The European Court of Justice and the Domestic Politics of Compliance

Lauren Peritz is an assistant professor of political science. Her project, which explores the role of the European Union’s Court of Justice in furthering economic integration of Europe, was awarded an ISS Individual Research Grant in 2016. She provided this update in July 2017.

How did this project come about? What inspired it?

This project is motivated by the desire to understand the role international courts play in promoting cooperation between countries. Because international courts lack the capacity to directly enforce their rulings, they rely on voluntary compliance by and collective support from the governments that have agreed to be members, subject to its jurisdiction. This project explores under what conditions, and to what extent, these courts are effective in terms of their ability to induce cooperation and resolve international disputes. When will governments adjust their policies to conform with rulings from international courts and what are the political incentives to do so?

The European Union’s (EU) court of justice is an important venue in which to examine these questions. This court evaluates many different disputes over economic relations among the European member governments and those governments confront diverse domestic political conditions. It is thought to play a key role in promoting the economic integration of Europe through the common market.  For example, many court rulings require defendant governments to dismantle trade barriers that impede the exchange of goods and services within Europe. In the wake of economic and political events that strain the cohesion of the EU — like the sovereign debt crisis and the British vote to exit — understanding the institution is crucial.

How has it progressed since you received an ISS Individual Research Grant?

Focusing on the European Union, in particular, the ISS grant was used toward a data collection effort designed to study the role of the Court of Justice (CoJ) in promoting economic integration in Europe. Over the past year, I collected data on several hundred CoJ lawsuits over economic policies and regulations. I looked at instances in which the court ordered the defendant government to modify its policies and whether this led to greater economic integration within the European Union, measured with intra-EU trade. These lawsuits are particularly revealing because they represent instances of conflict between the demands of the international organization and the defendant government’s preferred policy. 

Then I examined the domestic political conditions in the defendant governments. I hypothesized that governments that have many political constraints, including checks and balances between branches of government, polarized political parties, and stronger opposition parties in the legislatures, will be less likely to comply with CoJ rulings. They are more vulnerable to gridlock, should some domestic interest groups oppose the ruling. 

My large-N statistical analysis and case studies yielded support for my hypothesis. Of the fifteen core European Union member governments evaluated over a 30 year-period, those with the most domestic political constraints were least responsive to rulings from the European Court of Justice.  These governments were more reluctant to comply, displaying less economic integration with the common market, compared to baseline trends. The results highlight an important obstacle to European economic cohesion. Despite a relatively strong supra-national legal system and institutions to buttress it, there are persistent compliance problems linked to domestic politics within the member governments. The compliance problems highlighted in this project are important because they potentially destabilize the EU.

What notable or surprising findings can you share at this point?

Two notable findings came about. I carried out a first analysis related to questions of domestic politics and compliance with legal rulings from the European Union’s CoJ. I found that although the European Union’s highest court has successfully promoted the legal integration of Europe, this hasn’t necessarily led to greater economic integration. Domestic political conflicts within legislatures and between parties, my evidence suggests, has obstructed the adoption and full-implementation of common market policies. 

Second, my evidence helps to show that the domestic politics mechanism is generalizable to other international courts. In a separate analysis, I found a similar pattern holds for legal disputes at the World Trade Organization’s court, whose jurisdiction covers trade conflicts among most countries in the world. Together, these findings indicate systematic limitations on international courts’ ability to promote cooperation among governments.

What is the next step?

The next step in the project is to examine institutional features of international courts that make them more or less vulnerable to domestic political constraints and the compliance problems they raise. Jurisdiction and enforcement capacity of the European Court of Justice has strengthened over time. By examining the interaction of these institutional features and domestic politics, I aim to better understand effectiveness of international courts.  

I completed a research paper presenting findings from the first part of the project and submitted it to an academic journal for publication. In addition, I am beginning follow-up work, inspired by the analysis conducted in this project, for my book project.

Learn more about Lauren Peritz.