Lisbon Treaty gave more power for the European Parliament, changed voting procedures in the Council and introduced the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). The Lisbon Treaty also clarified how legislative power is distributed between the EU and Member State governments in certain policy areas through the system of exclusive, shared and supporting competences. The Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009.

  • 2012

    Nobel Peace Prize

    EU is awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize.

  • 2013

    New Member

    Croatia joins the EU.

  • 2020


    Following the 2016 referendum vote to leave, for the first time a Member State – the United Kingdom – left the EU. The UK was a member of the Union for 47 years.

Institutions of the EU

The European Parliament

The Voice of the People
Members: 751 Members of the European Parliament
Location: Strasbourg, Brussels and Luxembourg


1. It shares with the Council the power to legislate — to pass laws. The fact that it is a directly elected body helps guarantee the democratic legitimacy of European law.

2. It exercises democratic supervision over all EU institutions, and in particular the Commission. It has the power to approve or reject the nomination of the President of the Commission and Commissioners, and the right to censure the Commission as a whole.

3. It shares authority with the Council over the EU budget and can therefore influence EU spending. At the end of the budget procedure, it adopts or rejects the budget in its entirety.

The European Council

Setting the strategy
Members: Heads of State or Government from each Member State, the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission
Location: Brussels


1. As a summit meeting of the Heads of State or Government of all the EU Member States, the European Council represents the highest level of political cooperation between the Member States. At their meetings, the leaders decide by consensus on the overall direction and priorities of the Union, and provide the necessary impetus for its development.

2. The European Council does not adopt legislation. At the end of each meeting it issues ‘conclusions’, which reflect the main messages resulting from the discussions and take stock of the decisions taken, also as regards their follow-up. The conclusions identify major issues to be dealt with by the Council, i.e. the meetings of ministers. They may also invite the European Commission to come forward with proposals addressing a particular challenge or opportunity facing the Union.

The Council of the EU (also called Council of Ministers, the Council)

The Voice of the Member States
Members: One minister from each Member State, presidency rotating every six months between Member States
Location: Brussels and Luxembourg


1. The Council is an essential EU decision maker. Its work is carried out in Council meetings that are attended by one minister of each of the EU’s national governments. The purpose of these gatherings is to: discuss, agree, amend and adopt legislation; coordinate the Member States’ policies; or define the EU’s foreign policy.

2. Which ministers attend which Council meeting depends on the subjects on the agenda — this is known as the ‘configuration’ of the Council. If, for example, the Council is to discuss environmental issues, the meeting will be attended by the environment minister from each Member State and is known as the Environment Council. The same is true for the Economic and Financial Affairs Council and the Competitiveness Council, and so on.

The European Commission

Promoting the common interest
Members: A college of Commissioners, one from each Member State
Location: Brussels


1. propose legislation to the Parliament and the Council;
Under the Treaty on European Union (TEU), the Commission has the ‘right of initiative’. In other words, the Commission alone is responsible for drawing up proposals for new European legislation. The Commission proposes actions at EU level only if it considers that a problem cannot be solved more efficiently by national, regional or local action.

2. to manage and implement EU policies and the budget;
As the European Union’s executive body, the Commission is responsible for managing and implementing the EU budget and the policies and programmes adopted by the Parliament and the Council. Most of the actual work and spending is done by national and local authorities but the Commission is responsible for supervising it.

3. to enforce European law (jointly with the Court of Justice);
The Commission acts as ‘guardian of the treaties’. This means that, together with the Court of Justice, it is responsible for making sure EU law is properly applied in all the Member States. If it finds that any EU Member State is not applying a Union law, and therefore not meeting its legal obligations, the Commission takes steps to put the situation right.

4. to represent the Union around the world.
The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is a Vice-President of the Commission and has responsibility for external affairs. In matters concerning foreign affairs and security, the High Representative works with the Council.

Competencies of the EU

The scope of EU powers is strictly limited by its competences as defined in the Treaties. In other words, the EU can only act within the policy areas in which Member State governments have given it the power to act, which is also known as the principle of conferral. Competences that are not conferred upon the EU in the Treaties remain with the Member State governments.

EU competences are divided into 3 main categories:

1. Exclusive competences

These are policy areas in which the EU alone is able to legislate and adopt binding acts. If the EU creates legislation in these areas, Member State governments may come up with their own national legislation to implement it, but they may not come up with their own new legislation outside of the EU framework, particularly anything that might conflict with EU law.

