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European Union Law: Home

This guide contains tips and resources for researching the laws of the European Union.

Getting Started

The European Union (EU) is a supranational political union of European member states established by the Maastricht Treaty (1993).  The EU is the successor organization to the earlier European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and European Economic Community (EEC).  Since the founding of the Coal and Steel Community in 1951, the EU has grown from six to 28 member states.  A list of member states is provided below. 

The European Union pursues a common policy with respect to trade, agriculture, fisheries, and other areas of the European Common Market.   The EU also has its own legal system, citizenship, and foreign and security policy.  Most of its member states share a common currency (the Euro), and EU law also guarantees free movement of goods, services, workers, and capital.  The EU has a population of over 510 million and a GDP of nearly 20 trillion USD.  

The purpose of this guide is to assist with research of European Union law and EU political institutions.  Like domestic law, EU law is divided into "primary" and "secondary" legislation. The EU's primary legislation take the form of treaties, which are the basis or ground rules for all EU legislative and regulatory activity. Secondary legislation, which includes regulations, directives and decisions, are extracted from the principles and objectives set out in the treaties.

Introductory resources

EU Separation of Powers

Executive Branch

Under the EU treaties there are three distinct institutions, each of which conducts duties that may be regarded as executive in nature:

The European Council brings together heads of state and government, along with the president of the European Commission, and meets at least four times a year; its goal is to provide the impetus for the development of the Union and to issue general policy guidelines. The Treaty of Lisbon established the position of "permanent" (full-time) president of the European Council. Leaders of the EU member states appoint the president for a 2 1/2 year term, renewable once. The president's responsibilities include chairing the EU summits and providing policy and organizational continuity.

The Council of the EU is composed of ministers of each EU member state and meets regularly in 10 different configurations depending on the subject matter. The Council of the EU directs policymaking and coordinating functions as well as legislative functions. Ministers of EU member states chair meetings of the Council of the EU based on a 6-month rotating presidency except for the meetings of EU Foreign Ministers in the Foreign Affairs Council that are chaired by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

The European Commission is directed by a College of Commissioners composed of 28 members (one from each member country) including the president; each commissioner is responsible for one or more policy areas. The Commission's main responsibilities include the sole right to initiate EU legislation (except for foreign and security/defense policy), promoting the general interest of the EU, acting as "guardian of the Treaties" by monitoring the application of EU law, implementing/executing the EU budget, managing programs, negotiating on the EU's behalf in core policy areas such as trade, and ensuring the Union's external representation in some policy areas.

Legislative Branch

The legislative branch consists of two legislative bodies: The Council of the EU (28 seats; ministers representing the 28 member states) and the European Parliament (751 seats; seats allocated among member states roughly in proportion to population size; members elected by proportional representation to serve 5-year terms).

Judicial Branch

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is the supreme judicial authority of the EU. The ECJ guarantees that EU law is interpreted and applied uniformly throughout the EU, negotiates disputed issues among the EU institutions and with member states, and issues opinions on questions of EU law referred by member state courts. 

The ECJ is composed of 28 judges - 1 from each member state. The ECJ may sit as a full court, in a "Grand Chamber" of 13 judges in special cases, but typically sits in chambers of 3 to 5 judges. ECJ judges are appointed by the common consent of the member states to serve 6-year renewable terms. The subordinate courts are the General Court and the Civil Service Tribunal.

EU Decision Making

The EU’s customary decision-making procedure is known as "Ordinary Legislative Procedure." This means that the directly elected European Parliament has to approve EU legislation in conjunction with the Council (the governments of the 28 EU countries).

Before the EU Commission proposes new initiatives it appraises the potential economic, social and environmental consequences that they may have. It does this by preparing "impact assessments" which set out the advantages and disadvantages of possible policy options. The European Commission is the EU's politically independent executive branch.The EU Commission is solely responsible for composing proposals for new European legislation, and it administers the decisions of the European Parliament and the Council of the EU. The EU Commission also communes with interested parties such as non-governmental organizations, local authorities and representatives of industry and civil society. Groups of experts give advice on technical issues. In this way, the Commission ensures that legislative proposals correspond to the needs of those most concerned and avoids unnecessary red tape. 

Citizens, businesses and organizations can participate in the consultation procedure via the public consultations website. National parliaments can formally express their reservations if they feel that it would be better to deal with an issue at a national level rather than the EU level.

Review and Adoption

The European Parliament and the Council inspect proposals by the Commission and propose amendments. If the Council and the Parliament cannot agree on amendments, a second reading takes place. In the subsequent reading, the Parliament and Council can again propose amendments. Parliament has the power to block the proposed legislation if it cannot agree with the Council.

If the European Parliament and the Council agree on amendments, the proposed legislation can be adopted. If they cannot agree, a conciliation committee tries to find a solution. Both the Council and the Parliament can nullify a legislative proposal at this final reading.


EU Legal System

The EU's legal system is an uncommon supranational legal system in which, according to an interpretive declaration of member-state governments appended to the Treaty of Lisbon, "the Treaties and the law adopted by the Union on the basis of the Treaties have primacy over the law of Member States" under conditions laid down in the case law of the Court of Justice. Key principles of EU law include fundamental rights as guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights and as resulting from constitutional traditions common to the EU's 28-member states. Secondary legislation - which includes directives, regulations, and decisions - is derived from the principles and objectives set out in the treaties.

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List of EU Countries

28 Member States of EU and the Year Admitted into the EU

Austria (1995)

Belgium (1958)

Bulgaria (2007)

Croatia (2013)

Czech Republic (2004)

Cyprus (2004)

Denmark (1973)

Estonia (2004)

Finland (1995)

France (1958)

Germany (1958)

Greece (1981)

Hungary (2004)

Ireland (1973)

Italy (1958)

Latvia (2004)

Lithuania (2004)

Luxembourg (1958)

Malta (2004)

Netherlands (1958)

Poland (2004)

Portugal (1986)

Romania (2007)

Slovakia (2004)

Slovenia (2004)

Spain (1986)

Sweden (1995)

United Kingdom (1973)

Candidate Countries Joining the EU (these countries are in the process of integrating EU legislation into national law)


Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia




Potential EU Country Candidates


Bosnia and Herzegovina 

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