Guide to the EU

The EU started as a peace project to bring an end to the troubled relations between the countries of Europe which had led to World Wars in less than 50 years. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was formed in 1951 under the Treaty of Paris. In the words of Robert Schuman, the ECSC would make war “not only unthinkable but also materially impossible” by creating a common market for coal and steel. This had the effect of neutralising competition between European countries over natural resources. The ECSC had six founding members: France, Italy, West Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Following the success of the ECSC, the six founding members extended cooperation to other economic areas and to atomic energy. This led to the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC) and EUROTOM. Later these three organisations merged to form one European Community (EC).

In 1973 Ireland joined the EEC along with the UK and Denmark – the first enlargement. Greece, Spain and Portugal joined in the 1980s, followed by Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995.

Over the next four decades, the EC evolved into the European Union. The Maastricht Treaty 1993, also known as the Treaty on European Union, created the Union as we know it based on three pillars: the European Community (Pillar I), the common foreign and security policy (CFSP) (Pillar II) and cooperation in the fields of justice and home affairs (Pillar III). It was supported by a single institutional structure, consisting of the Council, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the Court of Justice and the Court of Auditors.

The largest enlargement of the EU took place in 2004 (during the Irish Presidency of the European Council) with the accession of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus and Malta on Europe Day, 9 May. Two more former Soviet bloc countries, Bulgaria and Romania, joined in 2007 followed by Croatia in 2013 bringing the membership to 28.

The Treaties of Nice and Lisbon were introduced in the 2000s to allow the EU to adapt its structures and institutions to take account of its larger membership and the Union’s increasing role on the world stage.

In 2016 the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU by a small majority.  

2017 marked 60 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome. In March of that year, the European Commission published a White Paper to start the conversation on the Future of Europe.  The paper set out five scenarios on how the EU could evolve. On 25 March, the European leaders marked the 60th anniversary with the Rome Declaration which commits the Union to addressing contemporary challenges. 

The European Elections held in May 2019 wielded the largest turnout in 25 years as millions of citizens across Europe took to the polls. In November 2019 the European Parliament declared a climate emergency and in December 2019 the EU Commission presented the European Green Deal.   

The Institutions

The European Commission

The European Commission - promoting the common interest

The European Commission promotes the common good of the EU, acting as both the executive branch and the permanent civil service of the EU. There are 27 Commissioners, including the Commission President, one nominated by each Member State. The Commission has 27 Directorate Generals (DGs) who focus on different policy areas. For example, there is a DG for Economic and Financial Affairs, another for Health and Food Safety, and another for Justice and Consumers. Ireland’s Phil Hogan is the current Commissioner for Trade. The Commission initiates and proposes legislation to Parliament and the Council. It is the only institution that can initiate legislative policy proposals. The Commission also enforces EU law, manages and implements EU politics and the budget, and represents the EU on the global stage.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament - voice of the people

The European Parliament is the voice of the people. It is made up of 705 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) who are elected every five years by the citizens of each EU Member State. Ireland currently has 13 MEPs, representing the three constituencies in the country. 11 Irish MEPs took their seats following the European Elections in May 2019, with the final 2 MEPs assuming their seats following the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union on the 31 January 2020. Irish MEP Mairéad McGuinness is a Vice-President of the European Parliament. The Parliament has three main roles: legislative, supervisory and budgetary. After the European Commission has proposed laws the Parliament scrutinises the laws and passes or rejects them.

The European Council

The European Council - voice of the Member States

The European Council is the voice of the Member States. It is made up of the heads of state/government of the 27 Member States, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell  The European Council meets quarterly and defines the general political direction and priorities of the EU. It does not exercise legislative power.

The Council of the European Union

The Council of the European Union

The Council of the European Union consists of national ministers from the Member States who are responsible for specific areas such as health, trade, or finance, on a national level. The Council meets in 10 different configurations based on what policy areas are being discussed. For example, if the topic was EU climate change policy the environment ministers from every EU Member State would meet. The role of the Council of the European Union is to discuss, amend and adopt laws and to coordinate policy. The laws and budget of the EU are decided on jointly by the Parliament and the Council of the EU in a process called ‘co-decision making’. There is a rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, Ireland last held this position between January and June 2013. Meetings of the Council are chaired by the relevant Minister from the country which holds the presidency.

The EU in Numbers

GDP = 18.8 trillion – approx. 22% of the global economy
446,824,564 People
4,233,255 km2 (1,728,099 sq mi)
705 MEPs
43.1 Median age
31 Territories with special status
27 Commissioners
24 official languages, including Irish.


The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) is formed under the Treaty of Paris.


The Treaty of Rome establishes the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM)


Initial membership negotiations open with Ireland


The ECSC, the EEC and EURATOM merge to form the European Communities (EC)


Customs duties between the member states are removed and the first common policies are introduced in the areas of trade and agriculture


Ireland joins the EEC along with the UK and Denmark – the first enlargement – and the first social and environmental policies are introduced.


The European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) is established to support development in areas of economic disadvantage


The first direct elections to the European Parliament take place. Prior to this MEPs had been appointed by the national parliament of each Member State.


The Schengen Agreement is signed which gradually enables EU citizens to travel across borders within the EU without requiring passport checks.

Today, 26 countries are part of the Schengen Area.


The first major revision of the treaties takes place under the Single European Act, which aims to bring momentum to European integration and lead to the completion of the internal market by January 1993.


Reunification of Germany.


The Single Market is completed, creating an area with no internal borders where there is free movement of goods, people, services and capital.

The Maastrict Treaty, creating a European Union (EU), comes into force on 1 November.


Austria, Finland and Sweden join


The Treaty of Amsterdam is introduced amending the Maastricht Treaty and the Treaties establishing the European Communities


Monetary union is introduced with a single currency, the Euro. 12 of the 15 countries, including Ireland, join the new currency.


The Treaty of Nice comes into force; its purpose is to allow for further enlargement


The largest enlargement of the EU takes place (during the Irish Presidency of the European Council) with the accession of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus and Malta on Europe Day, 9 May.


Bulgaria and Romania join the EU.


The Lisbon Treaty brings in institutional reforms and creates the new roles of President of the European Council


Croatia joins the European Union.

Ireland held the Presidency of the Council of the EU for a 6 month period between January and June 2013.


The UK votes to leave the EU by 51.9% in favour and 48.1% against in a referendum on 23 June.


The European Commission publishes the White Paper on the Future of Europe

The 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome is marked by European leaders, who adopt the Rome Declaration and commit to the Rome Agenda.


Two big milestones for the EU as the Euro turns 20 and the Single Market turns 25. 

In November the European Parliament declared a climate emergency and in December the EU Commission presented the European Green Deal. 


47 years after joining the EU in 1973, the UK officially leave the EU on the 31 January