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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal The European Union
Fact Sheet released by the Bureau of European
and Canadian Affairs, U.S. Department of State
May 26, 1998

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The European Union (formerly the European Community) is comprised of three separate communities: the European Coal and Steel Community (established in 1951) and the European Atomic Energy Community and the European Economic Community (both established in 1957). The EU has 15 members (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom) and four major institutions (the Commission, Council of Ministers, European Parliament, and Court of Justice). Member states agree to relinquish a degree of national sovereignty to EU institutions and to cooperate in the joint administration of the union.

On November 1, 1993, under the Maastricht Treaty the European Community formally became the European Union, and the Commission of the European Communities became the European Commission. Member states began intergovernmental coordination on Common Foreign and Security Policy (the "Second Pillar") and Justice and Home Affairs (the "Third Pillar"). The treaty set a timetable for the introduction of a single currency (Euro) and a European Central Bank as well as the development of common economic and monetary policies.

The question of how fast to proceed with enlargement of the Union while strengthening EU institutions (the "widening" versus "deepening" issue) continues to be a major topic for discussion among member states. In the most recent enlargement, Austria, Finland, and Sweden joined the EU in 1995. Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Turkey have applied for membership. In March, the EU began formal accession negotiations with Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia.

The EU's Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), completed in June 1997, reviewed the Maastricht Treaty and made modest institutional changes to prepare for further enlargement. The resultant Amsterdam Treaty is now awaiting ratification by the member states, a process that could take 1-2 years. More far-reaching reforms will be revisited at a later date.

The EU is currently involved in the launch of the European Monetary Union (EMU). On May 2, 1998, an extraordinary EU Summit announced that 11 European countries qualified for and decided to join a single currency area (Denmark, Sweden, and the U.K. have opted out for now and Greece did not meet the criteria to join). Having long supported European integration, the United States applauds the economic convergence that makes the EMU possible. A successful EMU that contributes to a dynamic, strong, and stable Europe with open markets and healthy growth is clearly in the best interest of the U.S.. The EU additionally decided upon the first President of the European Central Bank, Wim Duisenberg of the Netherlands, whose term of office will be 8 years. The bank is to be headquartered in Frankfurt, Germany.

The 20-member Commission, appointed by common agreement of the 15 member governments and approved by the European Parliament, has primary responsibility for initiating and implementing EU policy in areas that fall under EU communities (for example, the internal market, external trade, and agricultural policy). The Council of Ministers, representing the member states, occupies the preeminent position in the current institutional power balance and decides on the Commission's proposals. Each member state serves as President of the Council for 6 months in rotation.

The Parliament, the only EU institution that directly represents European citizens, has significant power over budgetary matters and can amend or reject certain legislation approved by the Council. The Court of Justice is the final authority on the interpretation of EU treaties and laws.

[End of Document]

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