Adrian Janes Finding Facts: The European Union after 50 Years
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Thursday, 1st March 2007

By Adrian Janes


The European Union (EU) marks its 50th anniversary in March 2007. In this time it has grown from six to 27 Member States, gradually expanded the range of its activities and become a highly complex organisation. This article attempts to sketch some of the background to the EU's development, point out the functions of some of the key institutions and above all indicate useful sources of information.



Adrian JanesThe European Union (EU) marks its 50th anniversary in March 2007 <>. In this time it has grown from six to 27 Member States, gradually expanded the range of its activities and become a highly complex organisation. This article attempts to sketch some of the background to the EU's development, point out the functions of some of the key institutions and above all indicate useful sources of information.

As an English speaker, I have usually given Web addresses for English versions of official EU sites. The EU in fact has 23 official languages, but this does not mean that every online document or website is available in them. It is hard to see what the rationale is for the varying range of translations, but as a minimum, English, French and German versions usually exist. It may be worth applying to the EU Bookshop (see below) or the national representation of the European Commission in your country for a hard copy version of a document if it is not downloadable in your preferred language.


The present European Union dates its birth from The Treaty of Rome , which founded the European Economic Community (EEC) on 25 March 1957. The original members were Belgium, France, Germany, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and Italy. Subsequent to this, there have been several other major treaties <>, these being the Single European Act (1986); the Treaty on European Union, also known as Maastricht (1992); the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997); and the Treaty of Nice (2001). These have served both to increase the organisation's legal powers and the fields in which it tries to exert influence, notably foreign policy. Other agreements, called accession treaties, have produced several enlargements to the membership. (The 50th anniversary site has an animation vividly illustrating its gradual expansion.)

However, the degree to which the EU should be a political actor rather than an economic one remains controversial, as this has profound implications for national sovereignty. (An analogy might be made with the US, with the inherent tension between the federal government's powers and the rights of the individual states.) Proponents of the economic view hold that the EEC was intended essentially as a free trade area, or Common Market, as it was once known. On the other hand there are those who say that its evolution into a more political organisation was implicit from the beginning, and that it is a logical working out of the process of removing barriers to the movement of capital, goods, labour and citizens. The change of name to European Union and the expansion of functions as a result of the Treaty of Maastricht reflect this evolution.

The most recent expression of the controversy has been the attempt to create an EU constitution <>. Supporters of the constitution argue that the EU's institutions and decision-making procedures need to be overhauled to cope with its now far greater size. They also see it as an opportunity to confirm the rights of all citizens (the concept of European citizenship was introduced by Maastricht).

However, many of those citizens remain unconvinced. France and the Netherlands held referenda in 2005 that rejected the proposed constitution (although a number of other member states have accepted it). As it had to achieve unanimous acceptance, this led to the process being put on hold while a 'period of reflection' was undertaken. Germany began a 6-month term as EU President in January 2007, and the German leader Angela Merkel announced that this period was now at an end <>, signalling the intention to press ahead towards some form of constitution.

Organisation of the European Union

There are four key elements to the organisation and coordination of the European Union:

  • European Parliament

  • European Commission

  • European Council

  • Council of the European Union

The interrelation of these bodies is somewhat confusing, but an important element has been the growing power of Parliament. Each major treaty since 1986 has recognised and confirmed further areas of competence.

Nowadays its approval is necessary for most legislation proposed by the Commission (Parliament does not put forward legislation itself), as well as for the EU's budget. Usually this approval must also be given by the Council of the European Union, in what is known as a 'co-decision' procedure. If they are not in agreement on a piece of legislation a ‘conciliation committee', made up of both Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and Council members, will try to achieve a compromise, but Parliament can still veto the resulting text even if the Council has approved it.

MEPs have only been directly elected since 1979, an example of how the EU has evolved into a more clearly political and democratic body from its early years. They serve for 5-year terms: the current Parliament will be in office until 2009. The numbers elected from each member state are based on population: for example, the UK has 78 MEPs, Spain 54 and Latvia 9.

Two main sites lead to information on Parliament and MEPs: <> links to national offices of the Parliament, and is the better route to learn about the activities, committee membership and contact details of individual countries' MEPs; The European Parliament <> site has debates (including video coverage), documents, reports and news for Parliament as a whole.

The European Commission <> is made up of nominated members from each of the Member States. It drafts the legislative proposals that are debated and agreed to or rejected by Parliament and the Council. It is expected to take decisions in the overall interests of the EU, rather than be subject to the national pressures felt by MEPs.

The areas of the Commission's activity are each supported by a Directorate-General, or DG. Thus, there is a DG Agriculture and Rural Development, DG Information Society and Media, DG Regional Development, etc. All of these have informative webpages for their area of expertise. The simplest way to get to these (and also information on many specific topics) is to use the Commission's A-Z Index <>.

The European Council <> consists of meetings of state or governmental heads plus the President of the European Commission. It is the main source of policy-making, which the Commission then turns into legislative proposals. It is also the key body for the EU's relations with the rest of the world.

The Council of the European Union (previously known as the Council of Ministers) <> consists of meetings of ministers who have responsibility in their own countries for particular briefs, such as Environment or Economic and Financial Affairs, in order to discuss these areas on a European or even wider basis. It also partners the Parliament in the legislative process.

To find contacts in a specific part of the EU's organisation, the EU Whoiswho <> is very comprehensive, and it can be searched by individual name, by entity (e.g. the Council) or by hierarchy (e.g. the audit groups which answer to the Court of Auditors).

