The fundamental laws or rules of the European Union (EU) are set out in the Treaties. All treaties must be agreed and ratified by the member states. A treaty is ratified when it becomes part of the law of the member states.

The most important treaty is the Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic Community in 1957. Since the Treaty of Rome, there have been a number of treaties agreed and ratified by all the member states;

  • The Merger Treaty in 1967, which merged the institutions of the three communities
  • The Single European Act in 1986, which provided for completion of the single market
  • The Treaty on European Union (the Maastricht Treaty) in 1992, which provided for political and economic union amongst the member states
  • The Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, which made some changes to the powers of the institutions of the EU and paved the way for EU enlargement
  • The Treaty of Nice 2001 which made further changes to the powers and structures of the institutions to facilitate enlargement
  • The Treaty of Lisbon 2007 which came into effect on 1 December 2009 made changes to how decisions are made at EU level.

The Treaty of Lisbon amended the EU’s two core treaties, the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty establishing the European Community. The latter was renamed the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. In addition, several Protocols and Declarations were attached to the Lisbon Treaty.

Treaties are the primary source of EU law but there are also secondary sources of EU law; the institutions of the EU have the power to make legislation. This power is shared between the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament. Under the European citizens’ initiative, one million EU citizens from at least 7 EU countries can call on the European Commission to propose legislation on matters where the EU has competence to legislate.

There are different types of secondary legislation:

  • Regulations. These are laws that apply to everyone including all member states. Regulations become part of national law and are enforceable in national courts immediately once they come into force. They do not need to be brought in by any national legislation.
  • Directives. A Directive is a form of order to member states to implement national legislation to achieve a specific result. It is up to the national governments to decide on the form and method of the legislation necessary to achieve that result. Usually, a Directive will specify a deadline for the implementation of legislation.
  • Decisions. A decision is addressed to a limited and defined group of persons, e.g., one member state or a corporation. They are binding upon those to whom they are addressed.
  • Recommendations and opinions. These are not binding – they are simply recommendations.

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