In June 2016, citizens of the United Kingdom had an important decision to make: Should their country remain a member of the European Union (EU), or should it leave the EU behind?
The British vote was big news across the EU. Before the vote, the German magazine Der Spiegel featured a British flag on its cover with the plea “Bitte Geht Nicht,” German for “Please Don’t Go.” An editorial argued, “We need the British because they belong to Europe, and because without them, the union of European peoples becomes pointless and lost.” In May 2016, El País, Spain’s most highly read newspaper, warned that Britain leaving the EU would affect much more than Europe, with a headline calling it “Un Riesgo Global,” or “A Global Risk.”
Today, we know that on June 23, 2016, British citizens did in fact vote in favor of Brexit. The word Brexit is a portmanteau—a new word created by combining two existing words. Brexit is made from the words Britain and exit. With Brexit approved, British citizens directed their government to begin the difficult process of exiting the EU.
Inspired by this historical vote, some people in other EU nations are thinking about whether their countries should remain part of the EU. In the Netherlands, Nexit was a key issue in that county’s general elections on March 15. In France, some people are thinking about Frexit, while in Greece others are considering Grexit. So far, however, only the United Kingdom has voted to leave the EU.
While these events have focused the world’s attention on Europe, people who do not live there may have difficulty understanding the issues Europeans face. What exactly is the EU? Who started it, and why? Why would a country want to leave it?
A History of the EU
Europe is one of Earth’s continents. It makes up about 7 percent of all land on Earth. Around 740 million people live there, which is around 10 percent of the world’s population. Today, Europe includes fifty sovereign states.
Unfortunately, much of Europe’s history has been marked by wars over economic resources, political power, and religious beliefs. The history of conflict came to a head in the twentieth century with World War I and World War II. Combined, these two wars accounted for the deaths of about 100 million people—not only in Europe but also throughout the world.
World War II alone accounted for about 85 million of those deaths, making it the most deadly war in the world’s history. Five years after it ended, two European countries, France and England, came up with a plan to make sure their citizens would never fight against each other again. Though they were allies during the World Wars, they had fought each other in the past. In 1950, a total of six European nations signed this document, agreeing to share their coal and steel resources.
In 1957, a treaty established the European Economic Community (EEC). The EEC provided the foundation for what would eventually become the EU. The founding members of the EEC included Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany. The United Kingdom joined this organization in 1973.
In 1992, twelve European nations signed the Maastricht Treaty, which marked the official beginning of the EU. The treaty led to the creation of the euro, or the money that would become the official currency of most of the member states of the EU. However, in order to use the euro, countries are expected to maintain “sound fiscal policies,” mainly by keeping their national debt under control. While exchange rates change frequently, since 2015, one euro has equaled about 1.10 U.S. dollars.
The EU is run by four main institutions: the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, and the Court of Justice. However, not all 50 European nations are members of the EU. For example, Europe’s largest country, the Russian Federation, is not a member. Currently, the EU has 28 members. The latest member, Croatia, joined in 2013.
Being a member of the EU is expensive. All 28 members pay operating costs. Some people think this system is unfair since some countries pay more than others. While some countries pay more based on the size of their economies, this money benefits all member countries equally, regardless of how much each contributes.
Also, as a country’s businesses become more successful, their membership dues continue to rise. In the United Kingdom, for example, the annual membership fees rose from £2.7 billion ($3.4 billion in U.S. dollars) in 2007 to £11.3 billion ($14.1 billion in U.S. dollars) in 2013. Some people question whether the money their country pays in EU fees would be better spent to benefit their own citizens. Currently, the largest contributors to the EU budget are Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom (£10.70). These four countries pay around 62 percent of the EU’s operating costs, while the remaining 24 members pay the remaining 38 percent.
Critics of this position say that while it is true that some countries pay more, it ignores the money the EU spends in those countries. In 2015, for example, EU money was used to aid people in Cornwall and South Wales, two poorer areas of the United Kingdom.
Others argue that EU membership limits a country’s ability to build trade with countries outside of the EU, such as India and China. One pro-Brexit lobbying group said that EU membership would be replaced by “new economic commerce with the whole world.” Critics of this position argue, however, that EU member countries have more trading power as a collective than they would as individual countries. It also ignores the importance of trade within the EU to its members. In 2016, for example, 44 percent of Britain’s trading was done with other EU countries. Leaving the EU would simply make it more difficult to do business with countries still in the EU.
Some people feel that EU membership limits their own ability to find work. Membership in the EU permits citizens to travel freely throughout member nations in search of work. As of 2015, it was estimated that more than 14 million people lived in an EU country they weren’t born in.
Many believe that since migrants from other countries are often willing to work for lower wages, citizens of the host country will be passed over for jobs. With the breakup of the former Soviet Union, for example, more affluent countries received a huge influx of migrants when former Soviet countries joined the EU.
Critics of this position, however, point out that when migrants move to a new area, they also improve the local economy by the money they spend there. Additionally, free travel within the EU provides many more jobs for people of all member countries regardless of how much their country of origin contributes. What is to become of the EU remains to be seen, as member nations feel the effects of Brexit and determine whether they themselves wish to remain together as a union.
Visit the European Union’s official website.
Learn more about how the EU is structured at the BBC and the Delegation of the European Union to the United States.
Read more about the geography of Europe at National Geographic.