The Legal System of the European Union (EU Online Sources)


The European Union is a democracy governed by the rule of law. The EU Treaties provide that “The Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, principles which are common to the Member States.”

The EU legal portal is EUR-Lex, which provides free access to the EU law database in 20 languages.

EU Treaties and EU Law

The precise legal structure of the EU is complex due to the history of its development. That legal structure is also frustratingly difficult to document online because the European Union continuously changes the URLs of its website pages and its links, so that the picture about the European Union which emerges online is a mass of confusion that probably accurately reflects the EU reality. We update our links to the EU as we can, but it is often a hopeless task because there is often no logic in the EU online system, which has been a chaos for years.

Making things more difficult are improbables such as the fact that: “The Treaty of Amsterdam [1997] changed the articles of the Treaty on European Union [1992], identified by letters A to S, into numerical form.” In other words, there is no continuity of articles of the main treaties.

When one compares the stability and clarity of the comparatively laconic United States Constitution over the last 200 years, the European Union treaties, barely 50 years old, are a hopeless mass of verbiage and pretentiousness. This mass confusion in the European Union treaties is typical for what happens when incompetent and posturing politicians and bureaucrats from many nations are given responsibility for formulating important legal matters of State which people trained in law should be reducing to clear and concise statements of law.

Primary sources for the legal system of the EU are the Treaties, especially those relating to the Community (EEC, EC) and to the Union (EU), which are found online in both original as well as consolidated form. Consolidated texts are useful as they reflect amendments made by later treaties. However, such consolidations have no force of law. Only the original treaty text is the actual law. One great advantage of the EU Constitution, if ratified, is its official consolidation of the current chaotic legal structure of the EU into one document (except for EURATOM). However, the way that things now stand, given the sabotage of that EU Constitution by France and the Netherlands, paradoxically the two countries receiving the most agricultural aid from the EU, ratification of that Constitution will probably never occur.

Without a constitution, the EU is governed – for the time being – by the community acquis (acquis communautaire), which is

the body of common rights and obligations which bind all the Member States together within the European Union. It is constantly evolving and comprises:
· the content, principles and political objectives of the treaties;
· Community legislation and the case law of the Court of Justice;
· the declarations and resolutions adopted by the Union;
· measures relating to the common foreign and security policy;
· measures relating to justice and home affairs;
· international agreements concluded by the Community and those concluded by the Member States between themselves in the field of the Union’s activities.
When further countries join the European Union, full compliance with the Community acquis is one of the requisites for accession.


There are four founding European Treaties: (see also EU Parliament fact sheets)
1. The Treaty of Paris (signed 1951, effective 1952 – see also the Schuman Plan) established the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which began the process of European integration.
2 & 3. The Treaties of Rome (signed 1957, effective 1958) added two more communities, establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM). The name of the EEC was changed to European Community (EC) by the Maastricht Treaty (see below), continuing the precedent of adding more confusion to the European picture were enough confusion already existed.
4. The Treaty on European Union, also known as the Maastricht Treaty (signed 1992, effective 1993) changed the name of the European Economic Community (EEC) to European Community (EC) and created a new entity called the European Union (EU). Note that the articles of the Maastricht Treaty are later renumbered by the Treaty of Amsterdam.

The following treaties made significant amendments to the treaty structure:

The Merger Treaty (signed 1965, effective 1967) provided for a single Commission and a single Council for the then three European Communities.

The Single European Act (SEA) (effective 1987) made modifications toward a single Internal Market.

The Treaty of Amsterdam (Amsterdam Treaty, signed 1997, effective 1999) amended and renumbered the EU and EC Treaties, appending consolidated versions of those treaties to the treaty. The articles of the EU Treaty, originally lettered A to S, were now ordered numerically.

The Treaty of Nice (signed 2001, effective 2003) enabled the enlargement of the EU.

People often refer to the THREE PILLARS of the European Union. These are:

The FIRST PILLAR. The first pillar is The Community, as set out in the Treaties and covering e.g. Union citizenship, Community policies, Economic and Monetary Union (i.e. a single market and a single currency).
The SECOND PILLAR. The second pillar is common foreign and security policy, which comes under Title V of the EU Treaty.
The THIRD PILLAR. The third pillar is police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, which comes under Title VI of the EU Treaty.

These pillars are important designations for decisionmaking by the Council of the European Union. For matters involving the first pillar, a qualified majority vote of member governments is required for decision. For the second and third pillars, decisions are intergovernmental and Member States must reach a consensus, i.e. unanimity. For certain controversial matters, this distinction leads to differences among governments as to the assignment of those matters to a given pillar, since that assignment directly affects the majorities which have to be achieved to implement a particular decision.


Laws (Acts) of the European Union are initiated by the EU Commission and approved by codecision of both the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament (see Articles 251-254 of the EC Treaty and glossary, as also step-by-step and law-making flow chart).

Several types of secondary legislation also exist (Article 249 of the EC Treaty):

Regulations.A regulation shall have general application. It shall be binding in its entirety and directly applicable in all Member States.”

Directives.A directive shall be binding, as to the result to be achieved, upon each Member State to which it is addressed, but shall leave to the national authorities the choice of form and methods.”

Decisions.A decision shall be binding in its entirety upon those to whom it is addressed.”

Recommendations and opinions.Recommendations and opinions shall have no binding force.”

General Law Searches

Search by EU Title or Text
Search by Subject Matter
Search by EU Date
Search by EU Institution
Search the Official Journal

The Official Journal (OJ) publishes the laws of the European Union, which have primacy over the national laws of its Member States. The OJ is published daily in 20 languages, consisting of the “L series” on Legislation and the “C series on Information, Preparatory Acts and Notices. Both series were introduced in 1968. The “C series” includes also documents published only digitally. Prior to 1968 there was only one series, sometimes referred to unofficially as the “B series” or as the “P series”. The Supplement S to the OJ (which calls for tenders) is published in the TED database in concert with SIMAP, the gateway to EU public procurement.

Specific Legal Searches

Search by Number
for a EU Regulation, EU Directive, EU Decision, COM final, or European Court case by Year and Number
Search Treaties
Search Legislation
Search Preparatory Acts
Search Parliamentary Questions
Search Case-Law

European Court Reports

All case-law was published in the single-volume European Court Reports, which, after the recent creation of the Court of First Instance in 1989, now consists of three volumes: I) judgments and opinions of the Court of Justice and opinions of the Advocates-General, II) judgments of the Court of First Instance are published in Volume II, and III) there is a separate publication for the case-law in staff cases: Court of Justice (Sole volume until 1990; Volume I from 1990) Court of First Instance (Volume II from 1990) Staff Cases (from 1995)

To consult a procedure using an exact reference, one can search by procedure reference, by dossier reference and by document reference in the European Parliament, in the European Commission, in the Council of the Union, in other EU institutions, bodies and in legislative acts.

To obtain information on interinstitutional activities and related procedures, one can search by rapporteur, by committee of Parliament, or political group; by Commission Directorate-General, or Council concerned; by subject: by main topic or by words in title of topic; by family or type of procedure; by stage reached in procedure; by event date: actual or forecast; or by legal basis.

Historical Searches

Search by CELEX number

CELEX (Communitatis Europeae LEX) was the previous official fee-based legal database of the EC. It is no longer updated.