The European Union (EU) is not an independent federal State, like the United States of America, nor an international organisation for mutual cooperation, like for instance the United Nations or WIPO. It’s a unique association of several European States which have agreed under Treaties to cooperate with each other on different levels, meanwhile nevertheless remaining independent sovereign nations. The objective of the European Union is to stimulate and ensure the free movement of goods, capital, services and persons between the different Member States. For this purpose the Member States have delegated parts of their sovereignty to the institutions of the European Union.
The European Union now has 27 members:
To achieve its objectives, the European Union is founded on three different pillars. This new European structure was acknowledged for the first time by the Treaty signed on 7 February 1992 in Maastricht. The three pillars form the basic structure of the European Union, namely:
The aim of establishing three European Communities, therefore, has been extended to political cooperation between Member States. This also means that the words 'European Communities' have not the same meaning as the words 'European Union'. The three European Communities, sometimes also referred to as the European Community, only represent one part of the European Union, namely the one that is covered by the so called first pillar. The European Union is more widely. It encloses not only the European Communities (supranational character), but also the political cooporation between the Member States under the second and third pillar (intergovernmental character).
The most important institution of the European Union are the 'European Parliament' (EP), which represents the EU’s citizens and is directly elected by them, the 'Council of the European Union', which represents the individual Member States, and the 'European Commission', which seeks to uphold the interests of the European Union as a whole.
This ‘institutional triangle’ produces the policies and laws that apply throughout the EU. In principle, it is the European Commission that proposes new laws, but it is the European Parliament and the European Council that adopt them. The European Commission and the Member States then implement them, and the European Commission ensures that the laws are properly taken on board.
Two other institutions have a vital part to play: the 'Court of Justice' upholds the rule of European law, and the 'Court of Auditors' checks the financing of the Union’s activities.
The powers and responsibilities of these institutions are laid down in the Treaties, which are the foundation of everything the EU does. They also lay down the rules and procedures that the EU institutions must follow. The Treaties are agreed by the presidents and/or prime ministers of all the EU countries, and ratified by their parliaments (source: ‘www.europe.eu’).
The treaties acknowledge the power of the European Union to adopt legislation in order to be able to set rules in pursuance of the common goals: free movement of goods, capital, services and persons. There are several institutions with legislative power. In general, it is the European Commission that proposes new legislation, but it is the European Council and European Parliament that pass the laws. In some cases, the European Council can act alone. Other institutions also have roles to play.
The rules and procedures for EU decision-making are laid down in the treaties. Every proposal for a new European law is based on a specific treaty article, referred to as the ‘legal basis’ of the proposal The main forms of EU law are Directives and Regulations (source: ‘www.europe.eu’).
'Directives' are adopted by the European Council in conjunction with the European Parliament or by the European Commission alone. A Directive is addressed to the Member States. Its main purpose is to align national legislation. A Directive is binding on the Member States as to the result to be achieved but leaves them the choice of the form and method they adopt to realise the Community objectives within the framework of their internal legal order. If a Directive has not been transposed into national legislation in a Member State, if it has been transposed incompletely or if there is a delay in transposing it, citizens may directly invoke the Directive in question before the national courts.
'Regulations' are adopted by the European Council in conjunction with the European Parliament or by the European Commission alone. A Regulation is a general measure that is binding in all its parts. Unlike Directives, which are addressed to the Member States, Regulations are addressed to everyone. A Regulation is directly applicable, which means that it creates law which takes immediate effect in all Member States in the same way as a national instrument, without any further action on the part of the national authorities (source: ‘www.europe.eu’). Therefore, European Regulations have to be regarded as rules immediately in force in all Member States. They are a part of the Member States' national legal systems automatically without the need for separate national legal measures. Where necessary, the European Court of Justice defines how a Regulation must be applied and how particular provisions from such Regulations have to be interpreted in a specific case. All Member States are bound by that interpretation, so that uniformity in application is assured throughout the entire European Union. Where the national courts of a Member State are in doubt with regard to the interpretation of a specific provision of a Regulation, they may ask the European Court upfront, before rendering a judgement themselves, how that provision is to be applied ('preliminary ruling').
The Court of Justice of the European Communities (often referred to simply as 'the Court') was set up under the ECSC Treaty in 1952. It is based in Luxembourg. Its job is to make sure that EU legislation is interpreted and applied in the same way in all EU countries, so that the law is equal for everyone. It ensures, for example, that national courts do not give different rulings on the same issue. The European Court of Justice also makes sure that EU Member States and institutions do what the law requires. The Court has the power to settle legal disputes between EU member states, EU institutions, businesses and individuals.
The European Court of Justice is composed of one judge per Member State, so that all 27 of the EU’s national legal systems are represented. For the sake of efficiency, however, the Court rarely sits as the full court. It usually sits as a 'Grand Chamber' of just 13 judges or in chambers of five or three judges. The Court is assisted by eight 'Advocates-General'. Their role is to present reasoned opinions on the cases brought before the Court. They must do so publicly and impartially.
The five most common types of court case are:
The proceedings before the Luxembourg Court of Justice start by submitting a case to the Regitry of the Court. Then a specific judge and Advocate-General are to be assigned for the case. The procedure that follows is in two stages: first a written and then an oral phase.
At the first stage, all the parties involved submit written statements and the judge assigned to the case draws up a report summarising these statements and the legal background to the case.
Then comes the second stage – the public hearing. Depending on the importance and complexity of the case, this hearing can take place before a chamber of three, five or 13 judges, or before the full Court. At the hearing, the parties’ lawyers put their case before the judges and the advocate-general, who can question them. The advocate-general then gives his or her opinion, after which the judges deliberate and deliver their judgment.
Since 2003, Advocates-General are required to give an opinion on a case only if the Court considers that this particular case raises a new point of law. Nor does the Court necessarily follow the advocate-general’s opinion.
Judgments of the Court are decided by a majority and pronounced at a public hearing. Dissenting opinions are not expressed. Decisions are published on the day of delivery.
The procedure in the Court of First Instance is similar, except that there is no opinion from an advocate-general (source: ‘www.europe.eu’).