European Union
last updatedJuly 25, 2013


The European Union (EU) was founded after the Second World War, primarily to create economic stability and peace in Europe. Today, the EU works to ensure freedom and security and to promote economic and social progress in Europe. The EU is based on principles of democracy and support for the rule of law. Since 1999 and the entry into force of the Treaty of Amsterdam, the human rights set forth in the Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms are incorporated into European Union law. Thus, in order to become a member of the EU, candidate countries must have achieved "stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities."[1] The EU regards violence against women, both in public and in private, as a flagrant violation of fundamental human rights.

Currently, five Central and Eastern Europe candidate countries are applying for membership in the European Union: The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Iceland, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey.[2] The European Union has set forth conditions (the "Copenhagen Criteria") that must be met for membership.[3] Among other requirements, the criteria include guaranteeing the rule of law and respect for human rights. In joining the European Union, applicant countries must also accept the Acquis Communautaire, the laws and rules adopted by the EU, which derive principally from its founding treaties. Thus, in order to be admitted, each of the applicant countries must harmonize their domestic laws and policies, which would include legislation that relates to violence against women, with EU standards.[4]

Seven major institutions (the European Parliament; the European Council; the Council of the Union; the European Commission; the Court of Justice; the European Central Bank; and  the Court of Auditors) and a number of smaller bodies conduct the work of the European Union. The institutions that deal with issues of women's human rights are described below in more detail.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament, not to be confused with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, is a democratic organ of the EU, consisting of members elected for five year terms by citizens of each EU member State. The Parliament has three main functions: (1) to legislate, meaning to adopt laws for the EU in the form of directives, regulations or decisions; (2) to adopt the budget; and (3) to supervise the European Commission, including approval of the nomination of the commissioners. The European Parliament carries out its work in two stages: sessions of the Parliament's specialized committees in preparation for the plenary meetings and the plenary sessions when all members attend. There are currently 20 Parliamentary Committees, including the Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality. The Committee on Women's Rights and Equal Opportunities is responsible for implementation of women's rights in the EU, including monitoring international agreements on the rights of women, the establishment and evaluation of polices and programs for women and work connected to research and studies of issues related to women. The Committee adopts reports and also publishes records of its meetings.[5]

The European Commission

The European Commission is the executive body of the EU and is responsible for the creation of European policy on women's rights. The European Commission has three primary functions: (1) to propose and draft new legislation, (2) to ensure the EU legislation is correctly applied by all member States and (3) to implement and manage EU policy. The European Commission is a political body consisting of 27 members, who are appointed by their countries of origin. The European Commission addresses women's human rights through the Employment and Social Affairs Directorate-General which focuses on promoting gender equality between women and men. The European Union considers violence against women a manifestation of gender inequality and approaches violence as a basic policy concern for the European community. The European Commission's website has a page with links to the various activities on Gender Equality as well as specific links to EU activities concerning violence against women.[6]

The Court of Justice

The Court of Justice of the European Union is the body that ensures that EU treaty law is observed by member States. One of the Court's essential functions is to ensure that all member States interpret and apply European Union law consistently. The Court consists of one judge for each member State, appointed by State governments for six-year terms. Eight advocates-general, also appointed by the member States, assist the Court. Prior to 1999, human rights were outside of the competence of the Court of Justice. The European Court of Human Rights, of the Council of Europe, was the single European court to determine issues of human rights violations. In 1999, however, the Treaty of Amsterdam expanded the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice to include protection of the human rights articulated in the Council of Europe's Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Treaty of Amsterdam requires the European Union to respect fundamental rights and formally gives the Court of Justice the "power to rule on how the Convention is being applied by the Community institutions."[7] The Court of Justice is described in more detail in the European enforcement mechanisms section of this site.


[1] "Conditions for membership," European Commission, accessed June 5, 2013,
[2] “Enlargement: Check Current Status,” European Commission, accessed June 5, 2013,
[3] “Accession Criteria,” European Commission, accessed June 5, 2013,
[4] “Chapters of the acquis,” European Commission, accessed June 5, 2013,
[5] “Women’s Rights and Gender Equality,” European Parliament, accessed June 5, 2013,
[6] “Gender Equality,” European Commission, accessed June 5, 2013,
[7] “Court of Justice of the European Union,” European Union, accessed June 5, 2013,