By Vanessa Franssen


On 19 July, Advocate General (AG) Saugmandsgaard Øe delivered his much awaited opinion on the joined cases Tele2 Sverige AB and Secretary of State for the Home Department, which were triggered by the Court of Justice’s (CJEU) ruling in Digital Rights Ireland, discussed previously on this blog. As a result of this judgment, invalidating the Data Retention Directive, many Member States which had put in place data retention obligations on the basis of the Directive, were confronted with the question whether these data retention obligations were compatible with the right to privacy and the right to protection of personal data, guaranteed by Articles 7 and 8 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (Charter). Hence, without a whisper of a doubt, several national legislators eagerly await the outcome of these joined cases, in the hope to get more guidance as to how to applyDigital Rights Ireland concretely to their national legislation. The large number of Member States intervening in the joined cases clearly shows this: in addition to Sweden and the UK, no less than 13 Member States submitted written observations. The AG’s opinion is a first – important – step and thus merits a closer look.

National and European shock waves after Digital Rights Ireland

The Digital Rights Ireland case was ground-breaking in many respects, and caused a real shock effect across the EU. As a result of the CJEU ruling, national data retention legislation was invalidated in several Member States. For instance, the District Court of The Hague struck down the Dutch national data retention legislation on 11 March 2015, and shortly afterwards, on 11 June 2015, the Belgian data retention law was annulled by the Constitutional Court, which largely copy-pasted the CJEU’s reasoning. This situation creates great uncertainty about the further potential use of traffic and location data of electronic communications in national and transnational criminal investigations (see eg the Workshop on data retention organized by the Consultative Forum and the Luxembourg Presidency), especially because such data are used in an increasingly large number of criminal cases, not just as incriminating, but also as exculpatory evidence.

In other Member States, the legislator very quickly launched the process for amending the national data retention legislation. For instance, in the UK, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act was adopted only three months after the CJEU’s ruling. By contrast, in Luxembourg, which has invested significantly in the digital economy in the last few years while also emphasizing the importance of the protection of privacy and personal data, the legislative process kicked off in January 2015 but has still not resulted in new legislation.

At the European level, the legislator has so far shown little appetite to adopt a new Data Retention Directive, despite some attempts of the Luxembourg Presidency in the Autumn of 2016 to initiate such legislative process, or at least to stimulate the discussion. This should not come as a real surprise. On the one hand, the CJEU has been very active in the field of data protection over the last two years, addressing a large number of questions and raising new ones (some of which have been discussed previously on this blog: see here, here and here). On the other, the EU was already busy tackling other urgent and delicate data protection issues, such as the adoption of the new General Data Protection Regulation, repealing Directive 95/46/EC, and the Data Protection Directive with respect to the processing of personal data for criminal investigations, repealing Council Framework Decision 2008/977/JHA, and the negotiations and adoption of the new Umbrella Agreement with regard to EU-US law enforcement cooperation.

Short background to the cases

Immediately after the Digital Rights Ireland ruling, Tele2 Sverige AB (a provider of electronic communications) notified  the Swedish competent authority that it would no longer comply with the Swedish national data retention obligations as it considered those obligations were not meeting the CJEU’s conditions. This decision obviously caused great concern for the national authority, ordering Tele2 Sverige to resume its retention of data. Yet, Tele2 Sverige persevered and appealed this order before the Administrative Court in Stockholm and subsequently before the Administrative Court of Appeal, which referred the matter for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU. (Opinion, §§ 50-55)

In the meantime in the UK, the 2014 Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act was challenged before the High Court of Justice of England and Wales and declared invalid on 17 July 2015, because the data retention regime did not provide for adequate safeguards in order to protect the right to privacy and the right to protection of personal data laid down in the Charter. In other words, the UK data retention regime did not comply with the conditions put forward by the CJEU inDigital Rights Ireland. However, the Home Secretary appealed this judgment and the Court of Appeal decided to refer two questions to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling. (Opinion, §§ 56-60)

Questions submitted to the CJEU

Interestingly, the approach of both referring courts is quite different, as results clearly from the way they formulate their respective questions for the CJEU.

