What is the European Union?
The European Union is a supranational group of 27 countries in Europe, and was initially formed in the 1950's. Originally it was called the Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the first countries were France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. In 1973 the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark joined followed by Greece in 1981. In 1986 Spain and Portugal joined and later Finland, Sweden and Austria in 1995. In May 2004, 10 countries joined at the same time: Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus. The most recent new members were Romania and Bulgaria in 2007. Croatia will join the EU soon, probably in 2013.
These countries trade with each other in a common market, meaning that goods can be sold and bought freely across the union. People can also live and work (with some restrictions) in any EU country if they are an EU citizen. Member countries also have some common laws derived from decisions made by the union. Each country in the EU also elects politicians to a European Parliament which helps make and decide what common goals the union should pursue. Fifteen countries in the European Union also share a common currency: the Euro.
Which countries are in the EU?
There are 27 countries in the EU which has a population of around 500 million and the largest economy in the world.
The members are (in order of when they joined): France, Italy, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, United Kingdom, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Finland, Sweden, Austria, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Malta, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria.
Macedonia, Croatia, Turkey, Montenegro and Iceland are applicant countries who wish to join the European Union in the future. Croatia has been approved and will join soon.
Which countries use the euro?
Seventeen of the twenty-seven EU member countries use the euro as their currency: France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Finland, Slovenia, Cyprus, Malta, Slovakia and Estonia. All other members (except the United Kingdom and Denmark) are obliged by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty to adopt the euro at some point in the future.
In addition, a few smaller countries which are not part of the EU also use the euro: Vatican City, San Marino, Monaco, Andorra, Montenegro and the province of Kosovo in Serbia.
Which countries have "open borders"?
The Schengen Agreement was signed by many countries in Europe (including some which are not part of the EU). Countries which have singed up to this agreement have no border controls between similar countries. This means that you can travel from Portugal to Spain to France to Germany to Poland to Lithuania to Latvia to Estonia and Finland (several thousand kilometres) and you don't need to stop at borders, show passports.
The following countries have singed the agreement and removed border controls: Portugal, Spain, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Iceland (not part of the EU), Sweden, Norway (not part of the EU), Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland (not part of the EU), Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Hungary and Greece. Liechtenstein will join at the end of 2011. The only EU countries where passports are still needed are the United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria.