Richard North, 03/01/2006  

In pursuit of the fabled "level playing field", Lib-Dem MEP Chris Davies – leader of his group in the EU parliament - is calling on Jose Manuel Barroso – the most powerful man in Britain - to recommend minimum levels of sanctions for breached of Community law, rather than leaving them to the member states to decide.

This follows an EU commission report comparing national penalties. It found that the average fine being levied against individuals guilty of forging EU fisheries control documents varied from about £90,000 in the UK to £3,000 in Spain - and just £180 in France. National sanctions for failing to comply with EU laws banning dangerous chemical discharges into rivers were equally varied: the UK maximum penalty is five years in prison, compared with two years in France, while Greece has introduced no measures at all.

The commission's findings come in the wake of the ECJ judgement which affirms the exclusive right of the commission to propose criminal penalties for breaches of EU law - reported on this blog on 13th and 14 September, and 22 November.

To date, the commission has routinely included the requirement that member states should impose penalties that are "proportionate, dissuasive and effective", but it has fought shy of actually suggesting specific levels.

Davies sees this omission as "little more than a cheats' charter", allowing some countries to avoid their obligations. In his letter to Barroso he claims that ministers say one thing when they agree new EU laws, but another when they return to national capitals to put them on the statute books.

"The Commission is chasing its tail trying to keep up with the number of infringement cases. Far too much time and public money is having to be spent trying to persuade member states to do in practice what they have already agreed to do in theory," he writes.

"European legislation is agreed for a purpose and should be implemented equally across the Union. It must not be reduced to a pick 'n' mix selection basket by countries wanting to avoid their obligations."

Furthermore, Davies claims that the current system has led to the creation of a "north-south divide" in which countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the UK tended to apply tough sanctions, for example on environmental legislation, while the record of Mediterranean countries in EU enforcement was weak.

Given that EU law is supposed to be applied uniformly throughout the Community – and penal sanctions are a necessary part of any legal code – within the framework of the mad system which our governments' have adopted, it makes sense that there should be some standardisation of penalties. In this, you cannot fault Davies' logic, although the sensitivity of the issue may mean that the commission is reluctant to act on his request.


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