The European Communities Act 1972 (c. 68) also known as the ECA 1972 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom which made legal provision for the accession of the United Kingdom to the three European Communities, namely the EEC (or “Common Market”), Euratom, and the (now defunct) Coal and Steel Community.[1]

The Treaty of Accession was signed by the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath and the President of the European Commission Franco Maria Malfatti in Brussels on 22 January 1972; the UK’s accession into the Communities was subsequently ratified via the 1972 Act.

The Act provided for the incorporation into UK law of the whole of European Community law and its “acquis communautaire“: its Treaties, Regulations and Directives, together with judgments of the European Court of Justice.

By the Act, Community Law (subsequently European Union Law) became binding on all legislation passed by the UK Parliament (and also upon the UK’s devolved administrations—the Northern Ireland Assembly, Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales—although none of these institutions existed at the time of the passing of the Act). Arguably the most significant statute to be passed by the Heath government of 1970-74, the Act is also one of the most significant UK constitutional statutes ever passed.

The act has been significantly amended from its original form, incorporating the changes wrought by the Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty, the Amsterdam Treaty, the Nice Treaty, and the Treaty of Lisbon.

On 13 July 2017, the then Brexit Secretary, David Davis, introduced what became the European Union (Withdrawal) Act to Parliament which makes provision for repealing the 1972 Act on “exit day”, when enacted defined as 29 March 2019 at 11 p.m.(London time, GMT), but later postponed by EU decision to either 22 May 2019 or 12 April 2019.

During the late 1940’s to early 1950’s it was found that the Western European supremacy was coming to an end and there were other powers rising up such as the United States and the Soviet Union.So as to protect Europe from War and improve the economic climate, it was suggested that there should be economic integration. In 1957, France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg signed a treaty in Rome which established, for the first time, a European Economic Community which was referred to as the common market.

Other Member states chose to decline in joining the common market, including the United Kingdom.However, after clear signs of there being significant economic growth, the United Kingdom made two applications to become members, both of which were rejected due to the close ties the United Kingdom held with the United States. There was also a political issue within the United Kingdom upon making the decisions to apply due to the UKs sovereignty.The intention to become a member of the EEC created a split within the major political parties within the United Kingdom and in particular, there was a lot of resistance from the Labour party. However, in 1973 the United Kingdom finally became members of the Common Market.

Main Aim

The main purpose of the European Communities Act 1972 was to allow for European Union laws to be introduced into the domestic legislation which allowed for the United Kingdom to become a member of the European Economic Community.

What were the changes?

The most significant change caused by the introduction of this Act was the fact that it made the United Kingdom a member of the European Economic Community which meant that the United Kingdom was now subject to EU laws.

One of the primary changes caused by this Act is under section 2(1). This section states that EU provisions have direct effect within the United Kingdom. This means that EU regulations and certain articles of the Treaties are automatically incorporated and binding within national law and there is no requirement for there to be a further Act of parliament.This was one of the main factors which created problems within the United Kingdom when their introduction to the European Economic Community was first suggested. This was because it raised disputes as to whether the United Kingdom would remain a sovereign state should they join the EU as it allows for EU legislation to govern the United Kingdom without the introduction of any domestic laws.

Another change identified under section 2 is that EU legislation is supreme within any member state and if there are any disputes as to whether domestic legislation breaches EU laws, the member states courts are then obligated to submit questions to the European Court of Justice to get clarification on whether or not the domestic laws need to be changed. This, again, was a significant change for the United Kingdom due to the fact that it is a dualist state. This was a significant factor within the case of Factortame.There was a dispute over whether a national court could provide interim relief where rights under community law were in dispute. As community law is supreme it was held that a national court has the right to grant interim reliefs if the only obstacle, in a case concerning community law, is a national law. This again demonstrates the changes caused to the legal system within the United Kingdom from becoming a member of the EEC.

Another change brought about by the introduction of this Act is how the United Kingdom is able to trade. By being a member of the EU the United Kingdom became part of a customs union where there are no tariffs on goods moved between member states and there is a common tariff for any goods imported/exported to a non EU state. This change meant that there could be no independent trade policies.

Finally, not only was the Freedom of Trade introduced by this Act but, as European legislation is to have supremacy within a member state, it also meant the introduction of provisions such as the right to freedom of movement between member states and the right to freedom to provide services between member states. These changes occurred within the United Kingdom simply by becoming a member.