The Constitution Treaty of 2004 that was rejected in referenda by two member states offered for the first time a clear distinction of EU and member states’ competences. The Lisbon Treaty retained this classification of competences into exclusive, shared and competences where the EU may take action only to support, coordinate or complement member states’ activities. Those areas that are not specifically mentioned in the Treaties remain the responsibility of the member states.

The scope and the use of EU competences are governed by the following guiding principles:

  1. Principle of conferral - it means that power cannot be transferred from member states to the EU without consent of the member states i.e. member states agree to allocate part of their sovereignty and autonomy to the Union’s institutions. Conferral of powers is managed through the treaties.  
  2. Principle of subsidiarity – in areas which are not under exclusive EU competence, the EU can take action only where the same objectives cannot be sufficiently achieved by a lower level of governance (member states or subnational levels) and can, thus be better achieved at the EU level.
  3. Principle of proportionality - states that the EU may only do what is necessary, and not more, in order to achieve its objectives.

A special protocol governs the application of the latter two principles.

There are six exclusive competences and in those areas the EU makes legislation and decisions independently. Member states make no decisions and do not interfere with the competence in these matters transferred to the EU. The European Commission has been granted power to issue decisions in these areas. Exclusive competences are:

  1. customs union;
  2. the establishing of the competition rules necessary for the functioning of the internal market;
  3. monetary policy for the Member States whose currency is the euro;
  4. the conservation of marine biological resources under the common fisheries policy;
  5. common commercial policy;
  6. conclusion of an international agreement when its conclusion is provided for in a legislative act of the Union or is necessary to enable the Union to exercise its internal competence.

The vast majority of policies come under the heading of shared competences. In these areas, both member states and the EU have the power to make laws. However, when the EU and its member states share a competence, the member state loses its power to take decisions when the EU has regulated a certain area. According to Article 4 of The Lisbon Treaty, the Union shares competences with the Member States in cases where the Treaties confer on it a competence which falls neither into the category of exclusive EU competences nor into the supportive/coordinating/supplementing competences enumerated in Article 6.

Shared competences apply in the following principal areas: internal market, social policy, for the aspects defined in the Treaty, economic, social and territorial cohesion, agriculture and fisheries (excluding the conservation of marine biological resources), environment, consumer protection, transport, trans-European networks, energy, area of freedom, security and justice and common safety concerns in public health matters. In the areas of research, technological development and space, development cooperation and humanitarian aid, the Union also has competence but the exercise of that competence does not prevent member states from exercising theirs.

The EU can support, co-ordinate or complement the actions of the member states. The EU does not acquire any additional legislative powers insofar as it can act only to support the actions of member states, falling short of harmonization of national law. These areas include: the protection and improvement of human health, industry, culture, tourism, education, youth, sport and vocational training, civil protection (disaster prevention), administrative cooperation etc.


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