Established: 1993 (by the Treaty of Maastricht)
Preceded by: European Community, European Economic Community, European Coal and Steel Community
Member states: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom
Official candidates for membership: Croatia, Macedonia, Turkey Official languages: Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Irish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish
GDP: 10.6 trillion euros (2007)
Combined area: 4,422,773 square km
Highest point: Mont Blanc (4,807m above sea level)
Coastline: 69,342 km
Climate: varied (primarily maritime, continental and Mediterranean)
The European Council (EC), with one representative for each member state, is the EU's highest political body. The Union's presidency rotates among member states, with each holding the position for a term of six months. As a body composed of national leaders, it exerts de facto influence over bloc policies and decisions.
The EC is the bloc's executive arm. It initiates legislation and is responsible for the EU's daily operations. The EC consists of 27 commissioners, one from each member state, each covering a different policy area.
The EU has two legislative bodies: the European Parliament (EP) and the Council of the European Union. They work together to draft ad adopt legislation.
Members of the European Parliament (MEP) are elected by citizens of EU countries every five years. Each country receives a fixed number of seats. Although elected on a country-by-country basis, MEPs sit according to their political affiliations.
The Council of the European Union brings together ministers from member states for policy discussions.
The European Court of Justice, based in Luxembourg, is the EU's highest court and has the ultimate authority over legal questions. It generally deals with cases brought by member states. A lower court known as the Court of First Instance hears case brought by individuals and companies.
In 1950, the European Court of Human Rights was established in Strasbourg, France. Part of the Council of Europe, it hears cases involving violations of the European Convention on Human Rights.