The notion of private law, as opposed to public law, has a long tradition and is of great importance in most EU Member States. National private law is seen as the constitution of civil society and enjoys a high degree of democratic legitimacy with regard to social justice. However, that distinction is not so important in EU law, where EU legislative competences in any given field of law are limited to those explicitly provided for in the Treaties. There is thus no general EU competence to regulate private law in its entirety, but a number of specific competences addressing selected aspects.
The clash between coherent national systems of private law and the EU’s functionalist approach leads inevitably to a fragmentation of EU legislation regarding private law. This poses a challenge to the coherence of national systems of private law, with adverse effects not only on consistency, but also transparency and legal security.
Of potential options for restoring coherence to private law, the only feasible one is through spontaneous harmonisation. This can occur as a spill-over of EU law rules and principles, through national legislatures and judiciaries. But above all, it is likely to happen through the framing of national and EU private law within a common grid of concepts, principles and rules.