European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 13: The European Court of Justice

Return to full list of chapter notes.

The European Court of Justice does not much make the news, and yet its role in European governance is critical: its task of making sure that the terms of the treaties are respected, understood and applied as accurately as possible has made it essential to the process of integration. As the judicial arm of the EU, it has made decisions that have expanded and clarified the reach and the meaning of the EU, that have established key principles (such as direct effect and the supremacy of EU law), and that have helped transform the treaties into something like a constitution for Europe. It is one of the most clearly supranational of EU institutions.

Headquartered in Luxembourg, the Court has three parts. The Court of Justice works as the final court of appeal on matters of EU law, and is helped by the General Court, created in 1989 to deal with less complex cases, and by the EU Civil Service Tribunal, created in 2004 to deal with staff matters. The two upper courts each have 27 judges while the Tribunal has seven, all of them appointed for six-year renewable terms of office. And while it is an entirely separate institution, the work of the European Court of Human Rights cannot be ignored, because its rulings have had important judicial implications for the EU.

The treaties may not be a constitution as such, and the Court of Justice may not fit the definition of a typical constitutional court (because there is, formally, no EU constitution), but the authority and efficiency of the European institutions has depended heavily on the Court clarifying the meaning and effects of EU law. Its decisions have had an influence on matters as varied as the single market, competition policy, human rights, gender equality, and external trade.
  • The European Court of Justice (headquartered in Luxembourg) is the judicial arm of the European Union, responsible for clarifying the meaning of the treaties and for issuing judgments in disputes involving EU institutions, member states, and individuals affected by EU law.
  • The Court is the least known (and least controversial) of the EU institutions, and yet it has made numerous decisions that have clarified the meaning of integration and have established critical legal principles, such as direct effect, the supremacy of EU law, and mutual recognition.
  • The Court consists of 27 judges appointed for six-year renewable terms by ‘common accord’ of the member states. There is no approval process involving the European Council or the European Parliament.
  • The Court is headed by a president elected to three-year renewable terms by the judges from among their number.
  • The judges are assisted by eight advocates-general charged with reviewing cases as they come to the Court and with delivering independent opinions.
  • Below the Court of Justice there is a General Court that is the first point of decision on less complicated cases, and an EU Civil Service Tribunal that takes cases involving disputes between EU institutions and their staff.
  • Court actions are either preliminary rulings (where national courts ask for a ruling on a matter of EU law arising in a national court case) or direct actions (when a dispute between two parties is brought directly before the Court).
  • Although it is an independent institution, the work of the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights has an important bearing on EU law.