The European Union, more commonly known as the EU, is a political-economical body of 28 member states primarily situated in the continent of Europe. The EU was officially established in 1993, however its formation began after the Second World War. Europe was suffering and it was decided that the countries should work in unison to rebuild their economies and establish their authority in the world once again. The EU has recently undergone a tremendous amount of scrutiny following the Brexit vote of June 2016 in which Britain decided to leave the Union. The EU therefore must be assessed and its advantages and disadvantages must be weighed up. The fact that countries such as Serbia and Turkey have been trying for years to become a member of the EU, while Britain chose willingly to leave it, creates great discourse surrounding the European Union; what is the EU's role, history, benefits and faults?
As previously mentioned, although the EU was formed in 1993 in the Netherlands, it has been alive since WW2, but in different forms. The EU can trace its first origins from the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC, 1951) and the European Economic Community (ECC, 1958) created by Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, all of whom established a common market in coal and steel. The European Economic, or ‘Common Market’, was formed by the Treaty of Rome which occurred in 1957. In the 1960s, the European Union flourished and greatly improved its members’ economies. This was due to the fact that EU countries stopped charging custom duties when they traded with one other, and this led to the slow emergence of the single market that is so well known today.
The countries also worked together in feeding their populations by having joint control over food production. This meant that everybody across the 6 nations had enough food to eat. Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom joined the European Union in 1973, raising the number of member states to nine. The EU regional policy transferred large sums of money in order to create jobs and infrastructure in poorer areas - and focused on the environment by amending pollution around this time. In 1981, Greece became the 10th member of the EU, and Spain and Portugal followed five years later. In 1986, the Single European Act was signed. This was a six-year programme that was established in order to form the free-flow of trade across EU borders, thus creating the ‘Single Market’. The literal collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the more metaphorical collapse of the communist ideology all around Western Europe in the 1990’s created more of a tight-knit community amongst all Europeans; disintegrating the divide between Central and Western Europe and Eastern Europe.
The Single Market was established with the launching of ‘four freedoms: the movement of goods, services, people and money', in 1993. The ‘Maastricht’ Treaty on European Union of 1993 and the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999 were two major treaties that constructed the EU that many of us are so familiar with today. In 1995, the EU gained three further members: Austria, Finland and Sweden and a Luxembourg village gave its name to the ‘Schengen’ agreements that gradually allowed people to travel without having their passports checked at the borders, thus allowing the free 'movement of people'. In 2004, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Malta Latvia, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined the EU, followed by Romania and Bulgaria 3 years later.
The Treaty of Lisbon was ratified by the EU countries following the worldwide financial crash in 2008, before coming into force in 2009. It provided the EU with the modern institutions and the more efficient working methods that we now know, learn about and even scrutinise today. The most recent member to join the EU was Croatia, becoming a member in 2013. Today, the EU is 28 member states strong; 27 if Britain does carry through with Brexit.
There are currently 13 sub-bodies within the European Union that have various important designated roles. The European Parliament is an elected parliament sub-division. It holds legislative power within the organisation and can make laws. The Council of the European Union and the European Commission are branches of the EU that also discuss legislation. The council of the Europe Union is made up of state ministers who discuss, prepare and propose EU legislation, as well as coordinate EU laws and adopt these laws. The European Commission is an executive branch of the EU that proposes legislation, manages everyday EU issues, as well the budget and EU policies, represents the organisation outside of EU and implements decisions. Other wings of the EU include, but are not limited to, the European Council, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), the European Investment Bank (EIB), European Central Bank (ECB), the European Court of Auditors (ECA), the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the Committee of the Regions (CoR).
As previously mentioned, the EU is a political-economical union, initially set up to improve the economies of countries ravaged by the Second World War. Therefore, the Union is bound to have fantastic advantages which have kept it so powerful and united till this day, with many countries still pushing to join the Union.
The European Union has a single market in which no tariffs are imposed on imported goods throughout the Union. This is a great benefit for member states as their products are given the same treatment and value as domestic products, reducing competition in the market and therefore increasing the countries' economies. Furthermore, the EU allows the free movement of people; meaning EU citizens are able to travel, live and work in 27 other states thanks to their EU membership. This can also be a huge benefit for the economies of EU countries – they are provided with the top workers regardless of their country of residence – but it also provides a greater quality of life and a wider set of opportunities for the 508 million citizens living in EU countries, due to the increased exposure to other cultures and access to other economies. EU members are also provided with EU Health Insurance Cards. This allows an individual from an EU state who may travel/live/work in another EU state to gain full emergency access to healthcare, at the same level and rate of a citizen of that particular country.
