The UK rarely ends up in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and when it does it wins its cases more often than most European Union (EU) member states, a new report finds.
Who’s afraid of the ECJ?, published today by the independent Institute for Government (IfG), charts the UK’s experience at the ECJ compared to the 14 other longest standing members of the EU.
The UK won around a quarter of all the cases against it in the last 14 years: the highest success rate of any country that joined the EU before 2004 and the third-highest success rate of any country in the EU now.
Since 2003 the European Commission has opened over 750 complaints against the UK for failing to follow or apply EU law. The UK resolved 668 of these complaints before even reaching the court through negotiation and informal dispute resolution. In the end, the Commission decided to refer only 83 of these cases to the European Court.
Environmental issues are those most likely to see the UK end up at the European Court, the paper reveals, because such cases are often costly to resolve. For example, the UK has repeatedly been taken to court for failing to implement a 1991 directive on the management of urban waste water because water treatment plants are expensive to provide.
The number of ECJ cases on the environment suggests that a new system of environmental enforcement might be needed after we leave the EU to maintain standards.
Brexit negotiators have spent months deadlocked over whether the UK courts will have to refer citizens’ rights cases to the ECJ after Brexit. The analysis shows that in recent times around two cases on citizenship issues have been refereed each year.
Last year one of the cases concerned whether the British government could lawfully deport an EU citizen who was the sole carer of a child who was also an EU citizen. The other concerned the circumstances in which the UK could deport the ex-spouse of an EU citizen.
Raphael Hogarth, Research Associate at the Institute for Government and report author, said:
“The Government has argued that the UK is a good international citizen which meets its obligations. Our research provides some evidence for that claim. The UK gets taken to court relatively rarely, and loses relatively rarely.
“This presents a dilemma for the Government. The better-behaved partner in any international agreement will benefit from having the other held to a high standard. This suggests that the UK would be economically well served by a robust and far-reaching system of enforcement for its future relationship with the EU. However, the political imperative may be for a lighter-touch mechanism, and one more distant from the European Court.”
Jill Rutter, Programme Director at the Institute for Government, added:
“The evidence shows that the number of cases ending up before the court is declining. However, the presence of the Commission and the ECJ to enforce EU rules can still influence policy making, as ministers are warned of the potential legal consequences of their decisions.”
Notes to editors
- The full paper - Who’s afraid of the ECJ? Charting the UK’s relationship with the European Court - can be found on our website (from 00:01 on Friday 8 December).
- The Institute for Government is an independent think tank that works to make government more effective.
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