What Is the European Union (EU)?

The European Union (EU) is a group of 28 countries that operates as a cohesive economic and political block. Nineteen of the countries use the euro as their official currency.

Key Takeaways

  • The European Union (EU) consists of a group of countries that acts as one economic unit in the world economy.
  • Its official currency is the euro; 19 of its 28 members have adopted the currency.
  • In a 2016 referendum, the U.K. voted to leave the EU. Brexit has been challenged repeatedly.

The EU grew out of a desire to form a single European political entity to end the centuries of warfare among European countries that culminated with World War II and decimated much of the continent. The European Single Market was established by 12 countries in 1993 to ensure the so-called four freedoms: the movement of goods, services, people, and money.

The EU's gross domestic product (GDP) totaled $17.1 trillion (nominal) in 2017, which was $2.9 trillion less than the United States' $20 trillion GDP, according to figures available from the World Bank.


European Union (EU)

Understanding the European Union (EU)

The EU began as the European Coal and Steel Community, which was founded in 1950 and had just six members: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. It became the European Economic Community in 19957 under the Treaty of Rome and, subsequently, became the European Community (EC).

The early focus of the EC was a common agricultural policy as well as the elimination of customs barriers. The EC initially expanded in 1973 when Denmark, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Greece, and Spain became members. A directly elected European Parliament took office in 1979.

In 1986, the Single European Act solidified the principles of foreign policy cooperation and extended the powers of the community over the members. The act also formalized the idea of a single European market.

The Maastricht Treaty took effect on November 1, 1993, and the European Union (EU) replaced the EC. The treaty created the euro, which is intended to be the single currency for the EU. The euro debuted on January 1, 1999. Denmark and the United Kingdom negotiated "opt out" provisions that permitted them to retain their own currencies.

Several newer members of the EU have not yet met the criteria for adopting the euro.

Special Considerations

The EU continues to face a number of challenges.

North-South Issues

The EU and the European Central Bank have struggled with high sovereign debt and collapsing growth in Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain since the global financial market collapse of 2008. Greece and Ireland received financial bailouts from the community in 2009, which were accompanied by fiscal austerity. Portugal followed in 2011, along with a second Greek bailout.

Multiple rounds of interest rate cuts and economic stimulus failed to resolve the problem. Northern countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands increasingly resent the financial drain from the south. Repeated rumors that Greece would be forced to withdraw from the euro failed to materialize amid disagreement as to whether the move was legally possible as it was not covered in the Maastricht Treaty.


As the situation moved from crisis to stagnation, the U.K. government announced it would hold a referendum to determine whether it would remain a part of the EU on June 23, 2016. The nation voted to leave the EU under what's now called Brexit. While officially scheduled for March 29, 2019, the Brexit plan has been challenged repeatedly by various coalitions of the U.K. Parliament.

On January 15, 2019, the U.K. Parliament soundly rejected Prime Minister Theresa May's "Withdrawal Plan" forcing her to come up with an alternative by January 21. On March 27, when the most recent Brexit vote was held, none of the eight Brexit alternatives voted on by Members of Parliament received a majority. May's deal was rejected again on March 29 by a margin of 58 votes, despite her vow to resign before the next stage of negotiations if it was passed.

Currently, the EU and UK have agreed to delay Brexit until Oct. 31, 2019, while they revisit what might be done. Among the possible next developments: the U.K. withdrawing without an agreement, a further delay of Brexit, and a second referendum.