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The European Union at a glance


EU member states

EU institutions

What can EU decide

EU legal basis

A Constitution for Europe

EU budget

A few central policy areas

EU and Norway

Information and publications

The foundation of the European Union – the EU – was laid after the Second World War. The aim was to prevent European states from starting another war against each other.
The EU differs from other forms of international cooperation by its joint decision-making procedure. The member states have established common institutions and a judicial system to solve conflicts and ensure that collective decisions are followed.

The EU is in constant change, both in form and content. The economic cooperation is an important driving force in the EU. In the wake of economic integration, the EU has developed politically in order to adapt itself to an increasing number of member states as well as new challenges. The objective is an enlarged EU; well-functioning, more democratic, dynamic and transparent.

EU member states

After a succession of enlargements, the number of member states is now 25. The following countries are EU members: Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, the UK, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary and Austria.

Bulgaria and Romania are currently in the process of negotiation and might join the EU as soon as in 2007. Turkey and Croatia have applied for membership, but they have not yet engaged in negotiations with the EU. Read more about enlargement here

EU institutions

The European Parliament is the world’s largest multi-national parliament and parliamentary elections are held every 5 years by direct election from the member states. The 732 representatives adopt legislation, approve the EU budget and the inclusion of new member states and may also supervise the European Commission. The co-decision procedure is the most common form of decision-making. When being used, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament are on equal footing, and the European Parliament may reject legislative proposals that it does not agree with. The Parliament has regular sessions in Strasbourg and Brussels. In June 2004 the elections to the European Parliament took place in 25 member states

The European Council consists of the Heads of State and Government of the member states and the President of the European Commission. The European Council draws the political guidelines and is the driving force behind the cooperation. It has the decision-making power in the most important issues and in the cases where the ministers are not able to reach an agreement.



The Council of Ministers together with the European Parliament is the legislative arm of the EU. The Council consists of one minister from each member state.  For example, the ministers of fisheries will meet to discuss fisheries questions. Decisions are made by simple majority, qualified majority or unanimity. The member states’ number of votes depends on their size. Through the different treaty negotiations, the use of qualified majority has been extended; however some fields still demand unanimity. The Presidency is rotating every 6 months between the member states.

The European Commission is the executive body of the EU and is seated in Brussels. The European Commission consists of 25 commissioners appointed by the member states and approved by the Parliament. From 1 November 2004, each state will have one commissioner. The President of the Commission is elected for 5 years and is presiding over an administration of about 24.000 employees. The Commission has the exclusive right of proposing new legislation. The Commission is responsible for the final decision being implemented and has the decision-making power in certain fields, such as competition.

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg shall interpret the treaties and legislation and give advice to the national courts of justice. The court can pass sentences in all types of cases covered by common legislation and rules, and can sentence individuals, companies and states. The court has 25 judges, one from each state, who are elected for a period of 6 years by the governments in mutual cooperation.

The European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt in Germany is responsible for the monetary policy in the 12 states that participate in the euro-zone. The Central Bank conducts a currency policy which contributes to low inflation, and it can adjust the interest rate level in order to achieve this.

Other important bodies

The Economic and Social Committee consists of representatives from both the working and organisational life who give their opinion on labour and social policy issues. The Committee of the Regions consists of representatives from local and regional authorities and expresses its’ view in local and regional questions. The Court of Auditors controls that the money from the EU budget is correctly implemented. The Ombudsman receives complaints from EU citizens who think they have been unfairly treated by the EU Administration.


Eurotower: The European Central Bank in Frankfurt

What can EU decide?

The treaties of the EU regulate the areas of responsibility within the EU. If the treaties, the institutional framework or the functioning of the Union is to be changed; it is under the assumption of a unanimous decision among the member states. The EU has decision-making authority in fields such as competition, trade and agricultural policy, where the Internal Market demands a common set of rules. In other fields, like environment policy, minimum standards exist the member states are free to choose how to reach the objectives and if they want a stricter set of rules. The EU principle of subsidiarity specifies that a decision shall not be made on a higher level than necessary.

