16th Jul 2019

EU court ruling boosts commission's powers

A landmark ruling by the EU's highest court has boosted the European Commission's powers by giving it the right to tell member states to impose criminal sanctions for offences against EU law.

Under the European Court of Justice's ruling on Tuesday (13 September), which was specific to environmental law, serious environment offences in the future may be deemed criminal offences.

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  • The ruling represents a major extenstion of powers for the commission (Photo: OLAF)

However, the ruling is likely to have far wider implications.

"The court strengthens the possibilities to enforce the law, once member states have agreed on a European policy. This is a watershed decision", said commission president Jose Manuel Barroso reacting to the decision.

Commission legal expert Michel Petite said "the immediate effect of this [ruling] will be that it strengthens the effectiveness of community legislation, notably in the field of the environment".

He then added that the case raises a "point of principle" which may now "be applied in other areas of policy".

The other areas where the ruling's principle could be applied include the internal market, data protection, protection of intellectual property, counterfeiting and consumer policy.

The commission will not be able to dole punishments itself but Mr Petite admitted that for some breaches the EU executive "may want to say [punishment] has to be of a certain level".

An EU official said the decision was of "tremendous significance".

Member states over ruled

At the moment, national governments have no obligation to take breaches to EU environment law seriously - something which has deeply frustrated the commission, which prides itself on the high environmental standards it is trying to achieve for the bloc.

Now it will be able to make laws and have the clout to see that they are enforced.

The ruling has not been without a fight. Several member states, including Germany, France and the UK, opposed the commission in 2001 when it originally proposed that certain breaches of environment law be deemed criminal offences.

They felt the commission was overstepping the mark and straying into an area where it has no competence, but Tuesday's decision has overruled them.

Mindful of the hostile reaction likely in some member states, the commission insists that it does not want to create a community criminal code and says it shall only use such legislation for serious offences.

Alarming precedent

Reactions have been varied.

UK Liberal MEP Chris Davies said "This is very good news for Europe's environment and countries like Britain which have a good record in applying EU environment laws should be delighted".

However, Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope was critical of the precedent the decision is setting.

"It's a significant transfer of power to the commission, sanctioned by a court which tends towards the integrationist approach", he said.

"The decision on whether or not to criminalise offences in Britain should be a matter for Britain, not for the EU. We all support penalties against environmental vandals but this sets an alarming precedent", the member added.

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