How does EU law work?

The EU encompasses 28 Member States in the European region and is a partly governmental, partly supranational political and economic union. To become a Member State, a state must align with the principles of the EU and fulfil the Copenhagen criteria stated in the EU Treaty which are “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy”, “a functioning market economy” and the “ability to take on the obligations of membership” (Art. 49 of the Treaty on EU).

To foster peace and security in Europe, the European Coal and Steel Community as the predecessor of the EU was established in 1950. First focussing on reducing trade barriers among the founding countries Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, it became more and more a political union and further countries joined. The Lisbon Treaty introduced changes to the EU structure, defining competences and declaring the EU´s full legal personality. The EU consists of various bodies, among them the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European Council and the Court of Justice of the EU (ECJ). The latter is based in Luxembourg.

The EU law is mainly characterised by its four fundamental freedoms on goods, persons, services and capital. The aim is to harmonise the European market so that trade barriers between the European countries diminish. To give an example, one is allowed to settle down in any European country as a European citizen. Establishing a company in any European state or open up a subsidiary company is possible regardless your citizenship. EU law regulates that the same laws shall be applied for citizens and non-citizens of the initial country, thus discrimination is forbidden. Any direct or indirect restriction can only be justified in regard to public health, public policy or public security. However, these criteria are interpreted restrictively and thus another step of justification is used by overriding reasons based on the general interest. Here, the ECJ developped a catalogue of reasons such as consumer protection, environmental protection or protection of intellectual property.

Furthermore, the EU has a legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights which mostly corresponds  with the rights of the European Convention on Human Rights by the Council of Europe, another political player in Europe with a larger field of political influence encompassing 47 member states including Russia, Azerbaijan, Serbia and Ukraine. The Charter became legally binding when the Treaty of Lisbon came into force in 2009. The catalogue consists of political, social and economic rights, e.g. the right to the protection of data (Art. 8), the freedom to conduct a business (Art. 16), right to asylum (Art. 18) and equality between women and men (Art. 23). Only EU institutions and bodies are bound by these rights and member states when implementing EU laws. A broader scope would be desirable. In the other case only rights from national legislation and international treaties are applicable whose contents vary from state to state. Also, the EU is prima facie an economic union so it can be criticised that taking up an agenda on human rights was not a genuine concern but a way to stabilise the EU. However, in the light of consequentialism we do not measure the act but the outcome: The more good consequences, the more right the act.

Photograph by Christian Lue, Unsplash

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