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Lawless Europe: How EU states defy the law and get away with it

When it comes to rule-of-law problems in the European Union, Poland and Hungary are just the tip of the iceberg.

Over the past five months, teams of POLITICO reporters have set out to document cases of EU law being flouted around the bloc — from an ultra-polluting steel plant in the heel of Italy, to faulty or unsafe products trickling through a major e-commerce hub in Belgium, to Romanian farmers who use bee-killing pesticides indiscriminately, despite them being banned EU-wide since 2018.

The stories they brought back from the four corners of the EU show widespread defiance of laws cooked up in Brussels — with real-world consequences for human health, privacy and the environment. 

In Taranto, Leonie Cater and Antonia Zimmermann documented frequent instances of cancer in children around a steel plant repeatedly found to violate EU environmental standards. In Romania, Gabriela Galindo found “carpets of [dead] bees” from the continued use of banned neonicotinoid pesticides.

In Liège, Pieter Haeck and Camille Gijs showed how short-staffed customs officials can barely pretend to enforce EU product safety rules on millions of items flowing through a major e-commerce hub.

In his piece, Vincent Manancourt chronicled how EU governments openly defy the bloc’s top courts over data retention.

What these stories show is that, beyond the headline-grabbing examples of Poland and Hungary, defiance of EU law is becoming more common across the bloc, affecting every area of daily European life, including on matters where EU citizens believe the EU executive is protecting them — product safety, food safety, privacy, to name a few. 

They also underscore a gradual trend toward weaker enforcement of EU rules across the bloc. According to research by University of Rutgers Political Science Professor Daniel Kelemen and University of Arizona Assistant Professor of Law and Politics Tommaso Pavone, the EU has since 2004 launched a steadily declining number of “infringement proceedings,” or legal actions forcing countries to comply, in favor of “structured dialogue” and “pilot programs” that reduce friction and confrontation between the Commission and national capitals.

The problem is that this in turn undermines confidence in the EU legal system and lawmaking institutions, said Sophie in ‘t Veld, a liberal EU lawmaker with the Democrats 66 party. “The problem is that the Commission, over the past 20 years, has become increasingly intergovernmental. It is afraid to cross the national governments. It is dealing exclusively with national governments, not with citizens, not with [the European] Parliament,” she added.

With thousands of pages of new legislation being churned out by Brussels lawmakers each year, in ‘t Veld warned that lawmaking risked becoming meaningless unless it was backed up by a stronger enforcement culture. “We’re churning out new laws at record speed. But enforcement is weak,” she said.

The appetite for tough confrontation of national capitals over EU law appears to be in short supply though. In the following charts, POLITICO has crunched the numbers on thousands of complaints about governments not following through with the implementation or violating EU law. Here’s what we found.

On average, around 3,600 complaints are brought to the Commission’s attention over the course of one year, but the number of infringement procedures dropped between the first and the second decade of this century.

Over the years since 2002, the time period considered in this analysis, Italy has accumulated the most infringement cases both in absolute numbers and when taking into account that other countries joined the EU later.

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