The Swedish referring court asks the CJEU, first of all, whether

a general obligation to retain data in relation to all persons and all means of electronic communication and extending to all traffic data, without any distinction, limitation or exception being made by reference to the objective of fighting crime (…) [is] compatible with Article 15(1) of Directive 2002/58, taking into account Articles 7, 8 and 52(1) of the Charter?’ (Opinion, § 55)

Should such a general data retention obligation not be compatible with the Charter, could a data retention obligation then nevertheless be compatible with the Charter if the access of the competent authorities to the retained data is regulated as it is under Swedish law, if the protection and security of the data are regulated as they are under Swedish law, and if all relevant data must be retained for a period of 6 months before being erased, as imposed by Swedish law?

By contrast, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales is of the view that the CJEU did not set out ‘specific mandatory requirements of EU law with which national legislation must comply, but was simply identifying and describing protections that were absent from the harmonised EU regime.’ (Opinion, § 59)

Nevertheless, to be absolutely sure, it asks the CJEU to clarify this point:

Does the judgment of the Court of Justice in Digital Rights Ireland (including, in particular, paragraphs 60 to 62 thereof) lay down mandatory requirements of EU law applicable to a Member State’s domestic regime governing access to data retained in accordance with national legislation, in order to comply with Articles 7 and 8 of the [Charter]?’ (Opinion, § 60)

Furthermore, the Court of Appeal would like to know whether Digital Rights Irelandexpands the scope of Articles 7 and/or 8 of the Charter beyond that of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), as interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Put differently, the referring court wonders whether the level of protection offered by the Charter is higher than that under the ECHR.

The AG’s opinion

The latter question raised by the Court of Appeal in the UK case should be rejected as inadmissible according to the AG, because it is only ‘of purely theoretical interest’ (§ 82) and not ‘relevant to the resolution of the disputes’ (§ 75). Even if the Court would want to address the question, EU law does of course not prevent the Court (or the legislator) from going beyond the protection offered by the ECHR (§ 80). On the contrary, in my view it may be quite desirable to go beyond the minimum safeguards guaranteed by the ECHR, and not just with respect to Article 8. Unfortunately, EU legislation – for instance also with respect to procedural safeguards in criminal proceedings – does not pass, or barely passes, the minimum level of protection granted by the ECHR (see, for instance, the analysis on this blog regarding the recently adopted Presumption of Innocence Directive).

Subsequently, the AG addresses the first question of the Swedish referring court, regarding the compatibility of a general data retention obligation with Article 15(1) ofDirective 2002/58/EC (the Directive on privacy and electronic communications) and Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter. In a first step, the AG affirms that a general data retention obligation falls within the scope of Directive 2002/58/EC, despite the exclusion of State activities relating to criminal law by Article 1(3) of the Directive. Indeed, it is not because the data retained can be accessed and used by police and judicial authorities for criminal investigations that the data retention rules, which address private actors providing electronic communications services (service providers), would themselves be excluded from the scope of the Directive (§§ 87-97). Next, the AG scrutinizes whether the possibility offered by Article 15(1) of Directive 2002/58/EC to restrict the rights and obligations of the Directive allows for the creation of a general data retention regime by national law. Unlike some of the civil liberties organisations intervening in the joined cases, the AG considers that the wording of Article 15(1) of Directive 2002/58/EC (‘Member States may, inter alia, adopt legislative measures providing for the retention of data for a limited period’) indicates that data retention obligations are not, as such, inconsistent with the Directive. The same goes for general data retention obligations, yet only if they ‘satisfy certain conditions’ (§ 108). Recital (11) of the Directive confirms this as it states that the Directive

does not alter the existing balance between the individual’s right to privacy and the possibility for Member States to take the measures referred to in Article 15(1) of this Directive, necessary for the protection of public security (…) and the enforcement of criminal law.

Hence, it

does not affect the ability of Member States to carry out lawful interception of electronic communications, or take other measures, if necessary for any of these purposes and in accordance with the [ECHR]

provided that those

measures [are] appropriate, strictly proportionate to the intended purpose and necessary within a democratic society and (…) subject to adequate safeguards in accordance with the [ECHR].