Some political areas stay outside the EU areas of responsibility, among them income tax and welfare schemes. In fields like culture and education, the EU provides measures which support the individual policies of each state and encourage cooperation between the member states. The elaboration of a set Les mer om EUs lovgivning herof common rules will be done in the following ways:

  • Regulations are legal acts which are immediately implemented in the member states. They can be compared with the national legislation of each state

  • Directives are aimed at the member states and are compulsory by the fact that their objective must be reached, but leave the member state to decide how this should be done

  • Decisions in individual cases are binding and compulsory for those they are aimed at

  • Recommendations and opinions are not binding, but guidelines.

Read more about EU legislation here

EU legal basis

The Treaty of Rome from 1957 established a close economic cooperation between the member states. Customs, duties and quota limitations were to be removed and common tariff rates against the outside world were introduced. A common agriculture and competition policy emerged, but many of the objectives were not achieved before the establishment of the EC internal market in 1993.

The Single European Act of 1986 opened up for binding majority decisions in the Council of Ministers in most questions related to the internal market. Environment issues became a community matter.

The Maastricht Treaty of 1993 introduced the economic and political union, a continuation of the Internal Market, by the establishment of a common central bank and a common currency. The cooperation was enforced in areas like environment, culture, research and education. The powers of the European Parliament were extended, and an increased number of decisions could be made with qualified majority by the Council of Ministers. The principle of subsidiarity was consolidated.

The Amsterdam Treaty entered into force on 1 May 1999. The European Parliament strengthened its position as a legislative authority. Yet a greater number of policy areas left the demand of unanimity for a qualified majority in the Council of Ministers. The President of the Commission was given extended power. The treaty also made it possible for some member states to develop a closer and more integrated cooperation than others.

The Treaty of Nice was adopted in December 2000. The treaty coordinates the EU institutions until the new constitution enters into force. A new distribution of votes in the Council of Ministers was adopted, majority decisions were introduced in 29 new fields and the maximum number of commissioners was limited to 27.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights is a guarantee for every EU citizen of their rights in relation to the EU institutions and legislation. The Charter was adopted as a political declaration at the Nice summit in December 2000 and is included in the proposal for a new constitution. The charter is based on the following values: human integrity, freedom, equality and solidarity and the principles of democracy and constitutional state.

A Constitution for Europe

In 2003, the Convention on the Future of Europe put forth a proposal on a Constitutional treaty for the EU. The Convention consisted of representatives from national governments and parliaments both from the member states and the applicant countries, as well as the European Parliament and the Commission. After two years of debate, the EU member states agreed on a Constitutional Treaty on the summit of June, 2004.
The Constitutional Treaty aims to make the EU more comprehensible by simplifying the acquis upon which the EU is based. It introduces more efficiency and transparency in the Union and describes the EU’s values, goals and competence areas.

The European Council becomes a separate institution and will be chaired by a President elected for a period of 2,5 years.
The Constitutional Treaty extends the use of qualified majority voting. A qualified majority is now defined as 55% of the member states, comprising at least 15 states, and representing at least 65% of the total EU population. This new voting system will be introduced on November 1, 2009.
In the European Parliament no countries will have less than six or more than 96 representatives, and the total number of representatives shall not exceed 750. The exact number of representatives from each member state will be decided prior to the parliamentary elections in 2009. The European Parliament will also exert more influence as 95% of EU legislation will be decided by the co-decision procedure.
In the European Commission, each member state will have one commissioner each until 2014. The number of commissioners will then be reduced so that two out of three member states will have a commissioner at all times.

The Constitution also introduces a Minister of Foreign Affairs. Javier Solana, who currently is the EU’s High Representative for the common foreign and security policy, will take on this position from the day the Constitution enters into force. This position shall make the EU more visible on the international stage.
The Constitutional Treaty opens up for the possibility that some member states can engage in closer cooperation, i.e. within the area of defence. National parliaments shall be informed about all new initiatives from the Commission, and should one third feel that the principle of subsidiarity is not respected, the Commission has to review the proposal.

Before the Constitutional Treaty enters into force, it has to be ratified in each of the member states, either through a parliamentary process or through a referendum. If the Constitution, two years after its signing, is only ratified by 4/5 of the member states, and at least one member state has had difficulties in the ratification process, the European Council will have to review the text. 

EU budget

The EU budget for 2004 amounts to 115,4 billion euro. The budget constitutes less than 1,2% of the total GDP of the member states.

The EU budget 2004 ( in million euro)


Structural operations

Internal policies (research, transport, education, culture etc.)

