European Union Enforcement Mechanisms
last updated July 29, 2013

The enforcement mechanisms of the European Union are designed to ensure compliance with and uniform interpretation of the founding Treaties. For this reason, the enforcement mechanisms are less useful to advocates who want to bring attention to violations of individual women's rights. At the same time, it is clear that European Union membership requires protection of international and European human rights standards. The main enforcement mechanisms for the European Union are described below.

Since 1999, the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice has been expanded to include protection of the human rights articulated in the Council of Europe's Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Thus, the Court of Justice has the power to rule on compliance with European human rights standards by Community institutions.

Individuals can bring cases before the Court of Justice, but the scope of this complaint mechanism is very narrow for a number of reasons. First, the Court of Justice is the highest authority on issues of European Union Law. European Union Law consists of the founding Treaties and the provisions of instruments enacted by Community institutions, but can broadly also include case law of the Court of Justice, general principles of law and supplementary law found in conventions and other agreements between member States that give effect to the Treaty provisions. These rules together are also known as the acquis communautaire. The scope of European Union Law is specific and it is not sufficient that an issue arise in a member State for it to fall within the jurisdiction of the Court.

Second, the Court of Justice has defined two important rules- that European Union Law has a direct effect within member States and that European Union Law takes precedence over national laws. According to Court of Justice decisions, this means that citizens of European Union member States "may now rely on the provisions of the Treaties and Community regulations and directives in proceedings before their national courts, and may seek, for instance, to have a national law disapplied if it is contrary to European Union law." For many complaints arising out of European Union law, individuals may be able to obtain justice through national mechanisms.

Third, because national legal systems are expected to adhere to European Union Law provisions, the Court of Justice does not function as a mechanism for deciding the merits of a dispute over individual rights. The EU system of legal protections is mostly focused on procedures that allow individuals to submit a complaint about actions or failures to act by European Community institutions.

While the Court of Justice is not a very useful means by which individuals can obtain redress for rights violations, both the European Commission and the European Parliament provide mechanisms for individuals and groups can present information about human rights violations. These complaint and petition mechanisms cannot, however, lead to binding judgments and function more like a reporting mechanism. The complaint and reporting mechanisms available within the European Union are summarized in this section.