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European Union law

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European Union law implements the provisions of EU treaties and rules. It establishes a series of rights and demands that are recognised by EU member states’ national judiciaries.  EU law is governed by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which has a unique role in developing a European identity and influencing national governments.

The European Court of Justice was originally set up under the Treaty of Paris (1951) and its area of control has gradually expanded under the Treaties of Rome (1957), Maastricht (1992), Amsterdam (1997), Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2007).

Legal precedents, or rulings that are used to shape the direction of later court decisions, that have been established by the ECJ have played a large role in shaping the development of EU law. The case of Van Gend en Loos vs. Nederlandse Administratie de Belastingen (1963), in which the court ruled that the protection of EU law applied to individuals as well as member states, created the principle of direct effect. This means EU law applies directly to EU citizens, and citizens can take businesses or institutions to court to protect their rights.

The case of Costa vs. ENEL (1964) meant that in the case of a clash between EU and national law, EU law is the higher authority, thus establishing the supremacy of the ECJ as the most senior court for questions of EU law, above nations’ supreme courts.  The British Factortame case (1990) took this further when it was ruled that national courts could actually strike down Acts of Parliament that contravened EU law.

The Cassis de Dijon case (1979) laid out the principle of mutual recognition of goods, so stopped individual member states upholding product regulations that effectively favoured their own producers. This ruling underpinned the creation of the common market.  In all these cases it was the ECJ or national courts interpreting the EU treaties, rather than political arguments, which determined the scope of the EU project.

How does the European Legal System work?
The current powers of the ECJ are laid down in the Maastricht Treaty. These powers were increased when the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009 as it extended the court’s jurisdiction to Justice and Home Affairs policy for the first time. The ECJ uses three sources for interpreting EU law: the EU treaties, articles of those treaties, and broader principles of law.

The court can act in three ways.  First, it can bring about cases called ‘infringement proceedings’ against member states that fail to comply with EU legislation.  Secondly, it can review legislative and executive acts passed by EU institutions to ensure their legality. Finally, many national courts hand cases up to the ECJ for advice in what are known as preliminary rulings.

The principles of direct effect and supremacy of EU law guide ECJ rulings and the legal framework within which it acts.  These joint principles give the ECJ a large amount of judicial power within member states.  Supremacy allows the ECJ to establish primacy for European laws. Direct effect means that these laws then apply to individual people as well as to states – making them more like domestic laws than international acts.

In the 1993 Brunner judgement, the German courts decided that they could rule acts of the EU to be beyond the EU’s legal authority if the act breached the German Constitution. Eurosceptics tend to fear that the ECJ’s power to interpret EU law, and enthusiasm for the EU as a political project, results in what they call ‘judicial activism’, or the judges deliberately ruling to extend the EU institutions’ power and limit member states.