Court of Justice of the European Communities

Court with jurisdiction over the European Communities (EC), ruling on questions regarding treaties and other agreements that involve the member states.

In May, 1950, the French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, proposed to place the whole of French and German coal and steel production in an organization that would allow participation by other European countries (member states). In his proposal was a court of justice that would subject the authority of the new organization to judicial control. In April, 1951, the treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was signed in Paris. It created, among other institutions, a Court of Justice whose judicial structure was strongly influenced by continental administrative law.

When the two Treaties of Rome were signed in March, 1957, establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) respectively, each was given a Court of Justice and a Council of Ministers. The treaties also authorized the creation of a single Court to serve these two communities and the ECSC. The Convention on Certain Institutions Common to the European Communities and the Court of the ECSC became the Court of Justice of the European Communities, based in Luxembourg, where it is in permanent session.

The great innovation of the Court of Justice, compared with earlier institutions that attempted to unify Europe, was its use of the rule of law. The six founding member states (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) were aware that unification had to be achieved and maintained through legal means and that the EC should be conceived in a legal instrument (Treaties of Paris and Rome). The judicial institution of the EC, the Court of Justice has fifteen judges and nine advocates general to ensure that EC law is not interpreted and applied differently in each member state. To achieve this, the Court of Justice has jurisdiction to hear disputes to which the member states may be parties. The decisions of the Court of Justice cannot be reversed by an act of the Councils of Ministers; however, any measure of the councils having legal effect can by annulled by the Court of Justice if contrary to the treaties or other provisions of EC law. The Court of Justice plays no direct part in the formal legislative process. To maintain its impartiality, the Court of Justice uses judges from a wide range of nations. It draws one judge from each member state, along with an additional judge drawn in rotation from one of the “big four” (France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, with Spain added to this group in 1988). Unlike judges, advocates general have an ambivalent role: They are members of the Court of Justice but act as independent advisers and do not attend the judges’ deliberations; however, they do vote in parity with them on all procedural issues.

Since the court’s founding in 1952 as the Court of Justice of the European Coal and Steel Community, more than eight thousand cases have been brought before it. To handle such a caseload while processing cases with reasonable despatch, the Court of Justice requested the Councils to set up a Court of First Instance in 1989 to try cases not brought by member states or by EC institutions. This new tribunal relieves the Court of Justice from examining questions of fact and improving the quality of judicial review.

Importance of the Court

The Court of Justice plays a crucial role in the institutional system set up by the treaties. In particular, it is responsible for maintaining the balance between the respective powers of the EC institutions and between the powers transferred to the community and those retained by the member states. In exercising its powers of judicial review, the Court of Justice is often called on to settle questions of a constitutional nature or of major economic significance. In a 1971 judgment concerning road transport, the Court of Justice held that the member states no longer had the right to undertake obligations with third countries that affected the community rules, determining that the principle of the community’s powers in the field of external relations must be interpreted in line with changing circumstances.

The Court of Justice further defined the EC as a community governed by the rule of law with two essential rules: the direct effect of community law in the member states and the primacy of community law over national law. On the basis of those decisions, European citizens may now rely on the provisions of the treaties and community regulations and directives in proceedings before their national courts and may seek to have a national law disapplied if it is contrary to community law.

Interpretation of European Community Law

The Court has been asked to clarify member states’ obligations with regard to the free movement of goods and the establishment of a common market and to secure the removal of barriers protecting national markets and undertakings and, generally, of all hindrances to trade between member states. Following the Cassis de Dijon judgment (1979), European consumers may buy in their own country any food product from a country in the community provided that it is lawfully produced and marketed in that country and that there are no serious grounds related to the protection of health or the environment for preventing its importation into the country of consumption. The Court of Justice held in a case concerning Ireland (1982) that measures having no binding effect, such as a commercial campaign, adopted by a member state could nevertheless influence the conduct of traders and consumers and were thus capable of frustrating the aims of the treaty. In 1997 the Court of Justice found against the French Republic for failing to take the measures necessary to prevent certain French farmers from obstructing the free passage over French territory of agricultural products from other member states. In the van Binsbergen and Reyners cases (1974), the Court of Justice swept away obstacles to the enjoyment of those freedoms by holding that the relevant provisions of the treaty had direct effect and could be relied on in the national courts.

The development of the community legal order has been mostly the result of the dialogue that has built up between the national courts and the Court of Justice through the preliminary ruling procedure. It is through such cooperation that the essential characteristics of the community legal order have been identified, in particular its primacy over the laws of the member states, the direct effect of a whole series of provisions and the right of individuals to obtain redress when their rights are infringed by a breach of community law for which a member state is responsible.

Further Reading

  • Bledsoe, Robert L., and Boleslaw A. Boczek. The International Law Dictionary. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1987.
  • Brown, L. Neville, and Francis G. Jacobs. The Court of Justice of the European Communities. 3d ed. London: Sweet and Maxwell, 1989.
  • Charpentier, Louis. The European Court of Justice and the Rhetoric of Affirmative Action. San Domenico, Italy: European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre, 1998.
  • Dehousse, Renaud. The European Court of Justice: The Politics of Judicial Integration. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1998.
  • Kommers, Donald, and John E. Finn. American Constitutional Law: Essays, Cases, and Comparative Notes. Belmont, Calif.: West/Wadsworth, 1998.
  • Slaughter, Anne-Marie, Alec S. Sweet, and J. H. H. Weiler, eds. The European Court and National Courts: Doctrine and Jurisprudence: Legal Change in Its Social Context. Oxford, England: Hart Publishing, 1998.
  • Stone, Peter. Civil Jurisdiction and Judgments in Europe. London: Longman, 1998.

British Law Lords

French Constitutional Council

German Federal Constitutional Court

International perspectives on the Court