Today the European Union comprises 27 member states and unites almost 500 million people across the continent. Their Union is built on an institutional system which is quite unique in the world and much more than just an international organization. The member states have set up common institutions to which they delegate some of their sovereignty so that decisions on specific matters of joint interest can be made democratically at the European level.
Democracy and the rule of law are the cornerstones of this structure. Through its role as the instigator of EU law, the European Commission upholds the interests of the Union as a whole, while each national government is represented within the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament is directly elected by EU citizens.
In the early years, cooperation between EU countries centred on trade, economy and industrial strength, but today the Union also deals with many other subjects of direct importance to people’s daily lives. The EU also fosters cooperation among the various peoples of Europe, “promoting unity while preserving diversity and ensuring that decisions are taken as close as possible to the citizens”.
The European Union acts in a wide range of policy areas—economic, social, regulatory and financial—which directly benefit the member states. These include:
- solidarity policies (also known as cohesion policies) in regional, agricultural and social affairs;
- innovation policies, which bring state-of-the-art technologies to fields such as environmental protection, research and development, energy and information society.
The Union funds these policies through an annual budget of more than €120 billion (equalling a maximum of 1.24 % of the combined gross national income of the member states). This is largely paid for by the member states.
On the world stage, the EU increasingly speaks with a single voice. This is especially true in global trade negotiations. Also, the member states are developing military cooperation in international peacekeeping missions, even though defence policies remain national competencies.
The European Union has two parallel policies for handling its relations with neighbouring countries depending on whether they are on the current list of potential candidates or not:
- Stabilisation and association agreements open up the possibility for a country to become a candidate for EU membership at the end of a negotiation process. The first such agreements were with Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). They were followed by Albania. Other potential candidates in this context are Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia.
- Under its neighbourhood policy, the EU has trade and cooperation agreements with non-member countries in the southern Mediterranean and the southern Caucasus as well as with countries in eastern Europe.