Greece convicted most by EU court, statistics show

13.02.06 @ 17:36

  1. By Mark Beunderman

BRUSSELS - Greece, Luxembourg and France are the biggest villains in implementing EU law, new statistics by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) have revealed.

Statistics released by the ECJ on Monday (13 February) show that Greece in 2005 topped the list of EU lawbreakers, failing to implement or comply with EU directives in 20 cases, followed by Luxembourg (16) France (13), Germany (12) and Italy (11).

Sweden, emerged most favourably from the court's statistics, with only two convictions in 2005 from the Luxembourg judges, followed by Ireland and Denmark on three convictions each.

The data follows a similar pattern from recent years.

Rome, Paris, Athens, Berlin and Luxembourg have headed the list of states that have been taken to court by the European Commission since 2000, following shortcomings in applying EU legislation.

National referrals to ECJ

Monday's data over 2005 also revealed that German, Belgian and Dutch judges made the most referrals for an interpretation of EU law to the ECJ, asking the Luxembourg judges for advice.

These so-called preliminary references, where the court deals with EU law-related conflicts following requests by national judges, constitute a large part of the court's work.

As preliminary references by and large deal with the scope and meaning of EU legislation, they are also generally the most political in nature.

German judges in 2005 referred 51 cases to the Luxembourg court, followed by their Dutch and Belgian colleagues (36 and 21 referrals respectively).

UK and French courts made relatively less use of the Luxembourg route, with new member state judges referring only a handful of cases to the EU court.

Court officials pointed to several factors as to why Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium have traditionally channelled most cases to Luxembourg.

The ports of Hamburg, Rotterdam and Antwerp provide for a bulk of customs-related cases, while the three founding EU member states have also developed strong academic and professional knowledge of EU law necessary to make preliminary referrals.

New member state courts, on the other hand, are still relatively unfamiliar with the preliminary reference construction, resulting in fewer referrals.

Backlog in case-law attacked

The new members' hesitancy in referring cases to Luxembourg has left some room for the ten new states' judges that were hired after the union's 2004 enlargement to help their "old" colleagues attack existing case-law logjams.

Court officials highlighted on Monday that the number of pending cases has been reduced by 12 percent in 2005, with judges completing more cases than they received for a second year in a row.

The generally long duration of cases before the ECJ, sometimes seen as an obstacle for national judges to engage the Luxembourg court, has also been tackled.

The duration of preliminary rulings has been decreased from 25.5 months in 2003 to 20.4 months in 2005, the court's report stated.

But the Court of First Instance, (CFI) a chamber of the ECJ dealing with competition and intellectual property law involving private parties, actually saw the duration of its cases increase to 25.6 months, compared to 22.6 months in 2004.

This means that on average, business involved in competition cases had to wait longer for judgements.

More fiscal and social cases

Meanwhile, 2005 saw a continuation of an existing trend where more cases dealt with by the court, are concerned with social and fiscal issues, rather than the traditional economic areas covered by the ECJ.

Although most cases still concern economic policy areas like agriculture and consumer protection, 2005 saw another increase in social and fiscal cases being dealt with by the ECJ, one court spokesman explained.

Experts point to an increasing interest by the Luxembourg court in tax and social matters, which it enters while referring to the free movement of goods, services, workers and capital as enshrined in the EC treaty.

This pattern could be seen in the landmark Marks & Spencer ruling, where the court ruled the British retail firm should be compensated in UK taxation for losses in its shops in other EU member states France, Germany and Belgium - otherwise its freedom of establishment would be infringed, the court said.

Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schussel in December criticised a judgement by the EU court last July, when judges ruled that Austria could not restrict access of foreign students to its universities, many of whom are German.

Mr Schussel said "the ECJ…has in the last couple of years systematically expanded European competencies, even in areas, where there is decidedly no [European] community law."

"Suddenly, judgements emerge on the role of women in the German federal army, or on access of foreign students to Austrian universities – that is clearly national law," he added.

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