The European Union (EU) traces its origins to a 1951 cooperation agreement among six countries (Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands); now, some fifty years later, the EU has 15 member states (having added Denmark, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Finland, and Sweden). Enlargement of the EU to still other countries, including several in Eastern and Southern Europe, is contemplated.
The goals of the EU are to promote economic and social progress; to assert the identity of the EU on the international scene; to strive toward a European citizenship; to develop an area of freedom, security, and justice; and to maintain and build on established EU law.
The EU operates through five institutions: the European Parliament (elected by the peoples of the member states); the Council (which represents the governments of the member states); the European Commission (which is the executive body); the Court of Justice (which ensures compliance with the law); and the Court of Auditors (responsible for auditing accounts). These institutions are supported by other bodies, including the Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions, the European Investment Bank, the European Central Bank, and the European Ombudsman (which deals with complaints from citizens).
Additional information on the background of the European Union may be found at the European Union Studies Association.