In sum, what matters, is that (general) data retention rules meet certain requirements, which ensure striking an acceptable balance between the purposes pursued by those rules and the individual’s fundamental rights. These rights are not just the ones laid down in the ECHR, but also the ones of the Charter as data retention rules ‘constitutes a measure implementing the option provided for in Article 15(1) of Directive 2002/58’ (§ 121). In other words, national legislation encompassing data retention obligations are ‘governed’ by EU law, which triggers the application of the Charter, as the CJEU clarified in the Åkerberg Fransson case(discussed on this blog) and refined in later case law (eg Siragusa, also analysed on this blog, and Julian Hernández and others, §§ 32-49). By contrast, whether the Charter also applies to the national rules determining under what conditions police and judicial authorities can access the retained data is less obvious, because Directive 2002/58/EC does not cover ‘activities of the State in areas of criminal law’ (Art. 1(3)). While the AG is inclined to conclude that the Charter does not apply to those rules (§§ 123-124), he also stresses that

the raison d’être of a data retention obligation is to enable law enforcement authorities to access the data retained, and so the issue of the retention of data cannot be entirely separated from the issue of access to that data. As the Commission has rightly emphasised, provisions governing access are of decisive importance when assessing the compatibility with the Charter of provisions introducing a general data retention obligation in implementation of Article 15(1) of Directive 2002/58. More precisely, provisions governing access must be taken into account in the assessment of the necessity and proportionality of such an obligation.’ (§ 125, emphasis)

In other words, does this mean that the Charter indirectly applies to national rules regulating the access to the retained data? It will be interesting to see if and how the CJEU addresses this point, adding another piece to what Benedikt Pirker described on this blog as ‘the jigsaw puzzle of earlier decisions on the scope of EU fundamental rights’.

This brings the AG to the biggest and most tricky questions submitted for a preliminary ruling, combining the second question of the Swedish court and the first question of the Court of Appeal, concerning the conditions national legislation should respect when creating a general data retention obligation. Without a doubt, general data retention obligations constitute a serious interference with the right to privacy (Article 7 of the Charter) and the right to the protection of personal data (Article 8 of the Charter) (§ 128). So the crucial question is whether such interference may be justified and on what conditions (§ 129).

Based on a reading of Article 15(1) of Directive 2002/58/EC and Article 52(1) of the Charter, the AG identifies six cumulative conditions that must be met to justify the serious interference caused by a general data retention obligation:

–        the retention obligation must have a legal basis;

–        it must observe the essence of the rights enshrined in the Charter;

–        it must pursue an objective of general interest;

–        it must be appropriate for achieving that objective;

–        it must be necessary in order to achieve that objective;

–        it must be proportionate, within a democratic society, to the pursuit of that same objective.’ (§ 132)

While most of these requirements were already put forward by the CJEU in Digital Rights Ireland, when evaluating the legal regime laid down in the Data Retention Directive, the AG nevertheless wishes to revisit them, ‘[f]or the sake of clarity and given the facts which distinguish the present cases from Digital Rights Ireland’ (§ 133). In particular, he wants to have a closer look at the requirement of a legal basis (which was not addressed in Digital Rights Ireland) and the necessity and proportionality of data retention obligations in a democratic society.

The first requirement, imposing the need for a legal basis, should be interpreted in light of Article 52(1) of the Charter, stating that limitations to the rights of the Charter should be ‘provided for by law’ – a phrase that resonates the wording of the ECHR (‘in accordance with the law’, Article 8 ECHR) and the case law of the ECtHR (§ 141) – as well as in light of Article 15(1) of Directive 2002/58/EC. As a result, a regime of general data retention should be established on the basis of measures adopted by a legislative authority, that are accessible and foreseeable while offering adequate protection against arbitrary interference with the rights of privacy and data protection (§ 153). That being said, considering the differences in the various language versions of Article 15(1) of Directive 2002/58/EC (§§ 145-147), the AG acknowledges that regulatory measures adopted by an executive authority might also suffice, although he would personally prefer to give the executive authority only the responsibility of implementing the measures adopted by the legislative authority (§§ 152-153).

