EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Enforcement of EU law


Enforcement of EU law is the prerogative of the European Commission. Community legal measures on employment and industrial relations take the legal form mainly of Directives. EU Directives, once implemented into Member State laws, are enforced through the national administrative mechanisms applicable to the relevant national law on employment and industrial relations.


In the EU Member States, the administrations responsible for enforcing laws on employment and industrial relations include both general bodies, in the form of labour ministries, and specialist bodies – for example, health and safety inspectorates and equal opportunity commissions. Historically, administrative processes of enforcement were established in national labour laws, where workers were unable in practice to enforce their rights through judicial processes, and lacked the organisational strength to be able to rely on industrial relations practices. This historical experience is reflected only in part in the enforcement of EU legal measures.

Administrative enforcement of EU law is, therefore, achieved through national administrative mechanisms. However, these national administrative mechanisms responsible for enforcing EU law must satisfy EU standards of enforcement. The effectiveness of national administrative enforcement mechanisms in enforcing EU law is subject to review. There have emerged three principles: ‘equivalence’ of enforcement of EU and national law, ‘effectiveness’ of enforcement of EU law (regardless of national law standards of enforcement) and ‘proportionality’ of methods of enforcement to the norms being enforced. Together, this Europeanisation of administrative enforcement is said to produce a general ‘principle of effective enforcement’ applied to administrative processes of enforcement of EU labour standards.

Enforcement of the EU law regulating employment and industrial relations has specific qualities, which distinguish it from enforcement of domestic labour laws. In addition, EU labour law has special features, which distinguish it from other branches of EU law.

The enforcement of EU law has its own general principles, but in each Member State it will be influenced by the national system in which it operates. Enforcement mechanisms of Unnion labour law cannot be a wholly autonomous product. National traditions of labour law enforcement will not easily give way to purely Union legal techniques. Rather, the EU has experimented with a number of traditional techniques, some of which have had more success than others. The success of enforcement of Union labour law has perhaps been greatest where the EU legal technique meshes with the national traditions of administrative enforcement, implemented through the social partners and through the courts.

Although the European Court of Justice cannot itself adjudicate on complaints by individuals that their rights under Union law have been violated, the ECJ has developed procedures and minimum standards for the enforcement of EU law in national courts through their requests for preliminary rulings under Article 267 TFEU.

Where the social partners are the instruments of implementation and enforcement of national labour law, this mechanism has been accepted as a channel for EU labour law implementation. For instance, Article 153 (3) TFEU allows the social partners to take upon themselves the role of implementing and enforcing Union Directives on employment and industrial relations.

Development of judicial liability for breaches of EU law is particularly important in systems where litigation plays an important role in labour law enforcement. This method of enforcement of EU law on employment and industrial relations is relatively straightforward, where it grants clear rights to individuals or organisations and national law has implemented these rights through legal measures capable of enforcement through the domestic courts.

Enforcement is not so straightforward where implementation by national authorities of EU legislation is unsatisfactory. In such cases, enforcement may proceed through the domestic courts using doctrines of direct effect and indirect effect, or invoking the doctrine of State responsibility.

In general, the European Court has made a sustained effort to scrutinise the remedies, sanctions and procedures available at national level for the enforcement of EU law on employment and industrial relations.

Finally, EU law also offers possible strategies to use the courts to challenge national law, which contradicts EU law: Euro-litigation.


Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.


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