Britain gets top marks for behaviour from European Court of Justice

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Dec 08, 2017
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The court has heard 83 cases against Britain since 2003

Francois Lenoir/Reuters

Britain is rarely hauled before the EU’s top judges and has one of the highest success rates of all EU member states when it is, a report shows.

Despite a deadlock over whether the European Court of Justice (ECJ) will still have jurisdiction over cases involving EU citizens after Brexit, the report shows that only two of such cases are referred by the UK each year.

The report, published today by the Institute for Government, shows that Britain has won about a quarter of all cases against it in the ECJ over the past 14 years. That is the highest success rate of any country that joined the EU before 2004 and the third-highest of all countries in the bloc, the report shows.

Since 2003 the European Commission has opened 751 complaints against Britain 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 83 of these cases to the court.

The report, Who’s Afraid of the ECJ, charts the UK’s experience at court compared with the other longest-standing members of the union. It shows that environmental issues are those most likely to bring the UK to the court, because such cases are often costly to resolve.

Britain has repeatedly been taken to court for failing to implement a 1991 directive on the management of urban waste water because 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 to maintain standards after Britain leaves the EU.

Few cases on citizenship issues are referred 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. Another concerned the circumstances in which Britain could deport the former spouse of an EU citizen.

Raphael Hogarth, research associate at the Institute for Government and the report’s 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.”

He added that the situation presented a dilemma for the government. “The better-behaved partner in any international agreement will benefit from having the other held to a high standard,” he said.

“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.”

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