Second, any general data retention regime should observe the essence of the rights enshrined in Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter, as the CJEU also highlighted inDigital Rights Ireland. As long as the national data retention obligations do not concern the content of the electronic communications and as long as they provide for safeguards that ‘effectively protect personal data’ retained by service providers ‘against the risk of abuse and against any unlawful access and use of that data’ (§ 159), this requirement does not seem to create particular problems in the cases submitted to the CJEU.

Third, the interference with the rights to privacy and data protection caused by a general data retention obligation can only by justified if the latter pursues ‘an objective of general interest recognised by the European Union’. As the CJEU pointed out in Digital Rights Ireland, the objective to fight serious crime (such as international terrorism) is definitely recognized by EU law; Article 6 of the Charter does not only warrant the right to liberty, but also the right to security. Yet, whether data retention obligations are also justifiable, more generally, to combat ordinary crime, or even in proceedings other than criminal proceedings, as the UK government argues in its submission before the CJEU, is much less obvious. It should be acknowledged that limitations allowed for by Article 15(1) of Directive 2002/58/EC are not confined to ‘serious crime’. Indeed, this provision allows Member States to adopt restrictions that are necessary, appropriate and proportionate within a democratic society ‘to safeguard national security (i.e. State security), defence, public security, and the prevention, investigation, detection and prosecution of criminal offences’. Nevertheless, in the AG’s view, the interferences caused by a general data retention regime are so serious that the fight against ‘ordinary offences and the smooth conduct of proceedings other than criminal proceedings’ are not ‘capable of justifying a general data retention obligation’ considering the ‘considerable risks that such obligations entail’ (§§ 172-173).

Moving forward, the AG evaluates the proportionality of general data retention obligations, which he splits up in three separate (sub-)requirements: are they appropriate (fourth requirement) as well as strictly necessary (fifth requirement) to achieve the aforementioned objective of fighting serious crime and proportionate in a democratic society (sixth requirement). Like the CJEU in Digital Rights Ireland, the AG sees no obstacle in the appropriateness of general data retention obligations to fight serious crime (§ 177). He even insists on the usefulness of such data, which allow police and judicial authorities to ‘examine the past’, even with respect to persons who were not suspected of a serious crime at the time of the electronic communications (§§ 178-181). Considering the current safety threats and the numerous terrorist attacks that took place after the Digital Rights Irelandjudgment, any other viewpoint would have surprised.

Next, the AG addresses the fifth requirement: are general data retention obligations really (ie strictly) necessary to combat serious crime? This requirement unfolds in two questions. For one, is a general data retention obligation strictly necessary, or on the contrary, does it go ‘beyond the bounds of what is strictly necessary for the purposes of fighting serious crime, irrespectively of any safeguards that might accompany such an obligation’ (emphasis added)? For another, if a general data retention does not exceed what is strictly necessary, ‘must it be accompanied by all the safeguards mentioned by the Court in paragraphs 60 to 68 of Digital Rights Ireland’ (§ 189).

As regards the first of these two questions, the AG adheres to the point of view that most parties (in particular the Member States) took in their written submissions:  a general data retention obligation as such does not exceed the limits of strict necessity. According to the AG, paragraphs 56 to 59 of Digital Rights Irelandshould indeed be interpreted as meaning that a general data retention obligation does not pass the strict necessity test but only if ‘it is not accompanied by stringent safeguards concerning access to the data, the period of retention and the protection and security of the data’ (§ 195, original emphasis).

One may wonder whether this is a correct reading of the CJEU’s judgment, which emphasized that the Data Retention Directive required the retention of all traffic data relating to all means of electronic communications and regarding all persons (‘practically the entire European population’), ‘without any differentiation, limitation or exception being made in light of the objective of fighting against serious crime’ (§§ 56-57). That being said, as some governments pointed out, if the Court would have considered that a general data retention obligation by itself exceeds the threshold of what is strictly necessary, then why did it bother to spell out in the subsequent paragraphs the safeguards that should apply? The upcoming judgment will undoubtedly tell us which interpretation is the right one.

Furthermore, the AG insists on the fact that national courts will have to assess whether there are no equally effective and less restrictive means available in the national system to achieve the same goal as a general data retention obligation (§§ 206-215), thereby passing on a difficult but very important balancing exercise to the national courts.

