Cornell University Press

Compliance and Crisis in the European Union

Return to Home

The Covid-19 pandemic adds yet another crisis to the multiple crises the European Union (EU) has been facing since the turn of the millennium. Similar to the Constitutional, financial, migration, and rule of law crises, Covid-19 has given rise to a scholarly debate on why some states perform better in combatting the virus and its socio-economic consequences. Since most countries have enacted a globally shared script of stay-at-home orders, lockdowns, and border closures, many explanations focus on compliance with rules on testing, tracking, and isolating. In the EU, Finland, Denmark, Lithuania, and Slovakia, which show high compliance with EU law, also appear to be well suited in combatting the virus. Likewise, compliance laggards, including Italy, France, Portugal, and Belgium, trail behind in the Covid performance rankings. Yet, there are a number of states where law abidingness and effective pandemic control diverge (e.g. Greece, Sweden, the Netherlands, UK). This may be related to the absence of any common EU rules—when it comes to health, EU institutions can only issue recommendations. This is different from previous crises.

Before the pandemic struck in early 2020, the EU had faced not one but two of its largest crises. While the member states have managed to avert the breakdown of the Euro, they have yet to tackle the challenge of a historical influx of refugees which has brought the borderless Schengen area to the verge of collapse. What the two crises have in common is that one of their main causes is attributed to non-compliance with EU rules and procedures. If Greece or Italy had complied with the legal rules governing the EU’s common currency and the border-free Schengen area, they would not have piled up such record debts, nor would so many refugees and migrants have found their way into the EU. There is hardly any member state that has not violated the so-called convergence criteria, which are to keep in check state budgets. Likewise, virtually all member states have infringed on the EU’s legal rules and procedures regulating the admission of refugees and asylum seekers.

What the two crises have in common is that one of their main causes is attributed to non-compliance with EU rules and procedures.

The compliance behavior of the Euro and the Schengen countries mirror their overall (non-)abidance with the more than 34,000 pieces of EU legislation that regulate the quality of their drinking water, the equal treatment of men and women in the labor market, the admissibility of genetically modified food, or the rights of ethnic minorities. Whether it is their debt, the registration of refugees or the treatment of their urban wastewaters, Greece and Italy outdo the other member states in their defiance of EU rules and regulations. They are joined by Portugal, France, and Spain, while Finland, Austria, the Netherlands, and Germany show greater respect for European asylum and refugee law and the Stability and Growth Pact. At the same time, there is significant variation among both compliance laggards and compliance leaders that defies any attempt to declare non-compliance merely a ‘Southern problem’. Portugal and Spain have introduced comprehensive austerity measures and are praised by the European Commission for their reform efforts. Greece, by contrast, is still at the edge of sovereign default. Italy shows a strong commitment to reforms but implementation is slow. France has largely managed to stay under the radar screen, despite posting the largest debt-to-GDP ratio among Europe’s biggest economies. Likewise, Denmark lives up to its reputation as the top of the class whereas the UK and the Netherlands, which also belong to the group of compliance leaders, have been as reluctant to abide by EU asylum and refugee law as Spain, Italy, and Greece.

Whether it is their debt, the registration of refugees, or the treatment of their urban waste-waters, Greece and Italy outdo the other member states in their defiance of EU rules and regulations.

The Euro and the Schengen crises feature serious breaches of EU law by the member states that conform to general non-compliance patterns. Yet, it contradicts the secular trend of declining violations of EU law. Ever since the Maastricht Treaty sought to develop the Single Market into a Monetary, Economic and Political Union, non-compliance has decreased rather than increased, despite the substantive deepening and widening of European integration and a virtual doubling of the EU in size. If the EU has a compliance problem, it is concentrated in a limited number of policy sectors that include Justice and Home Affairs.

Placing the Euro and the Schengen crises into the broader picture of non-compliance in the EU, my book, Why Noncompliance: The Politics of Law in the European Union, explains why newer member states comply better with EU than long-standing member states, why noncompliance EU has decreased since the mid-1990s, despite a growing number of member states with weak compliance capacities and waning enthusiasm for European integration, and why sectors that protect citizens rights are particularly prone to noncompliance. In a nutshell, the book argues that the combination of the voting power of member states, their administrative capacity, and the political controversy around the EU explains why non-compliance with EU Law varies across time, countries, and policy sectors.

In a nutshell, the book argues that the combination of the voting power of member states, their administrative capacity, and the political controversy around the EU explains why non-compliance with EU Law varies across time, countries, and policy sectors.

First, noncompliance in the EU has been declining since the mid-1990s because, with the completion of the Single Market, the EU tends to amend existing rather than set new laws. Amending legislation has been increasingly delegated to the European Commission, which reduces parliamentary involvement in both decision-making and implementation. As a result, compliance is less likely to become controversial in the member states. Second, Southern European member states are less compliant with EU Law than Eastern European member states. The twelve former communist countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, had built the administrative capacity necessary to effectively implement European Law in the accession process. Moreover, unlike Italy, France, and Spain, they lack the power to resist compliance. Third, EU law that seeks to protect citizens’ rights is more frequently violated than EU Law that seeks to remove obstacles to free trade. Compliance with social or environmental standards requires more administrative capacity from the member states and is more likely to trigger political controversy in the implementation process.

*Featured photo: The European Union Flag in Brussels, Belgium. Credit: Christian Lue.


Tanja A. Börzel is professor of political science and holds the Chair for European Integration at Freie Universität Berlin. She is author of Effective Governance under Anarchy and Environmental Leaders and Laggards in Europe.

Book Finder