External action



Pre-accession strategy


49 305

41 035

  8 722

  5 082

  5 983


  3 455

  1 410










Total amount

115 434


For more information see homepage of DG Budget here

A few central policy areas

The Internal Market entails an area with free movement of goods, services, capital and people. The opening of national markets brings with it a set of common rules for products as well as consumer rights. The task of securing and developing the Internal Market is a continuing process. All the economic actors in the EEA-area are subject to equal rules in the market. No one shall be able to have a monopoly or exploit their dominant position in order to weaken the competition or dictate the prices. Subsidies from the state are limited in order to avoid distortion of competition.

Regional Policy is accountable for a third of the EU budget. The money is spent on regional policy efforts aimed at reducing regional disparities in Europe. Some of the money goes to projects within infrastructure, like roads and airports, while some goes to city development or improving living conditions for the handicapped.

The Environmental Policy continues to become an increasingly central aspect in the EUs work through regulations, cooperation agreements with the industry, research and aid schemes. In 2005, a quota-trading scheme will be introduced for emission of greenhouse gases as one of several means to create a better climate. The Commission suggests new environmental initiatives and supervises that the member states uphold their commitments.

The Common Agricultural Policy is the largest recipient of the EU budget. The purpose of the policy is to secure a fair income for the farmers while guaranteeing reasonable prices for the consumers. The common agricultural policy has resulted in high production and a stable supply of foodstuff, but it has also resulted in a surplus in stocks. The common agricultural policy has been altered by reforms in 1992 and 2001.

The Common Fisheries Policy will ensure the preservation of the Community’s marine resources and the deep sea environment, in order to secure sustainable coastal communities. The new fisheries policy, which entered into force in 2003, opens up for a long-term and sustainable management of the EUs fishery resources.

The Economic and Monetary Union – EMU provides the basis of the EU’s common currency, the Euro, which has replaced the national currency of the 12 member countries participating in the EMU. The Euro has removed the uncertainty related to currency fluctuations. It has become easier to travel and to trade across the national borders. The condition for participating in the euro zone is that the criteria of inflation, the interest rate level, national debt and budget deficit are fulfilled. With time, all the new member states will participate in the euro zone.

The Common Foreign and Security Policy was integrated in the EU cooperation with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, and it was strengthened with the treaty of Amsterdam in 1997. Javier Solana was appointed EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy at the Cologne summit in 1999, and his official period was extended with another five years in 2004. In 1999 the EU decided to establish a common military force, consisting of 60,000 soldiers, which will engage in peacekeeping and peace establishing work.

The Schengen Agreement removes border-control of people and involves common external frontiers, visa rules and strengthened police cooperation. All EU members prior to 2004, with the exception of Ireland and the UK, participate. Norway and Iceland participate in the Schengen Agreement, and all the new member states will gradually be included in the cooperation.

The enlargement of the EU continues: Bulgaria and Romania are in the negotiation process. Turkey and Croatia have status as candidate countries and Macedonia has delivered an application. To become a member of the EU, the applicant countries must accept all current EU legislation, as well as satisfy the criteria for democracy, the rule of law and market economy.

The Lisbon Strategy from 2000 wishes to turn the EU into the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world before 2010, based on sustainable development and social cohesion. The Lisbon strategy introduced the open method of coordination. The member states and the institutions are measured on a set of common indicators, in order to assess how close they have come towards reaching the goals.

EU and Norway

Norway has been fully integrated into EUs internal market since 1994 when the EEA agreement entered into force. The three EFTA-countries, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, participate in the European Economic Agreement which comprises the four freedoms: free movement of goods, services, capital and people. (Agriculture and fish are exceptions.) The EFTA countries also participate in many of the EU programmes within research, education, environment, energy and culture as well as in the Schengen Agreement.
The principle of equal terms for all within the Internal Market implies that Norway has to carry out all the decisions taken by the EU. Separate bodies and decision procedures are set up to make sure that new EU rules are introduced into Norwegian law. The agreement is an international agreement which implies that Norway is not handing over sovereignty to the EU. EFTAs surveillance authority, ESA, is in charge of controlling that EU-legislation and rules are respected. Conflicts are treated by the common EEA Committee and by the EC- or the EFTA court.

Information and publications

All EU legislation legislation proposals, is published in the Official Journal of the European Union: Consultation documents can be found online on Your voice in Europe. A list of all the directorate generals can be found on:

Register of Commission documents