Assuming a general data retention obligation is strictly necessary, then all the safeguards put forward by the CJEU in Digital Rights Ireland (§§ 60-68) should respected by national law. Any other approach which would allow for a further balancing exercise between the different safeguards (as, for instance, the German government suggested, using the metaphor of ‘communicating vessels’) would, according to the AG, empty those safeguards of their practical effect (§§ 221-227). This means that national data retention rules should

1) make sure that the ‘access to and the subsequent use of the retained data [are] strictly restricted to the purpose of preventing and detecting precisely defined serious offences or of conducting criminal prosecutions relating thereto’ (§ 229);

2) make the access to those data ‘dependent on a prior review carried out by a court or by an independent administrative body’ in order to assess the strict necessity of the access and subsequent use of the data (§ 232);

3) require service providers ‘to retain data within the European Union, in order to facilitate the review’ and to make sure that the EU safeguards apply (§§ 238-240), and

4) limit the retention period in function of the usefulness of the data (§ 242).

While it is again for national courts to evaluate whether the safeguards provided for by national law are sufficient, the AG does not hide his opinion that both the Swedish and the UK regime reveal a number of deficiencies in this respect (§§ 230, 233 and 239).

Sixth and last, the AG emphasizes the need to evaluate the ‘proportionality stricto sensu’ of a general data retention obligation, which consists in weighing the advantages and disadvantages of such an obligation within a democratic society (§ 248). Once more, the AG argues this is a task for national courts, but he nonetheless points out that a general data retention obligation entails a considerable risk of mass surveillance (§ 256). Based on an analysis of a large amount of (meta-)data, authorities could easily find as much, or even more, about an individual as they can by means of targeted surveillance measures, including the interception of content data (§§ 254 and 259). Unlike the content of communication, meta-data ‘facilitate the almost instantaneous cataloguing of entire populations’ (§ 259). If one just considers the large amount of requests service providers in Sweden and the UK receive from the competent authorities, one realizes that the risk of abusive or illegal access to the retained data is far from ‘theoretical’ (§ 260).

Some first thoughts

As the above analysis suggests, the AG’s opinion offers a lengthy and mitigated assessment of the six cumulative requirements that general data retention obligations under national law should meet. Some of these requirements (eg the requirement of a legal basis) can easily be fulfilled. Yet others will raise many problems for national legislators when delineating the domestic data retention framework.

For instance, the requirement that general data retention obligations must pursue ‘an objective of general interest recognised by the European Union that is capable of justifying a general data retention obligation’ will undoubtedly raise many problems at the national level. Is the fight against serious crime indeed the only acceptable objective? For sure, the ‘material objective’ of the Data Retention Directive was ‘to contribute to the fight against serious crime and thus ultimately to public security’, which made the CJEU decide that the Directive satisfied an objective of general interest (Digital Rights Ireland, §§ 41-44). But does this mean, as the AG advocates, that it is the only possible justifiable objective for nationaldata retention obligations, considering the seriousness of the interferences with the right to privacy and the right to protection of personal data? Furthermore, assuming it is, what offences are sufficiently ‘serious’ to justify a general data retention obligation? In Digital Rights Ireland, the CJEU explicitly stated that this is to be ‘defined by each Member States in its national law’ (§ 41). Yet, the AG suggest a different approach, by stressing that it should be ‘an objective of general interest recognized by the European Union’. Hence, how much leeway do Member States have? If an EU-wide understanding of the label ‘serious crime’ is to be preferred, would the list of Eurocrimes (which are in fact broad categories of crimes) in Article 83(1) TFEU then be of sufficient guidance?

Another concern of police and judicial authorities, which national legislators will want to take into account, is that what starts out as a simple, ‘ordinary’ criminal case, may very well turn out to be much more ‘serious’ in a later stage of the investigation. It may not be so easy to reconcile this concern with the safeguard to limit the data retention period in light of the usefulness of the data, ie considering the objective pursued or according to the persons concerned.

