A recent story in The Economist wonders aloud who will "wake up Europe." They decry eight "wasted years" and seem annoyed the the EU has not become something much more or at least different than it is today. But what I found interesting about the article was that it didn't go into a lot of detail about what the EU was or what The Economist wanted it to become or why.
These are important questions if we are to set appropriate expectations and define measures with which we can judge how well the EU has met them. So what is the EU? The European Union is a confederation of democratic states with varying periods of complete sovereignty prior to joining the EU.
First and foremost, it is a free trade area with a a common currency (used by most of the member states that have been in for more than 5 years) and an increasingly integrated economic market. This degree of economic integration is largely possible because of the high degree of regulatory harmonization that has taken place in the EU over the last half a century.
More than half of the regulations and laws that govern the day to day lives of Europeans are passed at the EU level rather than by the governments of the member states. These regulations are pass by a directly elected European Parliament and a Council of Ministers made up of the elected Cabinet Ministers of the member states.
So that's what it is. What's it good for? This system has unified the economies peacefully that countless kings, dictators and generalissimos have tried to unify through war for more than 2000 years. The EU has formed the keystone of a regional system in Europe that has preserved a more complete peace for a longer period of time across a wider cross section of the continent than any other international arrangement in history.
In my opinion, if the EU does nothing from now until the end of time it will be playing a critical and beneficial role in the lives of Europeans. It doesn't need to be a super state or a world power. It doesn't need to be a counter weight to the USA. It doesn't need to have a President. Even if the EU completely stagnates and ceases all change and institutional development, it will be fulfilling its most important role... establishing a peaceful and democratic order in which individuals may prosper and be happy. Everything else is just details.