European Union law

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The European Union is unique among international organisations in having a complex and highly developed system of internal law which has direct effect within the legal systems of its member states. The development of law of the European Community (the technical term for what we mostly understand as the EU) has been largely moulded by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). In the landmark case of Van Gend en Loos in 1963, the ECJ ruled that the European Community, through the express will of member states in the treaty, "constitutes a new legal order of international law for the benefit of which the states have limited their sovereign rights albeit within limited fields." The EU is not a federal government, nor is it an intergovernmental organisation. It involves reciprocal agreement within its fields of activity, as if countries have agreed to work together to agree.

There are three sources of Union law:

The distinction between European Community (EC) law and European Union law is that based on the treaty structure of the European Union. The European Community constitutes one of the 'three pillars' of the European Union and concerns the social and economic foundations of the single market. The second and the third pillars were created by the Treaty of the European Union (the Maastricht Treaty) and involve Common Security and Defence Policy and Internal Security. Decision making under the second and third pillars is not subject to majority voting at present. The Maastricht Treaty created the Justice and Home Affairs pillar as the third pillar. Subsequently, the Treaty of Amsterdam transferred the areas of illegal immigration, visas, asylum, and judicial co-operation to the European Community (the first pillar). Now Police and Judicial Co-operation in Criminal Matters is the third pillar. Justice and Home Affairs now refers both to the fields that have been transferred to the EC and the third pillar.

It should be noted that the European Union recently drafted a constitution that must be ratified by the 25 member states before entering into force.


Primary legislation: the treaties

Main article: Treaties of the European Union

The primary legislation, or treaties, are effectively the constitutional law of the European Union. They lay down the basic policies of the Union, establish its institutional structure, legislative procedures, and the powers of the Union. The treaties that make up the primary legislation include:

The various annexes and protocols attached to these treaties are also considered a source of primary legislation.

Treaties and evolution of the structures of the European Union


Secondary legislation

Secondary legislation include regulations, directives, decisions, recommendations and opinions.

Secondary legislation also includes interinstitutional agreements, which are agreements made between European Union institutions clarifying their respective powers, especially in budgetary matters. The Parliament, Commission and Council are capable of entering into such agreements.

The classification of legislative acts varies among the First, Second and Third Pillars.

In the case of the first pillar: Secondary legislation is classified based on to whom it is directed, and how it is to be implemented. Regulations and directives bind everyone, while decisions only affect the parties to whom they are addressed (which can be individuals, corporations, or member states). Regulations have direct effect, i.e. they are binding in and of themselves as part of national law, while directives require implementation by national legislation to be effective. However, states that fail or refuse to implement directives as part of national law can be fined by the European Court of Justice.

Directives and regulations can comprise of a mixture of maximum harmonisation and minimum harmonisation clauses, and can be enforced on either a home state or a host state basis

All EU legislation must be based on a specific treaty article, which is referred to as the "legal basis" of the legislation.

The European Convention's Working Group on Simplification, identified in total 15 legal instruments of the European Union. These, divided in the three pillars of the European Union are the following:

Community Pillar Common Foreign and Security Policy Police and Judicial Co-operation in Criminal Matters


Principles and general guidelines
Common strategies
Joint actions
Common positions

Common positions
Framework decisions

Common: Recommendations, Opinions

If the planned European Constitution is ratified, these acts will be reduced to only six: EU laws, EU framework laws, decisions, regulations, recommendations and opinions.

Legislative procedures

There are three main legislative procedures[1] ( in the European Union, with the main difference between them being how the European Parliament interacts with the Council of the European Union.

History of decision-making

Initially, the Consultation procedure was the primary interplay of the institutions. Unter it, Council must wait (unless it initiates an emergeny procedure) for the EP’s opinion before adopting the legislation. This possibility for delay was in the early days the EP’s only weapon.

The role of the European Parliament in this institutional triangle has been gradually strengthened. Major landmarks in this gradual strengthening process have been

  • the transferral of budget responsibilities during the early 70s,
  • the first direct elections in 1979,
  • the introduction of the Cooperation procedure with the Single European Act (1986/87) and
  • the codecision procedure with the Maastricht Treaty (1993/93), whose scope was expanded considerably by the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997/99) and the Treaty of Nice (2001).


The whole body of EU law is together called the acquis communautaire, broken into 32 chapters for purposes of accession negotiations.

Specific topics in EU law

External links


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