The European Union (EU) is a multinational democratic entity that consists of 27 Member States. There have been six periods of enlargement in the growth of the EU, and the largest occurred on May 1, 2004, when 10 states joined the existing 15. The most recent expansion was on January 1, 2007, when Bulgaria and Romania were accessioned. The current Member States of the EU are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
With such growth, there have been numerous issues of concern as well as the promise of an integrated Europe. One major area is that of language barriers and the need for the EU to spend much time and resources on translation in order to facilitate communication among its diverse membership. Presently, the EU has 23 official and working languages. These languages are Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Irish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish, and Swedish. German is the most widely spoken mother tongue, followed by English, French, and Italian. English is widely acknowledged as the de facto official common language of the EU.
Historically, the European Economic Community, or the Common Market, was established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and was implemented January 1, 1958. It then evolved into the European Community. The EU was officially formed when the Maastricht Treaty was signed on February 7, 1992. It was created as a supranational entity with the goal of creating a common market among its Member States. Therefore, the EU was responsible for the administration of the customs union, the Common Agricultural Policy, and the Common Fisheries Policy. Also, the EU has extended its original tasks to include a broader range of common policies, such as road safety, culture, transportation, and the environment.
The continuation of a developing EU has created what is called the Eurozone, and this major democratic entity is continuing to evolve and expand. Currently recognized member candidates are Croatia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Turkey. Potential member candidates are Albania, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia. According to the EU Treaty, each Member State, and the EU Parliament, must agree to any enlargement.
For a nation-state to join the EU, it must fulfill economic and political conditions generally known as the Copenhagen criteria. These standards are set forth to maintain democratic government, standard rule of law, and corresponding freedoms. Despite these criteria, some critics are concerned about Europe losing not only its identity but also its common standards. For example, much concern arose over the accessioning of Cyprus in 2004, which divided Greek and Turkish parts of this nation. The Cyprus issue illustrated a ferment in EU growth that will undoubtably continue to prove problematic with the plans for the accession of Turkey. While the EU is a secular body, it is largely one whose members’ religion is Christianity. The accessioning of Turkey is argued to be problematic due to religious differences—and because only a small part of Turkish territory is considered to be European territory.
While the EU Parliament does not have a great deal of direct power, it serves as a democratic watchdog over other EU institutions. The EU Member States are guided by a series of mandates for foreign policy and security. However, individual Member States are allowed to develop and follow their own foreign policies. EU guidelines require its Member States to follow the United Nations Charter and to uphold human rights.
In May 2004, the EU became what is now widely acknowledged as the largest democratic body in the world when it accessioned 10 new countries. This expansion of the 15 existing members to 25 brought into the EU many countries that only 15 years earlier were under the communist domination of the former Soviet Union. For the accessioning countries, as well as the 15 existing members of the EU, the 2004 elections marked the first opportunity for the selection of representatives to the new and enlarged European Parliament. These elections were held from June 10 to June 13, 2004.
With this growth, the EU has faced what some consider an identity crisis of sorts, and it is unclear to many citizens whether the EU is a military, political, symbolic, or economic entity. It appears that the clearest function of the EU is an economic one, and its main purpose is to create a unified European market. One widely recognized product of the EU is the development of the cross-national Euro currency. While it is used in 13 Member States, others have rejected its use for various reasons including the desire to maintain a national identity and not just a European one.
This division is evidenced by actions on October 29, 2004, when EU Member State heads of government signed a treaty to establish a general constitution for all members of the EU. The constitution was later ratified by 17 EU Member States, but largely the ratification was due to parliamentary action, instead of popular vote. The path to a EU Constitution faced major obstacles on May 29, 2005, when French voters rejected the constitution. This defeat was followed shortly thereafter by failure in the Netherlands. The ability to pass, and enforce, the EU constitution across all Member States remains uncertain.
In addition to the problem of EU skepticism and some resistance to an integrated and an ever-expanding Europe is the issue of voter participation. Beginning with the first election for a European-wide parliamentary body in 1979, these elections have been considered “second-order elections” in which citizens have little at stake. The organization in which the winners of the election will participate is remote from the citizens and perceived to be of little daily relevance. Consequently, voter apathy and low turnout have characterized the EU parliamentary elections and set the stage for party campaigns that attract limited media attention and focus more often on domestic concerns in each country, rather than on European-wide policies. Fighting voter apathy and raising the stakes for citizens in Member States has been a long-term struggle in European-level elections.
Nonetheless, the EU has become a powerful entity that influences trade negotiations, aid agreements, and border control. It also has the ability to impose sanction and arms embargos. As the EU continues to develop its policies and improve its internal and external communication, it will have the opportunity to flex the muscles of the superpower it is capable of becoming.
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