Principle of direct effect of the EU law – Directives

This is a right of individuals to invoke before National Courts apply the European Union Law in their legal relations with public administrations or individuals, regardless of whether there are texts in national law.

In this relevant case, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) specified that Directives can have direct effect only when their implementation period has expired, so consequently, the unexpired directives could not have relied upon.

The objective of this clarification by the ECJ is to prevent a Member State from using its lack of implementation of a directive to continue making use of a previous national law that does not adopt the changes established in the Community law (EU law).

Case Summary

The Pretura Penale, Milan (Italy) referenced to the ECJ for a preliminary ruling in the action pending before that court between Pubblico Ministero (public prosecutor) and Tullio Ratti, on the interpretation of Council Directive NO 73/173/EEC of 4 June 1973, related to the classification, packaging and labelling of dangerous preparations (solvents) and Directive NO 77/728/EEC of 7 November 1977, related to the classification, packaging and labelling of paints, varnishes, printing-inks, adhesives and similar product. 


In the main case, Tullio, that sold solvents and varnishes, was prosecuted for failure to comply with an Italian law NO 245 of 5 March 1963 that require manufacturers of products containing benzene, toluene and xylene to affix to the containers of those products labels indicating, not only the fact that those substances are present, but also their total percentage and, separately, the percentage of benzene.


Tullio argued that his business complied with these two Directives, so he should not have to comply with that stricter Italian law. He also understood that the Italian law entered in conflict with these two Directives. 


He defended that the Italian government did not incorporate the Directive NO 73/173 of 4 June 1973 to its internal legal order within the mandatory established period, and that therefore, if it had been implemented, that would have meant the repeal of the Italian law, which he was charged with contravening. 


The ECJ ruled that a Member State which has not adopted the implementing measures required by the directive in the prescribed periods may not rely, as against individuals, on its failure to perform the obligations which the directive entails, clarifying in this way that after the expiration of the period fixed for the implementation of a directive a Member State may not apply its internal law which has not yet been adapted in compliance with the directive, to a person who has complied with the requirements of the directive. 


However, the ECJ specified that being the Directive NO 73/173 to which the term to incorporate it into the internal legal system has expired, is the only one the applicant can rely on and not in the Directive 73/173, since its term of incorporation had not expired yet. 


[1] Judgment of the Court of 5 April 1979, Tullio Ratti, Case 148/78, ECLI:EU:C:1979:110. Paragraph 22 and 24


Read the whole case here.


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