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Regulations, Directives, Decisions, Recommendations and Opinions – these are the main legal instruments that the EU uses to govern. How are they different from each other?
Regulations are the strongest in EU’s toolbox: the text of this EU law is directly binding. It applies and is enforced the same way, at the same time to all Member States, legal entities and citizens it addresses. A Member State cannot choose to apply just part of a regulation, and this type of EU law has equal weight to national law. A famous regulation is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which entered into force in May last year: it came into effect at the same time and with the same text across the EU.
Directives are binding, but only to the extent of the results they want to achieve. The European Accessibility Act is a good example of a directive: it says that goods and services must be accessible, but does not describe how this should be reached. Member States can choose the form and method of reaching the goals specified in the directive. After the adoption of a directive, Member States need to transpose it into national law. This means they have to create or update their national laws to reach the aims of the directive. A directive only becomes “reality” when the country makes a national law to comply with it.
Decisions are also binding in their entirety. They can address all or specific Member States, specific persons and legal entities, granting them certain rights or putting obligations on them. Decisions can also be on amending EU treaties, making policy, adopting internal rules for EU institutions, in which case they are not addressed to anyone specific. The Council of the European Union and the European Commission are two institutions that use decisions. Council Decision on combating certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law is an example of a decision.
Finally, recommendations and opinions do not have any binding force. They can be addressed to all or specific Member States, EU bodies, or not specify addressees as in case of decisions. Recommendations are used to call on a party to act in a particular way. Opinions, on the other hand, are issued to assess a particular situation or development in the EU or certain Member State. An example of a recommendation is the Council recommendation on the EU Parking Card for persons with disabilities.
If you want to learn in more detail about the legal and policy instruments of the EU, and understand how the complex system of its governance works, the ABC of EU law (available in 24 languages) is a good resource. You can also find more information on the website of the European Commission.