Primary versus secondary law

Every action taken by the EU is founded on the treaties. These binding agreements between EU member countries set out EU objectives, rules for EU institutions, how decisions are made and the relationship between the EU and its members.

Treaties are the starting point for EU law and are known in the EU as primary law.

The body of law that comes from the principles and objectives of the treaties is known as secondary law; and includes regulations, directives, decisions, recommendations and opinions.

Legislative versus non-legislative acts

Legislative acts are adopted following one of the legislative procedures set out in the EU treaties (ordinary or special). Non-legislative acts do not follow these procedures and can be adopted by EU institutions according to specific rules. 

The EU can pass laws only in those areas where its members have authorised it to do so, via the EU treaties. 

Areas of EU action

Adopting EU law

EU treaties

The treaties lay down the objectives of the European Union, the rules for EU institutions, how decisions are made and the relationship between the EU and its member countries. The EU treaties have from time to time been amended to reform the EU institutions and to give it new areas of responsibility. They have also been amended to allow new EU countries to join the EU.

The treaties are negotiated and agreed by all the EU countries and then ratified by their parliaments, sometimes following a referendum.

Regulations

Regulations are legal acts that apply automatically and uniformly to all EU countries as soon as they enter into force, without needing to be transposed into national law. They are binding in their entirety on all EU countries.

Directives

Directives require EU countries to achieve a certain result, but leave them free to choose how to do so. EU countries must adopt measures to incorporate them into national law (transpose) in order to achieve the objectives set by the directive. National authorities must communicate these measures to the European Commission.

Transposition into national law must take place by the deadline set when the directive is adopted (generally within 2 years). When a country does not transpose a directive, the Commission may initiate infringement proceedings.

Applying EU law

Decisions

A decision shall be binding in its entirety. A decision which specifies those to whom it is addressed shall be binding only on them.

Recommendations

Recommendations allow the EU institutions to make their views known and to suggest a line of action without imposing any legal obligation on those to whom it is addressed. They have no binding force.

Opinions

An 'opinion' is an instrument that allows the EU institutions to make a statement, without imposing any legal obligation on the subject of the opinion. An opinion has no binding force.

Delegated acts

Delegated acts are legally binding acts that enable the Commission to supplement or amend non‑essential parts of EU legislative acts, for example, in order to define detailed measures.

The Commission adopts the delegated act and if Parliament and Council have no objections, it enters into force.

Implementing acts

Implementing acts are legally binding acts that enable the Commission – under the supervision of committees consisting of EU countries’ representatives – to set conditions that ensure that EU laws are applied uniformly.

EU treaties