How the EU works: EU law and the UK

Last updated: 11 Mar 2016

EU laws in areas for which the EU is responsible override any conflicting laws of member countries.

Two important ideas make this system work. These are ‘supremacy’, meaning the higher status of EU laws compared to national laws, and ‘direct effect’, meaning that EU laws can be relied on in court.

Both these constitutional principles were recognised decades ago in leading decisions of the EU court.

The court said that they were necessary to ensure the survival of the EU legal system and to guarantee that EU rules are followed in all member countries.

The supremacy of EU laws

The principle of supremacy, or primacy, describes the relationship between EU law and national law.

It says that EU law should prevail if it conflicts with national law. 

This ensures that EU rules are applied uniformly throughout the Union.

If national laws could contradict the EU treaties or laws passed by the EU institutions, there wouldn’t be this single set of rules in all member countries.

The UK has accepted the supremacy of EU law for some time

Other member countries have been more reluctant to accept the supremacy of EU law than the United Kingdom.

The European Communities Act, passed by Parliament in 1972, accepted the supremacy of EU law. That principle has also been endorsed by the UK courts

Although a more recent law included some restrictions on the application of the supremacy principle in the UK, the principle itself was not challenged

Given the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty in the UK, meaning that there are no limits on what Acts can be passed or removed, it might be possible for Parliament to contradict EU laws. But this would seem incompatible with continued membership of the EU.

EU laws have direct effect

Direct effect refers to the rights—like free movement, non-discrimination, etc—that people and companies can claim under EU law.

It says that people can use clear and precise EU laws in court against governments, or private parties, when they’re in breach of EU law.

Down to details: EU regulations and directives

‘Regulations’ and ‘directives’ occupy a central position in the system of EU rules. The important ones are usually agreed by government representatives on the EU’s Council, as well as by the directly elected European Parliament.

Regulations and directives are legally binding. They normally apply in all 28 EU member countries, although some directives are addressed to particular members.

And both types of law are based on articles of the EU treaties that give the EU institutions the authority to pass laws in the relevant field.

For example, the Working Time Directive invokes the treaty article giving the EU power to pass laws on working conditions.

But there are important differences between regulations and directives.

Regulations become part of national law as soon as they’re passed. EU countries must pass their own laws to put directives into practice.

That’s because directives set out an objective and give EU states the choice of how to achieve it.


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