The first set of questions we raised dealt with the motivations of policy actors to take legal steps and turn to the Court. The EU policy process involves many distinct actors located at different governmental levels and active in different arenas. As a result, a wide array of interests, political preferences, values, cultures, and understandings interact and often clash. Annulment actions constitute one possible legal channel for transferring policy conflicts into the judicial arena, and annulments are raised regularly by a large variety of private and public actors that can be located on the subnational, national, European, or—in the case of multinational companies—even the global level.
While the litigation literature generally investigates the conditions under which specific actors decide to litigate, we focus on their motivations for litigating. In other words, since we already know from existing literature when actors are likely to go to court, we decided to focus on the ‘why’ question. Why do actors raise annulment cases in front of the Court and what are their objectives? What kind of utility do they associate with annulment litigation? What are they really after?
These questions are usually hidden as implicit assumptions in the litigation literature, which has essentially focussed on companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (Gould 1973; Bouwen and McCown 2007; Vanhala 2011). While companies are generally assumed to litigate to maximize material gains, NGOs are seen to litigate to push for their ideological and policy preferences. These assumptions are plausible; however, they do still need to be substantiated empirically—especially when other actor categories come into play. Indeed, we also have some indications in the litigation literature that financial and ideological payoffs may not always be what litigants seek when turning to the courts. Influencing a court’s legal doctrine or gaining bargaining power (Galanter 1974; Schmidt 2000; Granger 2004) can also be important objectives for litigants when turning to courts. Assuming a dominance of financial concerns and ideology in litigation decisions seems, especially for public actors, overly simplistic. Public actors are, after all, committed to a variety of objectives, not least keeping or expanding political power and institutional competences in addition to securing financial resources.
This study showed that in annulment actions, it is the multilevel political context that prompts litigants’ decisions to turn to court. Locating actors’ action in the context of the struggles they go through in the multilevel policy process allows identifying their needs and subsequently the utility they associate with litigation. We found four types of motivations driving the use of annulment actions; litigants turn to the EU Court to maximize material gains, institutional competences, ideological and policy preferences, and political trust. While these four motivations constitute real types, they are not mutually exclusive at the level of empirical cases; in other words, one annulment action can be driven by more than one motivation. Yet our case studies allowed for the identification of the single most dominant motivation underlying a particular case.
First, material gains constitute the quantitatively most important motivation. In these cases, litigation is pursued when success in courtSeeAlsoSeeAlsolegal success would significantly improve the litigant’s budget situation, by either avoiding substantial expenses or maximising revenue. This motivation is crucial for governments and for regional, subnational authoritiesSeeAlsoSeeAlsoRegions confronted with Commission decisions imposing financial corrections in agriculture or cohesion policies. This motivation is also important for companies having benefitted from domestic state aid that is later declared illegal by the Commission. In these cases, litigating is often the only option that can help to avoid having to pay back subsidies.
Second, litigation is pursued when the Court’s interpretation of unclear legal concepts may significantly improve the litigant’s institutional and decision-making competences. This motivation is often found among public actors, both national and European, in the face of a measure adopted that appears to the litigant as a competence-stretch threatening to reduce its own institutional powers.
Third, ideology drives litigation when this provides an opportunity to defend or promote an important ideological or policy position by establishing or keeping a normative order. In the cases we have explored here, ideology is most likely to show when strongly politicized actors such as NGOs (private litigants) become involved or public actors engage in party politics.
Fourth and finally, annulment litigation can also be used as a political symbol to signal responsiveness and trustworthiness to the litigant’s electorate or to important political partners. This motivation is current among actors that are directly elected at the subnational, national, or supranational level, such as governments or the European Parliament. Analysing annulment actions with the frame developed in this book thus allows capturing the conflictive dimension of EU multilevel governance. Annulment politics highlights that multilevel interaction in the EU has more to it than the processes of cooperation and coordination often dominating scholarly focus.
We have emphasized the political character of annulment actions. This is not to say that legal factors are irrelevant. On the contrary, legal aspects do play a crucial role in actor’s decisions to engage in litigation. Legal factors, however, usually relate to the ‘when’ question; they are located on a different analytical plane as the identification of actors’ motivations to engage in litigation. Even when actors are motivated to litigate, very bleak chances of legal success can nevertheless lead them to dismiss this option. As we showed, once we understand what actors are seeking, we can clarify the conditions for their decision to opt for litigation in order to achieve their objective. This is where legal factors come in.
The literature on litigation economics emphasizes the probability of winning as an essential element in litigants’ risk-benefit analysis underpinning their decision to litigate (Gould 1973). While this is hard to refute, our findings give more nuanced insights into its role in the litigation decision. More often than not, the benefit considered is political rather than financial. This considerably limits litigants’ capacity to quantify the benefits they expect to gain. Consequently, risk-benefit assessments of the utility of litigation often need to be far less scientific and objective as assumed within economic models of litigation.
Second, we found that chances of legal success in front of the Court—though important—are not systematically considered as such by potential litigants. Often—and this is particularly true for public actors—litigants are satisfied with the presence of a certain legal uncertainty, while the exact scope of legal uncertainty hardly plays a role in their decision to litigate. Since the economics of litigation literature refers implicitly to chances of success, it considers that legal uncertainty is measurable in one way or another and that the scope of legal uncertainty—the litigant’s chances of success—is a determinant factor in the decision to litigate (Gould 1973; Landes 1974). By contrast, as soon as the financial, institutional, ideological, or political stakes of the case become important, most of the public actors we talked to were satisfied with a small degree of legal uncertainty that would allow them to present decent legal arguments in court without risking their reputation in Luxembourg. When limited resources force them to select cases for litigation among several conflicts, it is more the political, institutional, or material relevance of the case than its legal merits that dominates the filtering process.
The importance of the legal factor, in the form of chances of success, also varies depending on the litigant. The risk-benefit analysis found in the economics of litigation literature is certainly important to private actors, particularly to companies. For them, the costs of preparing annulment litigation are non-trivial, and the expected benefits strongly depend on judicial success. In contrast, as we show in the case studies, public actors’ individual decisions of litigation do not impose significant additional costs, and the utility of annulment litigation does not systematically require judicial success. Hence, as public actors are facing different incentives and constraints, their decisions to litigate are much less dependent on the scope of legal uncertainty surrounding the case than for private companies. While the legal uncertainty surrounding the conflicts does play an important role, this role is not as dominant as economic models of litigation suggest.
Last but not least, our findings emphasize the multilevel and multi-actor nature of annulment actions. Far from being restricted to conflicts between the Commission and the member states (in the case of infringement proceedings) or formally channelled through an interaction between national and European judges (like preliminary rulings), annulment actions are a direct strategy to ‘judicialise’ (as we refer to the process) conflicts between a wide variety of actors located on different governmental levels in the European Union. The material gains motivation for litigation coins conflicts between member states governments and EU institutions and between national companies and the Commission. The institutional competences motivation generally drives conflicts between member states governments and the EU and between EU institutions among themselves; the ideological motivation is found in vertical conflicts between member states or NGOs and EU institutions and among EU institutions. The political trust motivation generally underpins annulment actions in which national or regional governments judicialise conflict with an EU institution to send a positive signal to their constituency at home. In sum, annulment actions truly are a judicial manifestation of the multilevel and multidimensional nature of the EU policy process.