Fundamental Case Law of the Court of Justice – Making EU Law Work for Citizens


Through its decisions, the Court of Justice of the European Union has made EU law more effective, and strengthened the rights of citizens. In 1963, when asked by a Dutch court whether national courts could apply EU law themselves the Court of Justice replied that not only could they apply EU laws, but they were obliged to do so to protect the rights of citizens and companies given to them by EU law. This is the principle of ‘direct effect’. A year later, an Italian court asked whether their laws nationalising the electricity industry infringed European law. The Court of Justice replied that, because States have decided to share some of their powers at EU level, where there is a conflict between national and EU law, the latter must prevail and national laws must be set aside. This is the ‘supremacy of EU law’. In 1991, two Italians who were still owed their wages when their employer went bankrupt, complained that Italy had not implemented an EU law requiring it to protect employees in such a situation. The Court decided that a country can be sued by an individual, in its own national courts, for the harm they suffer when that country fails to apply EU law. Together these principles of supremacy and direct effect reinforced by the right of citizens to hold Member States to account in the national courts, are the foundations of EU law. They ensure that EU law works effectively and that it is the same for all citizens, no matter where they live.

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