What Is the European Union (EU)?

What Is the European Union (EU)?

6 Min.

The European Union (EU) is a group of 27 countries that share democratic values and work together on political and economic matters. Nineteen of these countries use the euro as their official currency, forming the eurozone. The EU has grown to include many former Soviet Socialist States recently. In 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU in a referendum known as Brexit and officially left it in 2020.


Comprising 27 nations, the European Union (EU) is a robust political and economic partnership. It champions democratic principles within its member states and ranks among the globe's preeminent trade alliances. Notably, 19 nations have adopted the euro as their official currency. Born in the aftermath of World War II, the EU was conceived to bolster economic and political collaboration across the European continent.

In 2021, the EU's gross domestic product (GDP) reached an impressive €14.45 trillion, approximately equivalent to $15.49 trillion in US dollars. To provide context, during the same year, the United States reported a GDP of roughly $23 trillion.

Evolution of the European Union: A Brief History

The European Union (EU) originates in the European Coal and Steel Community, founded in 1950, comprising just six nations: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. In 1957, it transformed into the European Economic Community under the Treaty of Rome, subsequently adopting the European Community (EC) name.

This transition marked a profound step towards deeper integration, encompassing foreign, security, and internal affairs policies. Simultaneously, the EU introduced a common market in the same year, fostering the unhindered flow of goods, services, capital, and people across internal borders.

Initially, the EC concentrated on agricultural policy and eradicating customs barriers. The first expansion wave saw Denmark, Ireland, and the UK join in 1973, coinciding with the initiation of direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979. The journey towards a common European market reached a pivotal moment in 1986 with the enactment of the Single European Act, a six-year plan to harmonize national regulations. In 1993, the Maastricht Treaty replaced the EC with the European Union (EU), introducing the euro as a shared currency for participating member states on January 1, 1999. Denmark and the UK negotiated "opt-out" provisions allowing them to maintain their respective currencies if desired. Several newer EU members have either not yet met the criteria for euro adoption or chosen to exercise their opt-out prerogatives.

Resolving the European Debt Crisis: A Timeline of Recovery Measures

After the global financial turmoil of 2007-2008, the European Union (EU) and the European Central Bank grappled with mounting sovereign debt and lackluster economic growth in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Greece.

Greece and Ireland sought refuge in EU-backed financial bailouts in 2010, contingent upon the strict implementation of fiscal austerity measures. Portugal joined the ranks in 2011, while Greece required a second bailout in 2012.

The crisis began to recede as the European Union, and the European Central Bank introduced initiatives to bolster the financial standing of both sovereigns and the banking sector in affected nations. Long-term measures were put in place, including the establishment of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) in October 2012. The ESM's primary purpose was to aid EU member states grappling with severe financial challenges, particularly those unable to access the bond markets. This initiative succeeded the temporary European Financial Stability Facility, which had been in place since 2010.

To further support EU financial institutions, the European Central Bank executed a series of "targeted longer-term refinancing operations" in 2014, 2016, and 2019, offering favorable financing terms. In 2015, the European Union relaxed the stringent provisions of the 2011 Stability and Growth Act, which mandated member states to maintain public debt levels below 60% of gross domestic product and annual government budget deficits under 3% of GDP over the medium term. During the same year, the newly established EU agency, the Single Resolution Board, assumed the responsibility for managing and resolving bank failures within the euro area.

Addressing Economic Disparities in the EU and the US

In the wake of the crisis, the European Union (EU) grapples with an enduring issue: the stark economic divide between its heavily industrialized northern nations and its economically disadvantaged southern periphery, marked by greater reliance on agriculture and lower urbanization rates.

The use of a common currency, shared by both the industrialized north and the rural south, presents challenges. Southern economies, lacking the option of currency depreciation, face hurdles in enhancing their international competitiveness. This puts them at a disadvantage when competing with their northern counterparts, who enjoy the benefits of rapid productivity growth.

In contrast, the United States employs federal transfer payments to mitigate similar economic imbalances among its regions and states. States with higher average incomes contribute a proportionately larger share of federal revenue, while those with lower incomes receive a greater share of federal expenditures. Moreover, the EU responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with collective spending measures, which some have characterized as a step towards forging an evolving fiscal union.

The Brexit Decision: Unfolding Events

In a reversal of his prior stance against a popular referendum on the United Kingdom's membership in the European Union, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron 2013 committed to holding such a vote, ultimately scheduling it for 2016. During this period, the United Kingdom Independence Party, known for its anti-European Union stance, was gaining traction.

Despite initial polls indicating a deficit, the "Leave" option secured victory with almost 52% of the vote on June 23, 2016. Following this outcome, David Cameron resigned from his position the next day. On January 31, 2020, the United Kingdom formally exited the EU.

In July 2020, the Intelligence and Security Committee of the UK Parliament released a report. The report highlighted widespread media accounts of Russian involvement in supporting the "Leave" campaign and criticized the government for neglecting to investigate Russian influence in British politics.


The European Union (EU) encompasses 27 nations sharing democratic values and collaborative efforts in politics and economics, with 19 adopting the euro. Originating post-World War II, the EU aims to enhance regional cooperation. The EU faced a significant financial crisis, leading to initiatives like the European Stability Mechanism and targeted refinancing. Economic disparities persist, notably between the northern and southern EU nations, complicated by a common currency.

European Union (EU)
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