University of Washington

What is the European Union?

The European Union (EU) is a grouping of sovereign states that have committed to pursue common policies in certain areas. These member states - 28 as of 2013 - are integrating economically above all, but politically as well. The EU itself is not a state: it is rather a unique creation in which the independent member states pool their sovereignty, surrendering the right to make independent decisions in certain areas such as fiscal, environmental, or employment policy.

The EU is different from the United Nations, as member states of the UN actually do not surrender their sovereignty. The UN leadership has no power to make member states comply with directives. The EU’s central decision-making institutions, however, do have the power to force members to comply. This power derives from the treaties that member states sign upon their entrance into the EU. Hence the EU is a treaty-based organization, and a series of treaties govern the operations of the Union. The EU, unlike the United States, does not as of yet have a constitution that applies to society, politics, and economics of all the member states. While a draft constitution has been approved, the member states have yet to ratify it and thereby bring the constitution legally into effect.

The process of European integration that has led to the European Union today began shortly after the Second World War, and was in large part inspired by the experience of that catastrophic conflict. European leaders such as Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet, both French, determined that never again should a war devastate the countries of Europe . The best insurance against such destruction, as Monnet and Schuman saw it, was to tie the countries of Europe so closely together that they simply could not make war on each other.

Prominent in their calculations was assuring that Germany’s main war-making industries - coal and steel - be bound to those of France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Thus in 1951 the European Coal and Steel Community was born, and marked the first major step towards the European Union of today. In the years immediately following, the treaties establishing the European Economic Community were negotiated, increasing cooperation across a wide spectrum of issues.

The process of European integration began to take on a momentum of its own, impelled not so much by a fear of Germany as by a goal of strengthening the European economy through combining countries’ resources. This process continues today: European countries face no significant military threats in the world, but instead strive to realize the benefits of closer union. The past 50 years of expanding European integration have shown that such integration can bring peace, stability, and even prosperity to formerly troubled lands - and this is one of the continuing motivations for EU enlargement.


Please contact Eva Dunn, Outreach Coordinator, EU Center for Excellence of Seattle, at with any questions.

European Union Center of Excellence
120 Thomson Hall
Box 353650
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195-3650
(206) 616-2415 office
(206) 616-2462 fax