Skip to Main Content

European Union Research: A Beginner's Guide

An introductory research guide covering European Union materials.

Overview of the European Union

The European Union (EU) is a supranational organization made up of 27 European member states that have chosen to cooperate in developing various social, political, and economic policies.† Although the EU in its current incarnation was officially established in 1993 with the Treaty of Maastricht, its seeds were planted in 1953 when the European Coal and Steel Community, consisting of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, was created for the purpose of regulating certain industries. Over time, as more countries joined and priorities shifted, the EU developed as the organizational structure for broader European integration. It is currently composed of two separate but intertwined communities: the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) and the European Economic Community (EEC). 

Headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, the EU currently has a population of close to half a billion and an economy approximately the size of that of the United States. Its member states, in order of accession, include: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Finland, Sweden, Cyprus, The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Romania, and Croatia. The UK left the EU in 2020. As of this writing, several countries are pursuing membership, referred to as EU enlargement, although no timetable has yet been set.

† As of this writing, Switzerland and Norway are not EU members.

Organizational Structure

The EU is made up of multiple bodies and institutions. The most important are listed below, along with a summary of their functions.

Types of Documents

Because of its complex and unique structure, the EU produces a vast number of documents that fulfill differing roles in its executive, legislative, and judicial processes.  Understanding what the main types of documents are can greatly aid the researcher both in locating specific documents and in figuring out where other relevant documents might be stored.

  1. Treaties:  The legal basis for the EU has been laid out in a series of treaties.  These are considered “primary” legislation in EU parlance. The founding treaties specify the various obligations of member states as part of the EU and its various predecessor organizations.  The accession treaties admit new nations to the EU.  All EU legislation and procedures are ultimately governed by treaties.

  2. Legislation:  New legislation is proposed by the European Commission and is typically adopted by the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament, although some laws are adopted by the Council alone.  Although legislation may be implemented through one of four procedures, by far the most important and most frequently used is Co-Decision.  This procedure requires that both the Council and the Parliament agree on the text of a law before it is passed.  If they cannot agree, a Conciliation Committee is formed to work through differences, though a majority of Parliament may still reject the results of the Committee’s work.  All non-treaty legislation is considered “secondary” legislation.

    There are four main types of legislation:

    • Regulations: These are the most analogous to what we normally think of as “laws.”  They are binding on all member states.

    • Directives: These are binding only in terms of the results that are to be achieved.  They are addressed to individual member states, which are free to choose the best forms and methods of implementation.

    • Decisions: These are binding upon those to whom they are addressed, which may be member states, companies, or individuals.

    • Recommendations and Opinions: These are not binding and need not be initiated by the Commission.

  3. Implementing Legislation:  This is the legislation in individual countries implementing directives from the EU.

  4. Judgments: Judgments are simply the decisions issued by the courts in the EU system.  Researchers will most often be looking for European Court of Justice Decisions. 

  5. COM documents:  COM documents represent the various types of documents issued by the European Commission.  They may include proposals for legislation, working papers, communications with other bodies, and reports such as “green papers” and “white papers.”  Green papers are discussion papers on specific policy areas and may act as an impetus for later legislation.  They are often addressed to interested organizations or individuals who are invited to participate in consultation and debate. White papers are proposals for Commission action in certain areas; they usually follow green papers on the particular topic.

  6. Council documents:  These are documents produced by the Council of Ministers, such as the Common Position, which identifies the Council’s position on amendments to legislation proposed by Parliament.

  7. Parliamentary Committee Reports:  In the course of legislating, various Parliamentary committees often issue reports describing policy and other considerations up for discussion.

  8. Parliamentary Debates:  Most legislation is debated on the Parliament floor, and transcripts of these debates may be valuable to legal researchers.

Note that these are only some of the documents that are produced by the various institutions of the EU.  The EU is a large and complicated network of various bodies, institutions, and committees, each of which produces a plethora of documents such as working papers, policy statements, etc.  However, those listed above are the most likely to come up in researching a given issue.