The UK Government is taking the EU to court in the first case of its kind since Brexit after SNP ministers in Scotland complained Brussels hit them with fines that were too steep.
The Scottish Government under Nicola Sturgeon was forced to pay a £5.6 million (€6.4 million) fine after a 2020 audit uncovered failures with how it was administering Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments to Scottish farmers.
SNP ministers have now asked the UK Government to argue their case in the European Court of Justice and state that the fine should be reduced by around £2.4 million (€2.7 million).
They cannot go to court themselves to challenge the fines as the European Commission’s decision to impose the penalty was initially enforced against the UK as the relevant member state.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) confirmed it was the UK’s first legal case against the European Commission since the end of the Brexit transition period on Dec 31, 2020.
The Telegraph understands that the issue has raised eyebrows in Whitehall given the SNP’s virulent anti-Brexit stance and desire for Scotland to leave the UK and join the EU.
According to the provisions of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, the UK has jurisdiction to challenge the fines as if it was still an EU member state. This is because the audit was conducted before the end of the transition period.
Mark Spencer, the UK Farming Minister, said: “This is another example of the bureaucratic nature of the Common Agricultural Policy – which disproportionately rewarded the largest landowners, holding back smaller farms and delivering little for food productivity or the environment.
“This Government is backing British farmers. We’ve committed to maintaining the £3.7 billion UK annual farming budget and our new farming policies ensure sustainable food production and environmental protection go hand-in-hand, with something on offer for every type of farmer.”
The European Commission imposed the fine after the audit uncovered problems with the administrative checks conducted by Ms Sturgeon’s government around CAP’s Basic Payment Scheme.
But the Scottish Government disagrees with the audit’s findings and believes that the commission has misinterpreted the relevant legislation.
The case revolves around the meaning of an “active farmer”, which determines the eligibility of beneficiaries to receive direct payments from EU-funded schemes.
According to legal papers lodged in the case, which has been listed as “United Kingdom v Commission”, the UK is seeking a court order annulling part of the fine. The Government also wants the commission to pay the legal costs.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The legal action has been brought by the UK Government. As this issue is still under consideration by the General Court, it is inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”