The European Union (EU) was established via the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. Today it is comprised of 27 member states, and is the largest single market in the world. With a population of approximately 450 million people, and a GDP of 13 trillion euros, if the EU was a country it would be the third largest in the world by both of these metrics. The European Union is foremost a political and economic partnership-type institution, with significant international influence, both economically and politically. As the EU has grown, it has expanded its activities in areas such as environmental policy, cultural development, integration policy, and international exchange, as well as the promotion of human rights. The EU has its own currency, the Euro, which is used by 19 member states; it also has a free travel area with limited border controls, known as the Schengen Area, which applies to 22 members; and there are 24 official languages used by the EU. The main institutions involved in European Union legislation and policy are the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, and the European Commission. Many member states rank very highly in terms of human development, democracy, and freedom, however the rising threat of nationalism and autocratization in Europe are viewed as the largest threats to the EU’s stability.
Following the Second World War, a series of political and economic organizations were founded in Europe to promote peace, cooperation, and integration, after decades of war and instability. The Council of Europe oversaw the suppression of nationalism and the advancement of democracy, while the European Coal and Steel Community dealt with matters of the economy and trade. These alliances were strengthened by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, and a customs union was established along with the European Economic Community. These organizations were the precursor to the modern European Union, and were fundamental in allowing the decades that followed the war to become the most prosperous in Europe's history. Those at the core of these organizations were France, West Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries, with France and Germany as the unofficial leaders of European integration. As the EEC economies outgrew most other Western European economies, membership became more appealing, particularly for the UK whose international influence waned following the war. The UK joined in 1973, and several other western European states joined by 1986.
The European Union was formally established in 1993, with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President François Mitterrand as its leading architects. This period also coincided with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, and the subsequent transition to democracy. The Copenhagen criteria was then created in this time to ensure that future members fulfil certain eligibility requirements, regarding economics, politics, and human rights, in order to join the EU. By 1995, most Western European countries had joined the EU, with Norway and Switzerland as the main exceptions. In 2002, the Eurozone was launched, creating a single monetary area across much of Europe; unfortunately, the European debt crisis of 2009 meant that economic hardship in in some eurozone countries (especially Greece) therefore had a strong ripple effect across the EU. Between 2004 and 2013, many former Eastern Bloc countries also became EU members. The accession of 13 relatively weaker economies into the EU saw a wave of economic migration from these countries to the west, and introduced a new dynamic to European integration.
Brexit and the future of the EU
In 2016, a referendum on EU membership in the United Kingdom saw 52 percent of voters choose to leave the European Union, in what is known as Brexit. The result came a surprise to many, and brought issues such as a hard border in Ireland, Scottish independence, and international trade to the fore. After years of uncertainty and negotiations, the United Kingdom, Europe’s second most powerful economy, left the EU in January 2020. Initially, Brexit led to something of a surge in Euroscepticism in countries such as France, Hungary, and the Netherlands; however, the economic impact of this process and complicated nature of the withdrawal saw this gradually decline, and in 2019 the EU had its highest favorability rating among citizens in nearly four decades. The fallout of Brexit is ongoing, and the democratic backsliding of members such as Poland and Hungary are causing concerns within the EU, yet the European Union’s work continues. The EU spent over 10 percent of its GDP on providing economic relief during the Covid pandemic, it’s pushing for increased digitalization and innovation, and aims to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050.
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