The European Union (commonly abbreviated EU) was formed in 1993 by the Maastricht Treaty. Awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for its contributions to democracy and peace, the EU evolved from the earlier Common Market or European Economic Community, created in 1957 to facilitate trade within Europe.
The first major effect of the EU on Europe was an economic one: the reduction of trade barriers and imposition of uniform standards to facilitate commerce among the member countries. The single most important aspect of this was the creation of the European Central Bank and launch of a single currency, the Euro, in 1999, which eventually replaced national currencies such as the French franc, Italian lira, Greek drachma, and German mark.
An important cultural and political feature of the EU was the Schengen Agreement, which allowed for free movement of people and labor across the 26-country Schengen area within Europe. Although this has had major benefits to business, there has been some cultural backlash, with significant right-wing nationalistic political movements arising in many of the richer western European countries with platforms objecting to the influx of immigrants from the poorer eastern European countries. Despite this, the free movement of people has made most European countries far more culturally cosmopolitan.
Because the EU has strict rules about corruption, transparency, and democracy, EU membership, or the option of beginning the accession process, has led many members and potential members to reform their political systems in the direction of freedom of speech and rule of law.