The constitutional treaty explained: Legal personality for the EU

One objective of the European constitution is to simplify the institutional system. A current complication is the pillar structure, whereby different legislative and institutional routes are used according to the subject matter under discussion. Commercial and environmental matters are dealt with under so-called Pillar 1, foreign affairs come under Pillar 2, while Pillar 3 covers justice and home affairs.

The first pillar is based on a mixture of both supranational and intergovernmental institutions, as the European Parliament and Council of Ministers share the legislative power (the co-decision procedure applies in most cases) on the basis of a proposal from the European Commission. Pillars 2 and 3 have traditionally been much more dependent on the intergovernmental aspects: the Council has been the main institution, while the Commission has played less of a role and the Parliament hardly any role at all.

The constitutional treaty will increase the role of the Commission and Parliament in the policy areas covered by Pillars 2 and 3, and will also in fact abolish the distinction between the pillars altogether. This is why there has to be a change in the system of legal personality.

At present, the European Community (which is the proper name for Pillar 1) has legal personality but the European Union does not. This means that the EU can enter into international agreements covering Pillar 1 matters but not those covered by Pillar 2 or 3. With the abolition of the distinction between the pillars, this anomaly had to be addressed: because of the increasing importance of international cooperation in these areas, it would be better to extend legal personality to the entire European Union.

With legal personality, the EU could become a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, for example. At present, it is not, which means that the actions of the member states are governed by human rights considerations but the actions of the European Union are not. This is a loophole, which giving the EU legal personality will fill.

This commentary was contributed by Richard Laming, member of the Federal Union committee, on 22 October 2006. He may be contacted at richard@richardlaming.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

More information

Click here for more resources on the European constitution

About the Author