Common section

The European Union

In the decades following the Second World War, six nations of western Europe (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany) joined together to form the EEC, or the Common Market. Though it served as an economic organization designed to allow the region to function as a single economic unit, many people dreamed that one day all of Europe would belong to such an organization. Theoretically, by creating a single European economic community, the European economy would be more stable. Also, by creating a single currency the issue of exchange rates could be eliminated. A single currency could be used in Britain, France, Germany, and so on.

In the 1980s, that dream looked more and more like a reality as European leaders worked vigorously to hammer out details and convince the European people that such an organization wouldn’t require the sacrifice of any sovereignty or national identity.

The Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty

In 1986, the Single European Act established a general blueprint for a single European economic organization, much like the EC of old, which would allow free trade and the free movement of labor and goods within its borders. The act went into effect in 1993 and the organization took the name the European Union, or EU. France and Germany, under the leadership of François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl, respectively, pushed for a single European currency, too. The British held out the longest, but the advocates finally won the argument.

In 1991, the Maastricht Treaty set 1999 as the date the single European currency would become active. Inevitably, the move marked not only a step toward economic unity but also toward political unity. Because of that implication, many Europeans in nearly every nation were reluctant to jump on board. The fear of losing sovereignty and the idea of allowing bureaucrats in another country to control the international economy seemed pretty unsettling. Other concerns were over potential membership. Western nations were concerned about eastern nations joining and adding “dead weight” to the collective economy. To help calm nerves, the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997 helped make the EU more democratic and more appealing to Europeans. In addition to handling economic issues, the EU also has departments for agriculture, justice, security, human rights, and more. It is increasingly becoming a political entity.

As a Matter of Fact

The idea of an integrated and unified Europe began in 1950 with a speech by Frenchman Robert Schuman. As French Foreign Minister, Schuman wanted to put to bed the postwar tensions between France and Germany so he invited Germany to help jointly manage the French and German coal and steel industries. This joint effort led to the European Coal and Steel union which, in turn, led to the development of the European Union.

The original members of the European Union include Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In 2004, the European Union added Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

Currently there are 25 member states in the European Union. The nations of Bulgaria and Romania have completed negotiations with the EU and are slated for membership in 2007. As of late 2005, the European Union announced that there were no further obstacles preventing Turkey from opening negotiations over membership in the EU. Those obstacles were laws in Turkey that the EU deemed in violation of human rights and civil rights. Croatia currently is a candidate nation, too.

Macedonia is hoping to join the EU in the near future as well. Switzerland has applied for membership but its citizens are split down the middle regarding membership. Norway, too, has applied for membership but its citizens have rejected its attempts to join in referendums.

Although there would seem to be strength in numbers, the European Union is not begging nations to join. In fact, interested nations have to meet certain criteria, known as the Copenhagen Criteria. The most important of these criteria include a sound market economy and the ability to maintain a democratic government and to protect human rights. Furthermore, member nations are expected to protect the rights of minorities. Based on these criteria, there are quite a few nations that will not be members anytime soon.

Here Comes the Euro

Although most of the members of the EU signed on to replace their currencies with the euro, a few did not. In 2002, the euro went into circulation in Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. The euro currency features seven different denominations of banknotes or paper money and eight different coins. The EU printed about 14.5 billion banknotes and 50 billion coins totaling a whopping 664 billion euro, or e664 billion. The coins have one side in common and one side unique to a member country so that there are twelve distinct euro coins for each denomination. Within the “euro area” as it is known, consumers can use any euro minted or printed in any euro member state. In other words, someone from France vacationing in Germany and Austria never has to change currencies or calculate confusing conversion rates that change daily. The euro is traded one-for-one within all member states that use the euro.

Would You Believe?

When the euro hit the market in 2002, collectors, history buffs, and people who were curious bought countless sets of the new currency through auctions on eBay, often for far above face value.

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