There are so many different yet similar terms used in connection with political structures in Europe – European Council, European Union, Euro-Zone and others – that visitors from overseas sometimes get confused by them. The European Union is by far the most important and most common of these structures. It has contributed a large share to Europe, a continent that has been ravaged by merciless wars for centuries, growing into a unit that still continues to develop and grow.

The European Union today encompasses 28 member states with a total population of 512 million. It stretches from Eastern Cyprus to Western Ireland, from Northern Finland to Southern Spain and across almost all of Western, Central and Northern Europe. The member countries retain their sovereignity but have at the same time ceded some responsibilities and competencies to the association.

It is worth noting that the European Union is neither identical with the monetary association of countries that have the Euro as their currency (the so-called “Euro Zone”), nor with the Schengen area, in which countries have agreed to cease border and custom checks between each other. The Union’s members are:

United Kingdom

Other countries may apply to become members as long as they agree with the basic principles and values of the Union and declare their willingness to harmonize their standards to those of the association. Before a new member is accepted, a long process usually has to take place and all members have to greenlight the country joining on their respective national levels. Bosnia and Herzegovina has formally applied for membership in 2016, while Turkey, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia are considered membership candidates without official proceedings having launched. Norway, Iceland and Switzerland all have at one point applied for membership but have withdrawn their applications at a later time.

Today’s Union has a standardized set of laws and rights that apply everywhere within its jurisdiction and has assumed common policies in many fields. This comprehensive structure has grown out of a purely economic association. In 1950, French Foreign Minister Robert Schumann suggested putting France’s and Germany’s steel and coal production under one authority. His intention was the prevention of another war between the neighbors by sharing responsibility for economic matters. One year later, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg signed the Treaty of Paris to form the European Steel and Coal Community.

This formed the basis for the Treaty of Rome in 1957 between the same six countries. This treaty founded the European Economic Community, which expanded the idea of economic integration and cooperation and had the future aim of creating a customs union and a single market. Over time, the community grew as it expanded to include more countries. Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom joined in 1973, Greece in 1981 and Portugal and Spain in 1986.

1993 marked one of the most important milestones in European history. On February 7 of that year, the Maastricht Treaty, so named after the Dutch town where it was signed, founded the European Union. At the time, the Union was intended to become the roof organization for three pillars; the economic communities, a joint positioning in matters of foreign policy and security and cross-border coopertion in justice and police matters. The Maastricht Treaty’s provisions were later modified through subsequent treaties. Those clarifications, in particular the ones set forth in the Treaty of Lisbon of 2007, were needed to adapt the rules to the much larger community the Union had become. In 1995, Austria, Sweden and Finland had joined. In 2004, ten countries followed; Malta, Cyprus and eight countries that had formerly belonged to the Eastern bloc. Romania and Bulgaria became members in 2007 and Croatia joined in 2013.

Despite diverse cultural backgrounds throughout the community, notable political discrepancies in many issues and economic challenges in recent decades, the European Union is a success story. It functions as an element of security and a beacon of democratic cooperation in an area that saw more wars in its history than any other part of the world. Although decision-making processes often appear to be long and tedious, the Union continues to grow in its importance and to gain meaning in the hearts and minds of its residents. From a traveler’s perspective, the European Union offers all vacation options one could wish for. It features a wide range of landscapes and sceneriees, hundreds of fascinating cities and every conceivable outdoor and nature option experience.

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