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The European Union

The European Union 
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, nor is it just an organisation for international cooperation. 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. The historical roots of the European Union lie in the Second World War. The idea was born because Europeans were determined to prevent such killing and destruction ever happening again. In the early years, the cooperation was between six countries and mainly about trade and the economy. Now the EU embraces 25 countries and 450 million people, and it deals with a wide range of issues of direct importance for our everyday life. Europe is a continent with many different traditions and languages, but also with shared values such as democracy, freedom and social justice. The EU defends these values. It fosters cooperation 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 is more necessary than ever for every European citizen to work together with people from other countries in a spirit of curiosity, openness and solidarity.
EU members and when they joined 
EU members and when they joined. 1952 Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands 1973 Denmark, Ireland, United Kingdom 1981 Greece 1986 Portugal, Spain 1995 Austria, Finland, Sweden 2004 Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia  
The European Parliament 
The European Parliament is elected every five years by the people of Europe to represent their interests. The present parliament, elected in June 2004, has 732 members from all 25 EU countries. Nearly one third of them (222) are women. The main job of Parliament is to pass European laws. It shares this responsibility with the Council of the European Union, and the proposals for new laws come from the European Commission. Parliament and Council also share joint responsibility for approving the EU's �100 billion annual budget. Parliament has the power to dismiss the European Commission. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) do not sit in national blocks, but in seven Europe-wide political groups. The largest of these are the centre-right European People's Party (Christian Democrats), followed by the Socialists, the Liberals and the Greens. Between them, MEPs represent all views on European integration, from the strongly pro-federalist to the openly Eurosceptic. The main meetings of the Parliament are held in Strasbourg, others in Brussels. Like all other EU institutions, it works in all 20 official EU languages. The Parliament elects the European Ombudsman, who investigates citizens' complaints about maladministration by the EU institutions.  
The Council of the European Union 
The Council of the European Union: - formerly known as the Council of Ministers - shares with Parliament the responsibility for passing laws and taking policy decisions. It also bears the main responsibility for what the EU does in the field of the common foreign and security policy and for EU action on some justice and freedom issues. The Council consists of ministers from the national governments of all the EU countries. Meetings are attended by whichever ministers are responsible for the items to be discussed: foreign ministers, ministers of the economy and finance, ministers for agriculture and so on, as appropriate. Each country has a number of votes in the Council broadly reflecting the size of their population, but weighted in favour of smaller countries. Most decisions are taken by majority vote, although sensitive issues in areas like taxation, asylum and immigration, or foreign and security policy, require unanimity. Up to four times a year the presidents and/or prime ministers of the Member States meet as the European Council. These 'summit' meetings set overall EU policy.  
The European Commission 
The European Commission represents and upholds the interests of Europe as a whole. It is independent of national governments. It drafts proposals for new European laws, which it presents to the European Parliament and the Council. It manages the day-to-day business of implementing EU policies and spending EU funds. The Commission also keeps an eye out to see that everyone abides by the European treaties and laws. It can act against rule-breakers, taking them to the Court of Justice if necessary. The Commission consists of 25 women and men - one from each EU country. They are assisted by about 24 000 civil servants, most of whom work in Brussels. The President of the Commission is chosen by EU governments and endorsed by the European Parliament. The other commissioners are nominated by their national governments in consultation with the in-coming President, and must be approved by the Parliament. They do not represent the governments of their home countries. Instead, each of them has responsibility for a particular EU policy area. The President and members of the Commission are appointed for a period of five years, coinciding with the period for which the European Parliament is elected.  
The Court of Justice 
The job of the Court of Justice is to make sure that EU law is interpreted and applied in the same way in all EU countries, thereby ensuring that the law is equal for everyone. It ensures, for example, that national courts do not give different rulings on the same issue. The Court also makes sure that EU member states and institutions do what the law requires them to do. The Court is located in Luxembourg and has one judge from each member country.  
The Court of Auditors 
The Court of Auditors checks that the EU's funds, which come from the taxpayers, are spent legally, economically and for the intended purpose. The Court is based in Luxembourg and has the right to audit any organisation, body or company which handles EU funds.  
The European Economic and Social Committee 
The 317 members of the European Economic and Social Committee represent a wide range of interests: from employers to trade unionists, from consumers to ecologists. The Committee is an advisory body which must give its opinion on proposed EU decisions about employment, social spending, vocational training, etc.  
The Committee of the Regions 
The Committee of the Regions is consulted on upcoming EU decisions with a direct impact at the local or regional level in fields such as transport, health, employment or education. Its 317 members are often leaders of regional governments or mayors of cities.  
The European Central Bank 
Based in Frankfurt, the Central Bank is responsible for managing the euro - for example, by setting interest rates. Its prime concern is ensuring price stability so that the European economy is not damaged by inflation. The Bank takes it decisions independently of governments and other bodies. Its president is Jean-Claude Trichet.  
The European Investment Bank 
The bank lends money for projects of European interest, particularly in the less well-off regions. It finances infrastructure projects such as rail and road links, airports or environmental schemes. It provides credit for investments by small businesses (SMEs). The Luxembourg-based bank also lends to candidate states and developing countries. Because it is owned by EU governments, the bank can raise capital and provide credits at favourable rates.  
Make it simple: the new Constitution 
In June 2004, EU leaders agreed a Constitution for the European Union. Once it is approved by all 25 member countries, it will come into force in 2006. The purpose of the constitution is to replace the old EU treaties with a single text setting out clearly what the Union is and who does what. It also includes the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Constitution lays down simpler and more efficient rules for taking decisions in a Union of 25 countries. For example, most decisions will be taken by "qualified majority voting" rather than requiring every single country to agree. The Constitution is designed to make the EU more open and democratic. For example, it obliges EU ministers to hold their law-making discussions in public, and it gives citizens the right to draw up a petition asking the European Commission to propose new laws. Moreover, it gives national parliaments a greater role in monitoring EU activities. The new Constitution maintains the existing balance between national interests and the general European interest, and between the interests of small and big countries. There is to be a minister for foreign affairs, whose job will be to help the EU act more effectively on the world stage.