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Skip to 0 minutes and 5 seconds The European Union is an international organisation in which its member countries work together through common policies for their mutual benefit. At present, the EU has 28 Member States, 24 official languages and a combined population of over 500 million people. It all began after World War II, when six countries established the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. The idea was to create a common market for coal and steel and by so doing make war between them impossible. In 1957, the European Economic Community was set up with the aim of extending the common market to the rest of the economy. This evolved into the European Community and later the European Union.

Skip to 0 minutes and 49 seconds Over the years, the EU has expanded as new countries have joined. The EU is based on treaties - the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The Charter of Fundamental Rights also has treaty-level status. The treaties govern where the EU has the power to act. In most areas, the EU shares legislative competence with its members. In a few areas, the EU has exclusive competence to make laws, while in others it just supports its members. Everything the EU does has to be based on the treaties, so all policies outside of these remain with its members. The EU has a highly developed legal system. EU law is integrated into the legal systems of its members.

Skip to 1 minute and 35 seconds In order to carry out its aims, the EU has several institutional bodies. The European Commission proposes new laws, coordinates EU policies and ensures that EU law is implemented. The Council of the EU is made up of ministers from all the Member States and it decides on every EU law. The European Parliament is made up of members directly elected across the EU and it has a say on almost every EU law. The Court of Justice of the EU decides cases concerning EU law and works to uphold the legal system. The European Council is made up of the presidents and prime ministers from the Member States and it gives political direction and guidance to the EU.

Skip to 2 minutes and 20 seconds The centrepiece of the EU is the Single Market (also called the common market or the internal market). The Single Market allows for the free movement of goods, services, people and capital across the EU (and the other European countries which are part of the market). This is designed to improve the economies of EU members by making trade, working and investment easier within the market. Other EU policies include the euro, a common currency shared by 19 EU members, and the Schengen system of borderless travel across much of Europe. Not all EU members take part in all EU policies - for instance, the UK and Denmark have an opt-out from the euro and the UK and Ireland have an opt-out from Schengen.

Skip to 3 minutes and 2 seconds The EU has evolved over time and integration has progressively advanced. Negotiation and political compromise have always been central to how the EU works. Today, the EU is confronted with many challenges, including migration from the Mediterranean, the remnants of the Eurocrisis and the threat of terrorism. We’ll have to wait and see how the EU faces these challenges - whether its members integrate even further, or start to move in the opposite direction.

Basics: What is the EU?

What is the European Union and how does it work? Anthony Salamone explains.

(Video/Design by Tim Askew. Voice/Script by Anthony Salamone.)

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This video is from the free online course:

Towards Brexit? The UK's EU Referendum

The University of Edinburgh