The European Commission is under renewed pressure over its enforcement of European Union legislation in member states, to make it more effective, and more transparent.
EU infringement procedures have until now required the Commission to follow a step-by-step process that often takes years to bring a member state into line with EU law. The Lisbon treaty has opened up an additional – and more rapid – procedure, but the Commission has yet to use it.
Chris Davies, a UK Liberal MEP, says the Commission has to do more to speed up action against member states that fail to properly implement EU laws. “The infringement system is simply too slow and cumbersome,” he said. His criticism echoes a European Parliament report adopted in November, that also called for a more transparent procedure. MEPs want public disclosure of “correlation tables” in which the Commission lists the steps that member states must take to put themselves into compliance with EU law. National governments want the tables kept secret. The tables were introduced in 2003 as part of an accord between the Parliament, the Council and Commission on “better legislation”. That agreement had called for making public how laws are implemented as well as regular reporting by national governments to the Commission on progress. Member states later backtracked on making publication mandatory.
Davies and other critics allege that the current system is too vulnerable to political influence. They point to sensitive infringement cases that were watered down, delayed or even shelved by the Commission, to avoid angering a member state or intervening in a sensitive policy field. They cite the dropping of a 2005 case against Austria’s ban on wild animals in circuses, which the Commission had initiated after complaints that the ban restricted the free movement of services. The European ombudsman later chided the Commission for maladministration. An EU official said the case was dropped “because it wasn’t politically advisable” for the Commission to take on animal rights groups which backed the Austrian ban.
Another of Davies’s examples is the ten years that it took the Commission to get Greece to close a waste disposal site which violated EU waste management rules on the island of Crete. Greece finally agreed in 2001 to pay a court-imposed fine totalling €4.72 million for failing to adhere to the rules. That was the first time the Commission had called on the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to impose a fine for non-compliance. “Member states play the system to take advantage of loopholes. They interfere a lot,” said Davies.
Commission officials acknowledge that prior to the 1999-2004 Romano Prodi Commission, infringement decisions were often politicised. The Lisbon treaty mechanism would speed up infringement proceedings by cutting out the obligation for the Commission to send two successive formal letters to a member state before taking it to the ECJ. Instead, the Commission could refer a case straight to the court, along with a proposal for a penalty or fine.
The Commission defends the current system against some of the criticisms being levelled against it. “We are highly successful. Over 95% of infringement cases are resolved before going to court,” an official said.
But maintaining the pre-Lisbon treaty approach looks unsustainable.
At the end of 2009, the Commission was handling 2,900 complaints and infringement files (most of them in the fields of environment, taxation, energy, transport and the internal market). The member states have clearly been conditioned to ignore the Commission’s strictures. A swifter recourse to court should encourage speedier compliance.
When decisions are eventually issued they come in such quantity that they are not subject to meaningful public scrutiny. Last month the Commission issued 317 infringement decisions, and 524 in September. That is not a sensible way of doing business.
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Enforcement that is both slow and secret is sub-standard. To maintain respect for EU law, the Commission will have to resort to the Lisbon treaty provisions.