The European Union is the most important IGO besides the United Nations, having a larger population (512 million) than the U.S. and the world’s the second-largest economy. In an attempt to prevent a repeat of the mass casualties and destruction of WWI and WWII through functional cooperation, it was started in 1952 with an agreement between perennial enemies France and Germany plus four other countries to coordinate coal and steel production. This was so successful that is was followed by successive programs on free trade, farm subsidies, regional development, common governance structures, free movement of labor, students, services and investment, standardization of laws and products (e.g. 750 mil wine bottles), budget rules (the U.S.’s large budget deficits and debt would disqualify it from membership), a European Central Bank and a single currency (the Euro, which is currently used by 19 EU countries, including Germany and France). It has expanded from the original six to the current 29 countries, and the result has been 60 years of peace, increased prosperity and freer interaction cross the European continent. The EU gives preferential trade treatment to former European colonies, but has high tariffs against other countries outside of Europe.
The EU has also developed political dimensions. The countries' leaders meet periodically in the European Council, which appoints the Council of Ministers and supervises the 20-member European Commission, where most of the day-to-day work occurs and most of the rules are made. The popularly elected European Parliament has increasingly asserted itself, developing policies, overturning European Commission rules, vetting and sometimes rejecting European Commission nominees and even removing them for corruption. The European Court of Justice has also become more assertive, issuing a number of rulings against human rights violations in member countries, such as British mistreatment of Irish Republican Army prisoners. The European Central Bank has also started to make more independent decisions on monetary policy.
In practice, power is now shared between the EU and its member governments. There is dislike of the large number of regulations made by the EU bureaucracy, so the “Eurocrats” must periodically back down. One proposed rule in 2014 would have prohibited olive oil from being served at restaurants. It was shouted down. In 2019, there was a backlash in Italy when the EU confiscated local handmade pasta that did not have sufficient documentation regarding its origin. In another case, a traditional cheese factory was allowed to keep the mold growing on its walls because it was a necessary part of the ripening of the cheese. Allowing local exceptions is called ‘subsidiarity’ in EU speak.
Because of resentment of the central bureaucracy and fear of immigration, two attempts to approve a new European Constitution foundered because of resistance from voters in Denmark and France. However, the so-called Lisbon Treaty was finally approved by EU parliaments in 2007 and set up reforms such as proportional voting based on population and having a long-term EU president and foreign minister.
Although the EU has become more prosperous overall, has a high quality of life and is a model for other regional organizations, many EU countries face problems with slow economies and lack of jobs for young people, especially outside the cities (there are continuing anti-poverty protests in small French towns by the so-called Yellow Vests), expensive welfare states, and discrimination against Muslim immigrants. They also face problems integrating the new, poor, member countries from Eastern Europe.
There is continuing fallout from the recession and unemployment following the 2008 Euro property bubble and crash, with Greece nearly defaulting on their loans and leaving the Euro zone, arguments over who should take the losses from bad loans and bonds, and questions on how to reform economies like Greece and Italy, which have large, unsustainable debts. The crisis over the EU economy has been grinding on for over ten years with only incremental responses, revealing the weakness of the financial and governing system.
The flood of millions of refuges from Syria and other countries, the anti-immigrant vote in Britain to leave the EU (Brexit) and the rise of anti-immigration and anti-EU parties across Europe have shaken the EU. However the 2019 EU parliament elections saw only small gains by these parties, suggesting that their support has leveled off.
There are several overlapping European organizations dealing with security and other issues. The most important is NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), a mutual security pact between Western Europe and North America. It was started during the Cold War against the USSR/Russia and has now expanded to include countries in Eastern Europe. It was NATO that belatedly stopped the genocidal civil war in Yugoslavia. NATO has successfully coordinated military defenses among its members and is now bolstering defenses in Eastern Europe to stave off the renewed threat from Russia.