Finally, it is important to note that EU enlargement is not yet complete. The European Commission Enlargement website <> provides information about the candidate countries, which at the moment are largely members of what was Yugoslavia, along with Turkey.

General Sources of Information

The quantity of information obtainable from and about the EU matches its geographic vastness. There has been a conscious movement in recent years to place much more online, as well as developing information networks to deal with enquiries from citizens and businesses. For pamphlets and books, including online versions, the EU Bookshop <> and the EU Publications Office <> are the best places to start. The Publications Office homepage also serves as an immediate gateway to important publications like the Official Journal and EU Whoiswho.

Europa <> is the pre-eminent official gateway. All the main areas of activity are covered, from agriculture to transport, with links rapidly leading from the broad to the very specific.

If you bookmark nothing else, bookmark the European Union Delegation of the European Commission to the USA <>. This wonderfully thorough site provides links to the majority of EU sites you are likely to need, organised as Essential EU Sites, Essential Sites in Business, Education and Law, and sites for EU institutions and agencies. Since the workings of the EU are probably as mysterious to many Europeans as they are to Americans, it's also worth knowing about the PDF of "The European Union: a guide for Americans" (included under Publications), which is a good introduction.

Euroguide <> is a collection of sites under a broader set of headings than Europa, many with brief descriptions. It is aimed at the general public and includes many non-EU sources, even including an Anti-European Union category.

Europe Direct <> has a clickable map to indicate centres for EU information in each of the member states. They are intended to be able to answer enquiries on all aspects of the EU, whether it is a question of policy or the practical exercise of rights.

In Britain, the European Information Network <> not only provides links to Europe Direct centres, but also includes networks aimed at specific audiences: European Documentation Centres (academic), European Information Centres (business), and European Public Information Centres (based in public libraries).


As noted, the EU's areas of activity have greatly expanded over the past five decades, and a body of law has grown up that reflects this. The treaties, also known as the 'primary' legislation, are the foundation for all other 'secondary' legislation, such as directives (which apply to all member states and must be incorporated into national law) and decisions (which are more limited, applying to a particular state or an entity such as a company).

A gateway site that can give access to the texts of all of this legal material is Eur-Lex <>. Bear in mind that a 'new' law (ie, one that has come into effect in a member state) will often have been agreed at the EU level years before, so this will affect a search limited by date. The Directory of Community Legislation in Force <> is a key feature of the site. However it is liable to produce a large number of results from a keyword search, so it is preferable to start with a precise reference such as the number of a directive, for example 93/104/EC (the Working Time Directive), where '93' indicates 1993, the year in which that measure was agreed.

The Court of Justice of the European Communities <>, contrary to what some think, is concerned not with the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (which was adopted in 1950 by the Council of Europe), but with the application of EU law. Cases related to the Convention are heard by the European Court of Human Rights, which, like the Council of Europe, is a non-EU body.

To keep up to date with legal measures that have been passed or are under discussion the key source is the Official Journal Series L This is archived from 1998 in 11 official languages, and additionally from 2004 in the languages of the countries which joined in that year. It can be supplemented by the websites of Parliament and the Commission.

For non-specialists, Your Europe <> offers information both for citizens and businesses on their legal rights in more straightforward language. It is complemented by Solvit <>, a network of advisors backed by the European Commission. This tries to settle actual problems that have arisen from EU law in practice without having to go through legal proceedings.

Business and Economy

Economically, the EU is currently working to a 10-year strategy agreed in Lisbon in 2000, aiming to become 'the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world'. From a business point of view, the EU has opened up new opportunities. Indeed, one of the selling points to counteract fears about enlargement has been the added millions of potential consumers and workers.

The area in which businesses can tender for public works contracts has also increased. By law, all such contracts above a certain threshold must be offered across the EU. These can be monitored via TED (Tenders Electronic Daily) <>, also known as Official Journal S. The site can be searched by location or business sector. The latter are classified by the Common Procurement Vocabulary (CPV). To check the appropriate CPV a keyword search can be used. Alternatively, SIMAP <>, a gateway site for public procurement, has a PDF of the current numerical codes <>.

One of the most contentious developments of recent years has been the introduction of the Euro. For some, a national currency is a potent symbol of control of national affairs, so giving it up obviously implies lack of control. This remains a live issue in the UK, one of the countries that so far have not joined the Eurozone (member states that have adopted the Euro). The official UK site for the Euro is run by the Treasury <>.

On a more pragmatic level, while it permits much more direct cost comparisons for business and consumers, some argue that it has lead to higher prices. To keep up to date with the exchange rate for the Euro, the European Central Bank <> is a good source, as well as for Eurozone interest rates and general economic news. EU Business <> is a more general entry point for business news, with a clear structure that leads easily to a currency converter, a large collection of useful guides to countries and specific business-related issues (e.g. the Copyright Directive), and links to official pages.


The EU's statistical agency is Eurostat <>. All of its publications are downloadable, and cover themes for every facet of the EU: economic, population and social conditions, trade, etc.

A more specialist statistical source is the European Employment Observatory <>. A notable feature is its "Sourcebook of key data sources on employment and labour market issues", <>, which highlights many websites and journals, firstly across the EU and then by country.



The European Union has been an ongoing project which, if anything, has only grown more ambitious over the past 50 years. But just as its geographical extent is likely to grow, so too is its economic and political influence. Hopefully this article has shown that information professionals and the public have resources that can help them find out what they need to know, either directly or through referral to specialists.

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