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Friday, April 13, 2012

The European Union: Questions and Answers

Kristin Archick
Specialist in European Affairs

The European Union (EU) is a political and economic partnership that represents a unique form of cooperation among sovereign countries. The Union is the latest stage in a process of integration begun after World War II, initially by six Western European states, to foster interdependence and make another war in Europe unthinkable. Today, the EU is composed of 27 member states, including most of the states in Central and Eastern Europe, and has helped to promote peace, stability, and economic prosperity throughout the European continent.

The EU has been built through a series of binding treaties, and over the years, EU member states have sought to harmonize laws and adopt common policies on an increasing number of economic, social, and political issues. EU member states share a customs union, a single market in which goods, people, and capital move freely, a common trade policy, and a common agricultural policy. Seventeen EU member states use a common currency (the euro). In addition, the EU has been developing a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), which includes a Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), and pursuing cooperation in the area of Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) to forge common internal security measures.

EU member states work together through common institutions to set policy and to promote their collective interests. Key EU institutions include: the European Council, composed of EU Heads of State or Government, which acts as the strategic guide and driving force for EU policy; the European Commission, which upholds the common interest of the Union as a whole and functions as the EU’s executive; the Council of the European Union (also known as the Council of Ministers), which represents the national governments; and the directly elected European Parliament, which represents the citizens of the EU.

EU decision-making processes and the role played by the EU institutions varies depending on the subject under consideration. For most economic and social issues, EU member states have largely pooled their national sovereignty, and EU decision-making has a supranational quality. Decisions in other areas, such as foreign policy, require the unanimous consensus of all 27 member states. The Lisbon Treaty, which took effect in December 2009, is the EU’s latest attempt to reform its governing institutions and decision-making processes in order to enable an enlarged EU to function more effectively. The Lisbon Treaty also seeks to give the EU a stronger voice in the foreign policy realm and to increase democratic transparency within the EU.

The United States has strongly supported the European integration project since its inception as a means to foster democratic states and robust trading partners. The United States and the EU have a dynamic political partnership and share a large, mutually beneficial trade and investment relationship. Nevertheless, some tensions exist, ranging from long-standing U.S.-EU trade disputes to lingering concerns over the NATO-EU relationship. And given the extensive U.S.-EU economic ties, many U.S. officials worry that the ongoing Eurozone sovereign debt crisis could adversely affect the U.S. economic recovery.

This report serves as a primer on the EU and provides a brief description of U.S.-EU relations. For more information, also see CRS Report RS22163, The United States and Europe: Current Issues, by Derek E. Mix; and CRS Report R41652, U.S.-EU Trade and Economic Relations: Key Policy Issues for the 112th Congress, by Raymond J. Ahearn.

Date of Report: April 5, 2012
Number of Pages: 15
Order Number: RS21372
Price: $29.95

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