The EU has its roots in the 1950s, when six Western European states established what they called the European Economic Community for the purpose of enabling them to promote economic growth through various forms of mutual economic cooperation. From these relatively modest beginnings, the importance of the EU has grown enormously over the years. It has done so in three particular respects.
First, its membership now includes 27 European states after the UK's exit in 2020. Until May 1, 2004 these were all Western European states: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. On May 1 the EU-15 were joined by the two Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Malta, and eight former communist countries in central and Eastern Europe: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The 2004 enlargement marked a major advance in the gradual unification of the European continent, bringing together as it did most of what formerly were thought of as the two halves of Europe. Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007and Croatia in 2013. Other European states are applying for membership as well. It is an importance that is seen in a number of ways: the EU has the world’s largest economy as measured by gross domestic product; it is the world’s largest external trader (just ahead of the U.S.); it has a market size of some 448 million post the 2004 enlargement; and it has a currency – the euro – that has established itself as the world’s second most important currency.
Second, the range of activities and responsibilities of the EU has grown enormously. Far from it being confined to economic coordination tasks, it is now deeply involved in the making of policies and laws across a wide range of policy sectors. There is now a Single European Market, with European-wide regulatory rules on matters as varied as health and safety standards in the workplace, product specifications and standards, and trading practices. As part of the process of completing the Single European Market, 19 of the EU’s member states have even given up their national currencies in favor of having a shared currency – the euro. The new member states will, in time, adopt the euro. Beyond market-related policies, other policy areas in which the EU is deeply involved include environmental policy, internal security policies, and foreign policy. The regulatory nature of the EU has important implications for US public administrators, and there are many bodies and fora in which American public administrators meet with their counterparts from Brussels (the EU's de facto capital).
Third, paralleling the growth in importance of the EU have been developments in its organizational capacities, many of which have been brought about through treaties negotiated between the member states. Such has been the extent of these developments that many observers have described the EU as having many of the characteristics of a federal state.
Last updated December 24, 2020
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