How Many States in the EU and the US?

The University of St Andrews, located in the picturesque old capital of Scotland, thrives on its ‘internationality.’ This bureaucratic term of higher education ranking tables means that the university’s students and staff come from well over a hundred states from all corners of the world. Half of them are from Britain, while the students and scholars from the European Union (EU) (together with those from the United Kingdom) account for two-thirds of the university’s studying and teaching population. The second largest cohort originates from North America. They amount to over a sixth of the university’s scholars and students.


In recognition of these demographic data, for five years I ran a small-scale experiment in my tutorial groups with the first-year students. As part of induction to the tutorial I asked them about how many states are in the United States (US) and in the European Union. The sequence of posing these two questions is crucial. Practically all the students when inquired about the United States, immediately shot back with the correct answer that this federal polity is now composed of 50 states. Their reply was automatic, like a reflex. Such generalized knowledge on the US is a matter of course on both sides of the Atlantic.

The 28 Members States of the European Union Prior to Brexit

The 50 States of the United States of North America

The students fared much less well when tackling the other question on the number of states (that is, member states) in the EU. Significantly, it did not matter whether the student was a US or EU citizen. The level of the lack of knowledge on the EU basics was equal in both cohorts, as though the students with EU citizenship were US citizens or aspired to become citizens of the latter country. By the same token, the situation could be interpreted that the US students fully identify with and are well knowledgeable about their own country. The same cannot be said of their EU counterparts, who feel unsure about what to make out of the European Union, despite the fact that the EU has made most of Europe what it has been for seven decades, namely, a stable, peaceful and prosperous place. A surprising feat after the two devastating world wars that were mostly played out in Europe, and opened a broad ‘window of opportunity’ for numerous genocides and expulsions during the Dark Twentieth century.


In light of this disparity in knowledge about the US and the EU, shared by both EU and US students in my tutorial groups, I invited them to guess the number of the states in the European Union. The range of answers varied widely, between ten and forty. The minimum can be interpreted as a vague social-cum-school memory of the European Communities (the forerunner of the EU) in its heyday during the 1970s and 1980s. During the period the process of European integration culminated in the signing of the 1986 Single European Act that aspired to create a single (common) market by 1992. This Act’s success became the foundation on which the EU was established in 1993. In the late Cold War era with Europe split between the East and the West, the European Communities (EC) had six members prior to 1973, when Britain, Denmark and Ireland joined, thus driving the total up to nine member states. The magic ten was reached seven years later, when in 1981, the newly (almost) democratic Greece joined the European Communities. The memory of this even number became quite a fixture in the minds of Western Europeans during the half a decade before the total changed again in 1986 when the post-authoritarian Portugal and Spain were accepted as members in 1986. The resultant dozen also became quite memorable, hence some students proposed 12 as the number of the EU member-states. Others risked 15, which is a memory of the first post-Cold War and the first-ever enlargement of the newly founded EU. Only three years after its establishment, in 1995 the European Union was acceded by the three capitalist and formerly neutral states of Austria, Finland and Sweden.


The Western European origin of the EU weighs heavily on the generalized social memory of its shape that nevertheless has changed so dramatically during the quarter of a century following the fall of communism. The Cold War still casts a long shadow over the Western general knowledge of present-day Europe’s politics, but some students are keenly aware of the recent postcommunist change. However, what they lack is an awareness of the exact parameters of this change. Most, quite simplistically in their guesses, equated the EU with the continent of Europe, minus Russia. They clearly realize that this territorially extensive Eurasian federal polity is not a member of the European Union. Without Russia, the current number of Europe’s fell-fledged states stands at 49. The students who see the EU as a synonym for Europe less Russia, actually proposed a number lower by the factor of about ten, as they tend to forget that meanwhile, Czechoslovakia split in 1993 yielding two new polities, whereas between 1991 and 2008, the slow-motion-style break-up of Yugoslavia resulted in as many as seven new states. Furthermore, some students (like many Western scholars and politicians themselves) are unsure whether the three post-Soviet states in the Caucasus (namely, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia) should be classified as belonging to Europe or rather to Asia.


In line with the law of statistical averages, most guesses tended to converge on the mid-point between the aforementioned typical minimum of ten and the typical maximum of 40. But the reality is more complicated than statistics, and at present (in 2016 prior to Brexit) following the three further enlargements of 2004, 2007 and 2013, the number of the EU member states is 28. I just wish the students – in one way or another – destined to become part of the EU’s future elite might know. And, no, Belarus is not a member state of the European Union. Perhaps, not yet, as the project of European integration is more open-ended and forward-looking than that of the United States, which apparently already reached its final shape, at least when it comes to this federal polity’s territory and frontiers.




For those who might wonder. I discontinued the experiment of inquiring about the number of states in the EU and the US, because the students consistently found it somehow ‘intimidating,’ on the account of the fact that they never seemed to know the correct answer on the actual number of the EU’s member states. I wish they (and especially those who are EU citizens) saw this experiment as a gentle nudge that the privileges of EU citizenship come together with some responsibilities, the bottom line being some basic knowledge about the European Union and how it shapes the everyday lives of its over half a billion inhabitants.


Dùn Dè Dundee

February 2016