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European Union (EU) hierarchy of norms

European Union law is based on primary legislation and secondary legislation. Primary legislation is made of the Treaties, general principles established by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) and international agreements. Secondary legislation is made up of all the acts which enable the Union to exercise its powers.

With the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon and the abolition of the pillar structure, the majority of European policies are henceforth subject to the Community method with the exception of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). From now on, only acts covered by Article 288 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) may be adopted. This includes regulations, directives, decisions, recommendations and opinions. In the majority of cases, the Treaties detail the type of act which should be used. In those cases where it does not, Article 296 of the TFEU permits the institutions to choose the type of act to be adopted on a case-by-case basis.

The Treaty of Lisbon also introduces, for the first time, a hierarchy of norms within the secondary legislation. It establishes a distinction between:

  • legislative acts (Article 289 TFEU). These are legal acts adopted by an ordinary or special legislative procedure;
  • delegated acts (Article 290 TFEU). These are non-legislative acts of general application which supplement or amend certain non-essential elements of the legislative act. The power to adopt this type of act may be delegated to the Commission by the European Parliament or the Council;
  • implementing acts (Article 291 TFEU). These acts are generally adopted by the Commission, which is conferred with implementing powers; in certain cases the Council may also be called upon to adopt implementing acts.

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