The EU further set up the Working Time Directive that protects the rights of workers employed in any of the EU member countries. These rights include laws such as ensuring at least 4 weeks of paid leave per year and that those working more than 6 consecutive hours are entitled to a break.
In 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which indicates the scale of compassionate work that the organisation does and also presents that prioritising the interests of the 28 member states as a whole, instead of as national interests, is the best way to approach a variety of situations. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee highlighted how the EU had contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe:
Over a seventy-year period, Germany and France had fought three wars. Today, war between Germany and France is unthinkable. This shows how, through well-aimed efforts and by building up mutual confidence, historical enemies can become close partners-In the 1980s, Greece, Spain and Portugal joined the EU. The introduction of democracy was a condition for their membership. The fall of the Berlin Wall made EU membership possible for several Central and Eastern European countries, thereby opening a new era in European history. The division between East and West has to a large extent been brought to an end; democracy has been strengthened; many ethnically-based national conflicts have been settled'. (Source)
This statement highlights the benefits of the EU and its work (providing more rights and building unity, ultimately factors that contribute to the EU’s success at preventing war). Also, the EU established the European Regional Development Fund designed to create infrastructure and support investment in job production, and the European Social Fund that invests in training measures to help unemployed and disadvantaged members of the population to enjoy a working life. Some countries in the EU are underdeveloped and deprived, such as Romania and Latvia, however the EU works to create a more equal and balanced society across Europe, creating a better quality of life for the inhabitants.
Although there are some great aspects of the EU, the negatives of the union must also be addressed.
Firstly, it can be perceived that one such disadvantage of the European Union is the fact that it puts the interests of the Union before national and individual laws. For countries that value establishing their national superiority, this may become an issue as EU law precedes national law. The added layer of government that the EU has created by use of the European Parliament has taken away certain decision-making processes, a level of responsibility and even power from individual countries, instead allowing the EU to wield a certain amount of control. This presents that EU members have less democracy, a stark contrast to the EU's accomplishment of being awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize in which their dedication to democracy was praised and emphasised.
Recently seen in the UK, Parliamentary Sovereignty does exist, but this was only achieved through Britain's departure from the Union. Article 50 proves how countries do have the deem their national law as supreme but this can only occur when a country leaves the EU, highlighting the supremacy of the organisation.
Another disadvantage of the European Union is the attitude of 'shared wealth'. Large or wealthy countries that are members of the European Union, such as the UK and Germany, have to share their wealth with much smaller and poorer countries. This was recently seen in 2015, when Germany bailed out Greece after the country fell into major economic disarray. This sharing of wealth prevents any one country from becoming too powerful, which can prove to be a disadvantage for countries that want to establish a more significant impact on the world and set themselves aside as world leaders. The single market of the EU allows the tax-free importation of goods all across the UK, a huge bonus for EU member state countries. However, operating as a single market within 28 separate countries causes some discrepancies and issues. Regulations that were designed to protect smaller member countries can therefore affect larger countries, since the European Commission looks after the interests of the EU rather than individual countries. It is also extremely expensive to be an actual member of the EU, as countries pay a 'membership fee'. One must assess what is worth more; the advantages of the EU or the fact that a net worth of £6.883 billion (UK) can be consumed by EU membership (excluding regulation costs).
The EU has faced repeated scandal and scrutiny due to the fraud that occurs within the organisation. The 2006 Galvin Report, the Cash for Influence scandal of 2011 and the ongoing budget fraud scandal cast a dark mist that follows and hinders the progressive work of the EU. In addition, anyone who followed the progress of the recent CETA agreement can clearly see the downsides of being a member of the EU. Furthermore, the EU is facing huge problems now due to the single currency of the Eurozone. Although this is not an EU membership requirement, 19/28 of the member states use this currency. The euro is causing problems all across the EU, including high unemployment rates, slow economic growth, and unsuitable interest rates in the Eurozone area. The EU was created for economic growth and prosperity, however currently this mandate has not been materialised, highlighting the severity of the disadvantages.
In conclusion, the EU has a clear list of benefits and disadvantages. The political-economical organisation originated from a great idea and from great values in order to provide equality and to restore the quality of life for Europeans. After the Second World War, the Cold War and the dissolution of communism, the EU continues to pride itself on enacting peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe, which resonates through the fact that the Union won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. However, with every huge and historical union comes speculation, controversy and corruption. The continuous scandals, inability to easily form trade deals, and the staggering cost of joining the EU contradicts its efforts of providing equality; the cost per head of between £300 and £873 disables certain countries that do not have such finances to join. Clearly, one must think carefully when weighing up the good and the evil of the European Union.