The European Union (abbreviated "EU") is an organization of European countries which delegate some of their sovereignty to common international institutions. It is not a "federal state", but it is this delegation of authority that makes it unique from other international treaty organisations.
The European Union draws its roots from the Second World War. The idea of "European integration" was developed to prevent such a disastrous war from happening again. The idea was first proposed by the French foreign minister Robert Schuman in a speech in 1950, which resulted in the first agreements in 1951 that formed the base for the European Union.
The member states of the European Union are:
1 These European Union member countries have replaced their national currencies with the common European currency, the Euro. They are often commonly referred to as the "Eurozone". The Euro is also the currency of Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City even though they are neither member to the euro treaty, nor the European Union. All three countries mint their own euro coins.
2 Officially the whole of Cyprus lies within the European Union. However, the de facto EU border runs along the Green Line, dividing the country in a Greek and Turkish part. EU law is currently not applied in the Turkish northern third of the nation.
Bulgaria and Romania are set to join the Union in 2007. Croatia and Turkey are candidates for future membership, but no date has been set. Macedonia is in the process of becoming an official candidate.
There are many ways to enter the European Union; your best course of action is to read up on the individual nation you wish to enter. You will have to get a visa from your "primary destination" country. In the case of Schengen Treaty countries, that visa is then valid for all other signatory countries. See the "Get around" section.
There are no border controls between countries that have signed the Schengen Agreement. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen Agreement signatory country is valid in all other countries that signed the treaty.
These countries that have implemented the agreement so far are: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Note that not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty and not all Schengen treaty countries are members of the European Union. Several countries are members Schengen Agreement, but nevertheless have not implemented it.
At some airports, airlines will still insist on seeing your id-card or passport. Travel to and from a Schengen Agreement country to any other country will result in the normal border checks.
Citizens of EU member countries don't need visas to visit other member countries. Citizens of some other countries, such as Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States of America also don't need visas. Citizens of the EU candidate countries, except Turkey, also don't need visas, as well as citizens of Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
There is a set of traffic signs valid in all EU countries. The most important are described here:
1 All speed limits and distances are measured and marked in miles or mph in the United Kingdom.
The euro (Symbol: €; ISO 4217 code EUR) is the common currency of many countries of the European Union. One euro equals 100 cents; officially referred to as 'euro cent' to differentiate them from their US counterpart.
The euro has not been adopted by all EU countries. The subset of countries of the EU that have agreed to replace their own national currencies are commonly called the Eurozone.
Established in 1999 and introduced in cash form on January 1st, 2002, the euro removes the need for money exchange. As such it is not only a boom to paneuropean business, but of course also to travellers. While the transition to the euro was relatively smooth, it has resulted in much higher prices in some industries so take all price tags published in travel guides etc from before the switch to the euro with a grain of salt. Chances are that they are not valid anymore. This is especially true for restaurants and similar places.
Since it has been only a few years since the introduction of euro cash, some people will still use the old national currency names. For example, it is entirely possible that a German would still refer to "Marks" and "Pfennige". They mean euros and cents, so just substitute the two mentally.
It's not a good idea to accept any of the obsolete currencies. While several countries' banks will still change them into euro it's a lot of hassle and there is no guarantee that this will be possible everywhere or on short notice. You should also expect to leave your personal information with the bank as a precaution against money laundering.
Throughout Europe, ATM machines are readily available. They will accept various European bank cards as well as credit cards. However, be prepared to pay a fee for the service (usually a percentage of the amount withdrawn, with a minimum of few euro). Read the labels/notices on the machine before using.