The European Union (EU) is a unique economic and political union between 28 European countries that together cover much of the continent.
Following World War II, Europe's nations resolved that never again would such devastation take place on the continent, which at that time was divided by historical national confrontations.
A first step was the signing of the Benelux Treaty in 1944, which came into force in 1948, pursuant to which Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands established the first European market free from internal borders.
On 9 May 1950, Robert Schuman, one of the founding fathers of European unity, proposed the creation of a European organisation to control the production of coal and steel, two raw materials indispensable for the reconstruction of the continent.
The birth of the European Communities
Following the broad outline of Robert Schuman’s proposal, in 1951 six states (Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) signed an agreement to pool the management of their heavy industries. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) thus came into being.
Given the success of the initiative, it was not long before these countries decided to integrate other sectors of their economies, such as agriculture, thereby moving towards the elimination of trade barriers. The signing of the Treaties of Rome in March 1957, giving rise to the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1958 and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom or EAEC), marked a definitive step towards the formation of a common market providing for the free circulation of goods, persons, services and capital.
In 1965 the European Commission and Council were created, to act as single institutions for the three European Communities (ECSC, EEC and EAEC).
The Single European Act
By 1968 the members of the EEC had abolished customs duties. But divergent national legislation continued to be an obstacle to free economic exchange. In 1987 the Single European Act came into force, the first significant reform of the existing treaties, which set a goal of creating a single market by 1 January 1993. During the 1980s, this process took up much of Europe's efforts.
The Treaty of Maastricht
In 1992 a definitive step towards integration was taken with the approval of the Treaty on European Union or Maastricht Treaty , which created a new institutional structure. The European Union came into being on the basis of the three existing European communities: the ECSC, the European Community (the EC, hitherto the EEC) and the EAEC. The process of political integration (the institutional pillar was to be completed with two further pillars, namely that of the external and common security policy, and that of law enforcement and judicial cooperation) would run in tandem with that of economic integration. The Maastricht Treaty approved the creation of an Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), with a very clear mandate to establish the single currency.
The latest agreements
The Treaty of Amsterdam of 1997 and the Treaty of Nice of 2001 made it possible to broaden the authority of the Union and for Member States to make progress towards relinquishing certain significant parts of their sovereignty in the interests of common rules and harmonised standards.
The Lisbon Treaty of 2007 responded to the need to enhance various aspects of the workings of the European Union, equipping the EU with a sounder and more consistent legal and operating framework capable of better meeting citizens' expectations.