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Sources of EU law

Is there a system of European Union law which provides legal protection in the European Union?

When the European Communities were established in the 1950s, the then Member States created a separate self-sufficient body of law which would bind them, all future Member States, their citizens and their courts.

To what extent is there interaction between Community law and national law?

The legal order of the European Union relies on the support of national systems for its operation. As European Union law is superior to and takes precedence over all forms of national law where it applies, national authorities are required not only to observe all forms of European Union law; they must also implement and give effect to it in the respective Member States.

What are the sources of European Union law?

The sources of European Community law may be identified as follows:

Primary Legislation

What is the primary legislation of the European Union?

The foundation Treaties of the European Communities, i.e. the European Coal and Steel Treaty, the European Atomic Energy Treaty and the European Economic Treaty as amended together with the various Annexes and Protocols attached to them are a primary source of European Union law. These Treaties have been amended and supplemented on a number of occasions since the foundation of the European Communities through the respective Treaties of Accession on the accession of the United Kingdom, Denmark and Ireland in 1973, Greece in 1981, Spain and Portugal in 1986 and most recently, Finland, Austria and Sweden in 1995, through the Single European Act, the Treaty on European Union, the Treaty of Amsterdam, the Treaty of Nice which became effective throughout the European Union on 1st February 2003, and the Treaty of Accession 2003 signed in Athens on 16th April 2003. This Treaty provided for the accession of the following countries to the European Union: Czech Republic, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia. More recently, the Accession Treaties for Bulgaria and Romania were signed on 21 June 2005 and these countries became members of the EU on 1 January 2007. The Accession Treaty for Croatia signed in December 2011 provided for the recent accession of Croatia to the EU on 1st July 2013.

The Treaty of Lisbon came into effect on 1st December 2009.  The most recent amendment to the foundation Treaties is the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union.  This is an Intergovernmental Treaty signed by twenty five Member States of the EU on 2nd March 2012.  Neither  the UK or the Czech Republic signed the Treaty.  The Treaty entered into force on 1st January 2013.  Ireland held a referendum on the Treaty on 31st May 2012.  The referendum was passed and, as a consequence, the Treaty has been ratified in Ireland.  You can obtain further information on the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance (TSCG) here.

The primary law of the EU currently  consists of the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

What is contained in these Treaties?

These Treaties contain basic provisions on the European Union's objectives and organisation. They set the framework for the operation of the European Union which is administered by the Union institutions.

Where can I source the texts of the respective Treaties?

Links to the texts of the respective Treaties may be sourced here.


International Agreements involving the European Union

Which international agreements involve the European Union?

The European Union concludes agreements in international law with non-member countries and with other international organisations; these range from treaties providing for extensive co-operation in trade or in the industrial, technical and social fields to agreements on trade in particular products.

An example of an international agreement is the Agreement between the European Union and Montenegro on the participation of Montenegro in the European Union military operation to contribute to the deterrence, prevention and repression of acts of piracy and armed robbery off the Somali coast (Operation Atalanta) which entered into force on 1st May 2010.  Details of further international agreements may be found on the following webpages:


Secondary Legislation

What is the secondary legislation of the European Union?

Law made by the European Union institutions in exercising the powers conferred on them by the Treaties is referred to as secondary legislation. Secondary legislation consists of the legal acts listed and defined in Article 288 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) i.e. regulations, directives, decisions, recommendations and opinions.


What are European Community regulations?

Regulations are legislative instruments of general application. They apply to abstract rather than individual situations. For example, many regulations apply to operators in the agricultural sector. Regulations are binding in their entirety. This means that a Member State has no power to apply regulations incompletely or to apply only those provisions of which it approves. Regulations are also directly applicable. This means that regulations do not need to be transposed into national law by the respective Member States in order to take effect.

Recent regulations include Regulation 261/2004 establishing common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding or cancellation or long delay of flights.


What are European Union directives?

Directives are legislative instruments which reconcile the dual objective of both securing the necessary uniformity of Community law and respecting the diversity of national traditions and structures. Directives are binding on Member States as to the result to be achieved but leave it to the respective national authorities to decide how the Community objective set out in the directive is to be incorporated into their domestic legal systems before a specified date.

A directive does not acquire legal force and effect until the date for implementation of the directive has expired.

Examples of directives which have been incorporated into Irish law include the Unfair Contract Terms Directive 93/13/EEC incorporated into Irish law under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1995 and the Services Directive 2006/123/ EC.  The Services Directive was transposed into Irish law under the European Union (Provision of Services) Regulations 2010 (S.I.No. 533 of 2010) which  gives effect to the provisions of the Services Directive in Ireland, with the exception of Article 42 of the Directive, which was transposed separately by the European Communities (Court Orders for the Protection of Consumer Interests) Regulations 2010 (S.I. No. 555 of 2010).


What are European Union decisions?

A decision is an individual act addressed to a specified person or persons. Decisions are binding only on those to whom they are addressed without any need for implementation into national law.

Examples of situations where decisions are used include the granting or refusal of State aid, the annulment of agreements or arrangements contrary to fair competition and the imposition of fines or corrective measures.

Recommendations and Opinions

What are European Union recommendations and opinions?

Recommendations and opinions are non-binding instruments of Community law. They are of persuasive value only.


General Principles of Law

What are the general principles of law?

General principles of law are rules reflecting the elementary concepts of law and justice that must be respected by any legal system. The principles are given effect when the law is applied, particularly in judgements of the European Court of Justice. General principles of law identified and applied by the European Court of Justice include the principle of proportionality, the protection of legitimate expectation and the guarantee of basic rights.


Conventions between Member States

In what circumstances are conventions between Member States concluded?

Agreements between Member States may be concluded for the settlement of issues closely linked to European Union activities where no powers have been transferred to the Community institutions. There are also full scale international agreements between the Member States aimed especially at overcoming the drawbacks of territorially limited arrangements and creating law that applies uniformly throughout the European Union. This is important primarily in the field of private international law.

These agreements include the Convention on the Mutual Recognition of Companies and Legal Persons (1968), the Convention on the Community Patent (1989) and the Convention on Jurisdiction, Applicable Law, Recognition, Enforcement and Co-operation of Parental Responsibility for the Protection of Children (1996).

Where can I find further details of the sources of law referred to?

A comprehensive inventory of the sources of European Union law is located at:


Last update: 05/07/2013  |Top