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There are two forms of EU legislation: primary legislation embodied in the treaties, and secondary legislation in the form of regulations, directives and decisions which are used to implement the policies set out in the treaties.

Treaties (primary legislation)

The treaties are the basis of the European Union - legal agreements between the member states. They are the EU's primary legislative texts, setting out the aims of the Union and establishing the structures, powers and processes through which it can pursue them.

The main text of a treaty may be supplemented by protocols and declarations: a protocol is legally binding on the member states to which it applies; a declaration has no legal force.

Secondary legislation

Definitions of the main instruments of secondary legislation, according to Article 249 of the Treaty of Rome (EC Treaty):

  • Regulation is of "general application". It is "binding in its entirety and directly applicable in all Member States".
  • Directive is "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". In the United Kingdom directives are implemented by an act of parliament, or more commonly, a statutory instrument.
  • Decision is "binding in its entirety upon those to whom it is addressed".
  • Recommendation has "no binding force".
  • Opinion has "no binding force".

Citing secondary legislation

A citation for secondary legislation should include the name of the institution which originated the legislation (eg Commission, Council or European Parliament and Council), form (regulation, directive or decision), year enacted, number, the name of the treaty which acts as the basis for the legislation (eg EC, ECSC), and date passed.

eg Council Directive 98/83/EC of 3 November 1998 on the quality of water intended for human consumption

Note the above example is for a directive. Directives and decisions cite the year of enactment and then the number of the act. Regulations, however, cite the number first followed by the year.

eg Commission Regulation (EC) No 2518/98 of 23 November 1998 concerning the classification of certain goods in the Combined Nomenclature

Finding texts of the major treaties and secondary legislation, plus commentaries and guides

  • Treaties and law (Europa)
    Links to key treaties and guides from the EU's official Europa server.
  • EUR-Lex
    The portal to European Union law. Contains the Directory of Community legislation in force, and the full-text Official Journal dating back to 1998.
  • EDC print collection (Leeds University Library)
    Treaties and commentaries are shelved at section EDC 2.01
    Secondary legislation is printed in L series of the Official Journal of the European Union. Printed copies for the years 1972-2003 are shelved at section EDC 2.1.
    Printed guides are shelved at section EDC 2.3.
  • Westlaw
    Full-text access to EU legislation.
  • European Sources Online
    A database containing useful background information.
  • ABC of European Union law (PDF)
  • Summaries of EU legislation.