A hearing of the General Court in the Court of Justice of the European Union.
A hearing of the General Court in the Court of Justice of the European Union. Chamber of three Judges.
Photo: Europeiska unionens domstol/ Court of Justice of the European Union

Non-Compliance as a Threat to International Collective Action

Research project
Active research
Project size
3 950 000
Project period
2019 - 2022
Project owner
Department of Political Science

Short description

Collective action among nation states is necessary to overcome pressing challenges such as environmental degradation, but also to maintain international trade regimes such as the EU internal market. Non-compliance with joint rules can undermine the sustainability of cooperation by affecting the will among other actors to both comply and create new rules. This project will explain the causes and effects of non-compliance for international cooperation, specifically focused on the EU; and contribute to literatures on collective action, non-compliance; and the role of international courts in enforcing collective action. The project gathers two innovative datasets: on non-compliance from the rulings of the EU Court; and on the effects of non-compliance on cooperation through a survey with member state representatives to the EU Council.


In the EU, states have come together in collective action to solve not only issues of trade or environmental protection, but also to create a collective democracy and human rights regime. Today, these achievements are under pressure, as the issue of noncompliance is at the forefront of European politics. The governments of Poland and Hungary are in open conflict with the rest of Europe and the EU institutions regarding the state of the rule of law and democracy. In parallel with these open challenges to the EU‘s legal order,  noncompliance with jointly decided rules occur on a much larger scale by failed  transposition and implementation. Despite the importance of these issues, neither the causes of non-compliance nor its effects on collective action are well understood.

Aim of the project

Collective action among nation states is generated through joint decisions, but must also be sustained with compliance. Noncompliance can undermine the authority and sustainability of current regimes, as well as the benefits of future ones. The aim of the project is to explain both non-compliance, i.e. states‘ violation of international rules or the failure to implement them, as well as the consequences non-compliance have on current and future collective action. The purpose is to thereby help both individual states and the international community to alleviate problems of noncompliance, and to better develop both rules and institutions to achieve the goals of the collective action which states engage in.

The project will make two significant contributions to the understanding of the role of compliance in international organizations, using the EU as our case. Firstly, we will investigate what we call the reciprocal effect of compliance, i.e. how the non-compliance of one state, or even the risk of non-compliance, affects the compliance of others. Here, our  main hypothesis is that non-compliance by one actor will increase the propensity of other actors to subsequently non-comply. In short, non-compliance has a cascading effect throughout the system, and can even spill-over from one policy area to another. We also hypothesize that non-compliance will affect the willingness of states to engage in future collective action. That is, if one state observes that others fail to comply with agreed upon decisions, or even sees a risk for non-compliance, they will be less willing to engage in further collective action, as the rules are flaunted anyway. Non-compliance has often been theorized to affect collective action on the international level in these ways, but this has  rarely been investigated empirically.

Secondly, we will investigate other explanations of non-compliance, and whether noncompliance caused by different factors affects the will to collective action differently. In simple terms, non-compliance has mainly been studied as caused by a lack of bureaucratic capacity on part of states, or as a consequence of political preferences. We will therefore investigate whether non-compliance caused by either of these factors affects the will to collective action more than the other, as we hypothesize that states will be less willing to accept political non-compliance than non-compliance caused by a lack of capacity. We will also add further explanations to non-compliance from related but unconnected literatures, primarily the literature on international courts, as courts are often seen as a solution to  noncompliance problems. A main concern in this literature is that controversial behaviour on part of courts might itself cause non-compliance as a form of protest, a factor not discussed or studied by the literature on collective action or non-compliance as such.

Two innovative datasets

The project gathers two innovative datasets: on non-compliance from the rulings of the EU Court; and on the effects of non-compliance on cooperation through a survey with member state representatives to the EU Council. These will be used to study these central questions regarding the reciprocal effect of non-compliance and on the additional and improved explanations for non-compliance.

Of relevance to policy makers

The project is of high policy relevance, as the areas where international cooperation through collective action is necessary to solve pressing problems are numerous. We contribute to a longstanding debate in International Relations regarding whether compliance with international norms is best acquired through the enforcement by international institutions such as courts, or collective management of the underlying problems that cause noncompliance in the first place. Here, we will provide further knowledge about the effective cures of non-compliance, for instance regarding whether investments should be made on state capacity; or on how to design supranational institutions to enhance compliance.


Research group