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European Union Law

Legislation and Other Legal Acts

Article 288 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union outlines five types of legal acts that EU institutions may take.  The term "legal acts" encompasses various types of legislative actions, as well as actions that American legal scholars would characterize as being administrative or quasi-judicial in nature. 

Legal acts fall into one of two categories:  those that are legally binding and those that are not.  Legally binding acts include regulations, directives, and decisions.  Acts that are not legally binding include recommendations and opinions. 

EU observers refer to legal acts collectively as secondary law to distinguish them from treaty provisions, which are considered to be the EU's primary law.  Some observers prefer to use the term "secondary legislation" when referrng to legal acts and the term "primary legislation" when referring to treaties.

Binding Legal Acts

Regulations  An EU regulation is a binding legislative act of general application.  Once enacted, a regulation must be complied with in its entirety in each of the Member States.  If a regulation conflicts with a Member State's existing law pertaining to the same subject matter, the regulation supersedes the national law.  For example, when the EU decided to restrict the use of geographic names to market certain types of agricultural products (e.g. "Parma ham"), it enacted Council Regulation (EC) No 510/2006.  The use of the term "regulation" in a legislative context can be confusing for Americans, who are accustomed to thinking of regulations as rules issued by administrative agencies.

Directives  An EU directive is a legislative act that establishes a specific goal or objective without specifying the means by which the objective is to be achieved.  Directives may apply to individual Member States, to groups of Member States or to all Member States.  The objective set forth in the directive is legally binding on the Member States to whom it is addressed, but it is up to each Member State to enact its own implementing legislation to achieve the objective.  An example is the Working Time Directive, which limits the total number of hours an individual may work per week, but allows Member States flexibility in enforcing the limit.

Decisions  An EU decision is a legal determination of limited application, meaning that it affects only those to whom it is addressed.  A decision may be addressed to one or more Member States, to one or more individual citizens or to other legal entities, such as corporations.  For example, in 2009 the European Commission issued a decision in which it assessed a fine against the software giant Microsoft Corporation for abusing its dominant market position.  The closest parallel in American law would be a decision issued by an administrative agency in an administrative proceeding.

Non-Binding Legal Acts

Recommendations  A recommendation is an official statement issued by an EU institution to make its views on a particular subject known and to suggest a course of action without imposing any legal obligations on those to whom it is addressed.  Recommendations are sometimes used by the European Commission to signal its disapproval of a practice and to suggest that legislation may be introduced in the future to discourage the practice.  For example, in 2009 the Commission issued a recommendation to employers in the financial services sector urging them to refrain from structuring employee compensation packages in ways that encourage excessive risk-taking.

Opinions  Opinions are another vehicle by which EU institutions may make their views on a subject known without imposing legal obligations on the recipient.  Opinions are most often used by EU institutions to comment on the work being done by other institutions, such as legislation being drafted by the Commission.

Finding EU Legislation

Browse By Subject 

Not sure where to start? The EU maintains an easy to navigate website containing thorough summaries of EU legislation in 32 subject categories.  Each summary contains citations to relevant regulations and directives, along with other helpful references and links.     

Print Resources

The Official Journal of the European Union is published in two parallel series.  The "L" series publishes legislative acts (regulations, directives & decisions), while the "C" series publishes notices and other official documents.  The Law Library's collection includes the entire print run of the Official Journal from its first English language edition in 1973 to the present.  Call No. KJE908 .036.

European Current Law publishes a monthly report listing EU regulations, directives, and decisions in numerical order by subject, as well as references to Member State laws that implement directives.  Call No. KJE923.6 .E97222.

Another helpful print resource is CCH's European Law Reporter, a loose leaf publication that provides regular updates and explanatory commentary on both EU legislation and case law.  Call No. KJE925 .E89.

Free Online Resources

  • EUR-Lex is the EU's online legal database.  It provides access to all legal acts published in the EU's Official Journal from 1998 onward in PDF format.  Prior editions are being scanned and gradually uploaded to the database.  EUR-Lex also provides access to a compilation of all EU legislation currently in force (similar to the U.S. Code), as well as EU treaties, EU case law, and EU budgetary information.
  • Pre-Lex is a database maintained by the European Commission that allows users to monitor the status of draft legislation and keep abreast of the decision-making process by reviewing official communications between EU institutions.
  • The European Parliament's Legislative Observatory provides a more user-friendly interface for monitoring legislative developments, along with tips for formulating searches.

Subscription Online Resources  Password required.  UIUC provides access only to College of Law faculty, students, and staff.

  • LexisNexis  From the European Union library, select the file name LEGIS to search for EU regulations, directives, and decisions from 1952 onward.  To locate preparatory acts (draft legislation), select the file name PREP.  For national laws enacted by the Member States to implement EU directives, select the file name NATPRV.
  • Westlaw  Search the EU-LEG database to access the full texts of EU regulations, directives, and decisions from 1952 to the present.  Select the EU-ACTS database to search for preparatory acts (draft legislation).

Citations to EU Legislation

Bluebook Rule 21.9

Citations to EU legislative acts (regulations and directives) and other legal acts (decisions) of the EU Council or the European Commission should be made to the edition of the Official Journal of the European Union (or its predecessor publication) in which they were published.  All such citations will be to the "L" series of the Official Journal.

Citations should include the name of the issuing institution, the type of act, the number and any subdivision cited.

Citation Format:

<institution> <type of act> <year> O.J. (L. <act number>) <page number>


Council Directive 90/476, art. 5, 1990 O.J. (L 266) 1, 2.

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