European Union law
implements the provisions of EU treaties and initiatives. 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 ECJ was originally
set up under the Treaty of Paris (1951) and its competences have
gradually expanded under the Treaties of Rome (1957), Maastricht (1992),
Amsterdam (1997), Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2007).
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. The case of Costa vs. ENEL (1964) ruled 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. 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, which underpinned the creation of the single market. In all these cases it was the ECJ interpreting the EU treaties, rather than political arguments,
which determined the scope of the EU project.
How does the European Legal System work?
These powers were increased when the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009 as it extended the ECJ 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 in what are known as preliminary rulings.
The principles of
direct effect and supremacy of EU law guide the implementation of 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 while direct
effect means that these laws then apply to people as well as to states - making
them more like domestic laws then international acts. There has been some resistance to this development. 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.
- EU law prevents states choosing self-interest over
agreed treaty provisions that benefit the entire Community.
- European law allows for greater judicial co-operation between member states in civil and criminal cases, which is important at a time of more cross-border crime.
- It helps to safeguard the agreed economic goals of the EU - like the free movement of goods.
- The intrusion of European law into national
judiciaries undermines national control of lawmaking.
- EU law can make constitutional changes to the EU
through legal interpretation and judicial precedent without the need for
'What is the really essential feature of the European
Union? It is that, in the EU, the guiding principle is law - not force.' Erkki
Liikanen, EU Budget Commissioner, 1994-1999
'By creating a Community... [with] its own institutions, its own personality,
its own legal capacity... the member states have limited their sovereign rights,
albeit within limited fields, and have thus created a body of law which binds
both their nationals and themselves.' Costa vs. ENEL, 1964
Competences: areas of
law where the EU has been given control by its member states.
judicial decisions in similar cases that shape the direction of later legal
Effect: the principle that EU law creates rights for
individuals that must be upheld by national courts.
principle that EU law is superior to national laws when the ECJ has
superiority of one law over another.