2. Shared competences

These are policy areas where the EU and EU Member States are both able to legislate and adopt legally binding acts. In addition, in these areas, EU countries exercise their own competence where the EU does not exercise, or has decided not to exercise, its own competence. Following the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality (explained below), the EU shall take action only if the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, and can therefore be better achieved by the EU.

3. Supporting competences

These are the policy areas where the EU can only intervene to support, coordinate or complement the action of Member States. Legally binding EU acts related to these areas must not require the harmonisation of EU countries’ laws or regulations.

In addition to the three main categories of competences, the EU has some special competences. The EU’s common foreign and security policy is characterised by specific institutional features, such as the limited participation of the European Commission and the European Parliament in the decision-making procedure and the exclusion of any legislation activity. This policy is defined and implemented by the European Council (consisting of the Heads of State or Government of the Member States) and by the Council (consisting of a representative of each EU country at ministerial level). The President of the European Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy represent the EU in matters of common foreign and security policy.

The EU can take measures to ensure that EU countries coordinate their economic, social and employment policies at EU level.

Exercise of competence

The exercise of EU competences is subject to two fundamental principles laid down in Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), which help avoid over-legislation in certain policy areas.

These are:

Principle of proportionality: the content and scope of EU action may not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of the Treaties.

Principle of subsidiarity: in the areas of its non-exclusive competences, the EU may act only if — and in so far as — the objective of a proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, but could be better achieved at EU level.

Policy Areas

Exclusive (Art. 3 TFEU)

  • customs union
  • the establishment of competition rules necessary for the functioning of the internal market
  • monetary policy for Eurozone countries
  • conservation of marine biological resources under the common fisheries policy
  • common commercial policy
  • conclusion of international agreements under certain conditions

Shared (Art. 4 TFEU)

  • internal market
  • social policy, but only for aspects specifically defined in the Treaty
  • economic, social and territorial cohesion (regional policy)
  • agriculture and fisheries (except conservation of marine biological resources)
  • environment
  • consumer protection
  • transport
  • trans-European networks
  • energy
  • area of freedom, security and justice
  • shared safety concerns in public health matters, limited to the aspects defined in TFEU
  • research, technological development, space
  • development cooperation and humanitarian aid

Supporting (Art. 6 TFEU)

  • protection and improvement of human health
  • industry
  • culture
  • tourism
  • education, vocational training, youth and sport
  • civil protection
  • administrative cooperation

Decision-making in the EU

As the EU passes thousands of laws and regulations every year, it is important to know how legislative proposals become law. Introduced with the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and extended with the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 as the co-decision procedure, the main decision-making procedure in the EU became known as the ordinary legislative procedure after the Lisbon Treaty in 2007. This procedure applies to around 85 policy areas, whereas exceptions to it are covered by the consent or consultation procedures, also known as special legislative procedures, where the Council is the main legislator. Under the ordinary legislative procedure, the two legislators – the Council of the EU and the European Parliament – are given an equal say on whether a law would be made or not.


Step 1: Legislative proposal

The right of legislative initiative generally rests with the European Commission. In some special cases, EU Treaties also allow the ordinary legislative procedure to be initiated by a quarter of the Member States, the European Central Bank (ECB), the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), the European Investment Bank (EIB), or the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). The Council and the Parliament can also ask the Commission to submit legislative procedures.

Step 2: First reading

This is where both legislators review the Commission’s proposal. It first goes to the Parliament, which may adopt or amend it. Then it goes to the Council, which may decide to adopt the Parliament’s position, in which case the legislative act is adopted, or amend it, in which case the proposal is returned to the Parliament for a second reading. Most EU laws are passed at this stage.

Step 3: Second reading

Here, the same procedure is followed. The Parliament examines the Council’s position and can either approve the act which turns it into law, reject it which ends the procedure, or amend the law and return a new wording to the Council for their second reading. The Council can then either approve the Parliament’s amendments thus adopting the law, or not approve which results in convening the conciliation committee.

Step 4: Conciliation

At this stage, a committee composed of an equal number of MEPs en Council representatives is convened to agree on a text that would be acceptable to both institutions. If it cannot come to an agreement, the act is not adopted and the procedure is ended. If it does agree, the text is then forwarded to the Parliament and the Council for a third reading.

Step 5: Third reading

Finally, the Parliament examines the joint text one last time. It may reject or fail to act on it, which means the proposal is not adopted and the procedure ends, or approve the text. If the Council does the same, the legislative act is adopted. However, if the Council rejects or does not act on the proposal, it will not enter into force and the procedure is ended.

As with rejections at any other stage of the procedure, a new procedure can only start with a new proposal from the Commission, after it must follow all the above steps anew.