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Europe: Time of change

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• Overview: Time of change
• Timeline: WWII to present
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The European Union is changing faster and more dramatically than at any other time in its history.

The emergence of a single European currency and the admission of 10 mostly ex-communist eastern bloc states have not only presented it with enormous opportunities but also placed it under immense strain.

Levels of enthusiasm for the changes under way vary markedly from country to country.

Fears about the economic effects of admitting new members -- most from the impoverished ex-communist eastern bloc -- and suspicions that the union is inexorably leading to amalgamation have caused some older member states to view the process of integration and enlargement more coolly than others.

The single currency is a good example. Twelve of the union's states belong to the "eurozone." Voters in Denmark and Sweden have defeated referendums on joining the euro, and Britain has yet to hold a vote.

This divergence of approaches has led to concerns about the development of a two-speed Europe, with some states forging ahead with integration while others lag behind.

Towards a European Union

Many people have broached the idea of a united Europe at different times in different forms. As early as 1846 the novelist Victor Hugo was urging the governments of the main European powers to "form a fraternity of Europe."

It is only since 1945, however, that the concept of European union has gained practical expression. The need to rebuild after World War II and ensure that such a conflict never occurs again has provided the impetus for a far closer degree of pan-European cooperation than had ever been known before.

The basis of this cooperation lies in the Treaty of Paris of 1951.

Signed by West Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland and Italy -- "The Six" -- the treaty created the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), an organization in which the coal and steel resources of member states were pooled and placed under the control of a single supranational authority.

Six years later "The Six" signed two further treaties in Rome, one creating the European Economic Community (EEC) -- generally referred to as the Common Market -- and the other the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC).

It was out of these three communities, whose executive branches were subsequently merged, that what is now known as the European Union developed.

"The Six" were then joined by nine other European nations -- Denmark, Britain, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Finland and Sweden -- bringing the number of members of the European club to 15.

Gradually these states inched closer together, signing a succession of further treaties -- the Schengen Agreement (1985), the Single European Act (1986), the Maastricht Treaty (1992), the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) -- that have bound them into an ever-tightening ring of mutual economic and political cooperation.

In December 2002 at the Copenhagen European summit it was agreed that 10 more members would be admitted to the union.

On May 1, 2004, EU grew to 25 members -- and it's population to 450 million -- with the accession of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus.

Growing pains

The problems of squaring a pan-European agenda with the national interests of 25 separate countries have made the process of integration a slow, complex and at times divisive one.

So many different outlooks makes the formulation of EU legislation a complex process, with treaties drafted in minute detail to take into account the peculiar needs and concerns of member states.

In Denmark, for instance, when the Maastricht Treaty on European Union was put to a national referendum, it was rejected by 50.7 percent of the population.

Only by appending a series of complex opt-out clauses was the treaty made sufficiently acceptable to be ratified by 56.8 percent of the population in a second referendum.

Despite popular skepticism -- and the complexity of formulating legislation that brings member states together while at the same time respecting their individuality -- the European Union has nonetheless continued to develop.

Romania and Bulgaria have been given an entry date of 2007 and Turkey's application will be re-examined in December 2004. Ankara has been told entry talks can begin then providing the country improves its human rights record.

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