Portrait and history of the EU

Winston Churchill standing in a vehicle covered in flowers on his arrival in Zurich.
"Let Europe arise". British Prime Minister Winston Churchill calls for the unification of Europe in Zurich in September 1946. © Keystone

The European Union (EU) is a union of 27 countries with a population of over 446 million. It arose from the efforts of European states to conclude treaties among themselves to ensure long-term peace and prosperity in Europe. The EU is not merely an economic arrangement. It is a union based on common values including respect for freedom, diversity and democracy.

The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of 27 sovereign states with a population of over 446 million. Together, the EU states and the non-member states Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway constitute the European Economic Area (EEA). All of these states and Switzerland belong to the European single market. The world's largest common market depends on four fundamental freedoms: the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital.

Peace and prosperity in Europe

After the Second World War there was a great need in Europe to secure lasting peace. In essence, this meant improving the relations between France and Germany, which had a long history of war against each other. Robert Schuman, France's foreign minister, drew up a plan to merge the two countries' coal and steel industries, which had been vital to their war efforts. The idea was to avoid future conflicts, speed up economic growth and improve the lives of citizens.

Together with Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, France and the Federal Republic of Germany founded the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951. Its purpose, as Schuman declared, was to "make a war between France and Germany not only unthinkable, but also materially impossible." The ECSC in turn enabled Germany to return to the European stage on an equal footing.

European integration

Apart from the ECSC, a series of other treaties were established and gradually expanded to form the European Communities and finally the European Union. More and more European states wanted to be part of these communities and later the EU. Treaties negotiated among sovereign states formed the basis for this European integration.

Against all odds, Robert Schuman's plan worked out: the process brought the European continent not only prosperity, but an unprecedented era of peace.

United in diversity

The EU motto is "united in diversity". In other words, the EU member states have come together not merely for economic reasons but because they share common values, namely respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law, human rights and the rights of minorities. It is the intention of the EU member states to work jointly towards peace and prosperity, while respecting the diverse cultures, traditions and languages in Europe.

The EU-27 in brief

Map of Europe with member countries in various colours.
©DEA

Member states: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden.

Population: Over 446 million people – Germany is the most populous country with 83 million inhabitants. Malta is the country with the smallest population (493,559). The EU is the territory with the third largest population, after China and India.

Area: Over 4 million km² – France has the largest territory, measuring 633,187 km² and Malta is the smallest EU country, measuring just 316 km².

Official languages: 24 – Members of the European Parliament have the right to use any of the EU's official languages when speaking in Parliament. The EU institutions employ over 4,300 translators, making it one of the largest translation services worldwide.

Economy: GDP 2018 (EU-28): EUR 15,876 trillion – Taking the volume of total goods and services produced (GDP), the EU economy is currently bigger than China's (GDP of EUR 11,353 trillion) and only slightly smaller than that of the US (EUR 17,353 trillion).

Trade: 15.1% of global imports, 15.2% of global exports (2018) – the EU is the second biggest importer, just behind the US (16.4%). As a global exporter the EU comes second only to China (16.4%), ahead of the US (10.9%).