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La Unión Europea

The European Union (EU) is a family of democratic European countries, committed to working together for peace and prosperity. It is not a State intended to replace existing states, but it is more than any other international organisation. The EU is, in fact, unique. Its Member States have set up common institutions to which they delegate some of their sovereignty so that decisions on specific matters of joint interest can be made democratically at European level. This pooling of sovereignty is also called "European integration".

The historical roots of the European Union lie in the Second World War. The idea of European integration was conceived to prevent such killing and destruction from ever happening again. It was first proposed by the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman in a speech on 9 May 1950. This date, the "birthday" of what is now the EU, is celebrated annually as Europe Day.

There are five EU institutions, each playing a specific role:

  •     European Parliament (elected by the peoples of the Member States);
  •     Council of the European Union (representing the governments of the Membe States);
  •     European Commission (driving force and executive body);
  •     Court of Justice (ensuring compliance with the law);
  •     Court of Auditors (controlling sound and lawful management of the EU budget).

These are flanked by five other important bodies:

  •     European Economic and Social Committee (expresses the opinions of organised civil society on economic and social issues);
  •     Committee of the Regions (expresses the opinions of regional and local authorities);
  •     European Central Bank (responsible for monetary policy and managing the euro);
  •     European Ombudsman (deals with citizens' complaints about maladministration by any EU institution or body);
  •     European Investment Bank (helps achieve EU objectives by financing investment projects);  

A number of agencies and other bodies complete the system.

The rule of law is fundamental to the European Union. All EU decisions and procedures are based on the Treaties, which are agreed by all the EU countries. Initially, the EU consisted of just six countries: Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom joined in 1973, Greece in 1981, Spain and Portugal in 1986, Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995. In 2004 the biggest ever enlargement took place with 10 new countries joining.

In the early years, much of the co-operation between EU countries was about trade and the economy, but now the EU also deals with many other subjects of direct importance for our everyday life, such as citizens' rights; ensuring freedom, security and justice; job creation; regional development; environmental protection; making globalisation work for everyone.

The European Union has delivered half a century of stability, peace and prosperity. It has helped to raise living standards, built a single Europe-wide market, launched the single European currency, the euro, and strengthened Europe's voice in the world.

Unity in diversity: Europe is a continent with many different traditions and languages, but also with shared values. The EU defends these values. It fosters co-operation among the peoples of Europe, promoting unity while preserving diversity and ensuring that decisions are taken as close as possible to the citizens. In the increasingly interdependent world of the 21st century, it will be even more necessary for every European citizen to co-operate with people from other countries in a spirit of curiosity, tolerance and solidarity.