One may also wonder whether the AG’s opinion provides as much clarity as national legislators hope to get from the CJEU. Many issues will still need to be addressed by national legislators (eg to design safeguards that pass the Digital Rights Ireland test) and national courts (eg to evaluate whether there are no less restrictive alternatives than a general data retention obligation and whether the risk of mass surveillance does not outweigh the benefits offered by a general data retention obligation).

For sure, this is only a first reflection. Further reflection will undoubtedly follow after the Grand Chamber of the CJEU will have rendered its ruling. In the meantime, national legislators will have to be patient and uncertainty will persist about the potential use in criminal proceedings of traffic and location data retained on the basis of a general data retention obligation.

What Role for the European Parliament under Article 50 TEU?


by Darren Harvey, (PhD Candidate in Law, Darwin College, Cambridge)


Last week, Alyn Smith MEP for Scotland received a standing ovation from the European Parliament following a passionate speech in which he expressed the desire for Scotland to remain within the European family of nations: link here.

This immediately brings to mind a further aspect of the debate surrounding the UK’s position regarding the Article 50 TEU withdrawal process which, to my mind at least, has not been given full consideration to date; namely, the need for consent of the European Parliament before any withdrawal agreement may be completed.

The relevant paragraph of Article 50 reads as follows:

  1. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.

Leaving to one side the question of how the Article 50 process may be triggered in accordance with the UK’s domestic constitutional requirements (under Article 50(1)), it is clear from Article 50(3) TEU that once notification to withdraw has been made, the Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2. In other words, the two-year clock starts ticking from the moment notification is made by the UK of its intention to leave the EU, unless of course the European Council votes unanimously with the UK to extend this period, or the UK withdraws the notification (if that is even possible; Article 50 is silent on this point).

This means that, should no deal be reached within the two-year period and should no unanimous agreement be reached in the European Council to extend the negotiations (a distinct possibility in my view), it is clear that the UK’s membership of the EU would simply come to an end.

However, in the event that a deal is reached, not only will its entry into force be dependent upon a qualified majority vote in favour in the Council, but also, and crucially, prior to such a vote taking place, the consent of the European Parliament is first required.

This raises two questions: first, how does the European Parliament give or withhold its consent? And second, what happens if that consent is not forthcoming?

Giving Consent

Turning to the first of these questions, the default decision-making rule for the European Parliament is set down in Article 231 TFEU which provides: ‘Save as otherwise provided in the Treaties, the European Parliament shall act by a majority of the votes cast. The Rules of Procedure shall determine the quorum.’ According to Rule 168(2) of the European Parliament’s Rules of Procedure ‘A quorum shall exist when one third of the component Members of Parliament are present in the Chamber.’

Given that Article 50 TEU is silent on this issue, the default rule in Article 231 TFEU would appear to apply. However, Article 82 of the European Parliament’s Rules of Procedure, entitled “Withdrawal Agreements” provides: ‘If a Member State decides, pursuant to Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, to withdraw from the Union, the matter shall be referred to the committee responsible. Rule 81 shall apply mutatis mutandis. Parliament shall decide on consent to an agreement on the withdrawal by a majority of the votes cast.’

It therefore appears to be the case that the default quorum rules in Article 168(2) Rules of Procedure apply. This means that, should the full European Parliamentary chamber vote on the UK’s withdrawal agreement (which seems likely), a simple majority of votes cast shall determine the Parliament’s position.

However, unlike the rule for accession treaties set down in Article 49 TEU which requires Parliamentary consent by a majority of its component members: i.e. a number of votes greater than one half of the European Parliament’s total number of MEPs; Article 50 TEU merely requires a majority vote of at least one third of the total number of MEPs.

In other words, provided that more than one third of the total members of the European Parliament turn up to vote on any future withdrawal agreement, a simple majority of votes cast shall be sufficient to determine the European Parliament’s position.

Withholding Consent

What happens if the European Parliament withholds its consent from the UK’s withdrawal agreement? According to Article 50(2) TEU the answer appears clear: without European Parliament’s consent, there can be no move to a qualified majority vote in the Council and thus the withdrawal agreement cannot be concluded. Should this consent be withheld for the duration of the two-year period running from the moment the UK signals its intention to withdraw, it seems that the UK would once again be facing the prospect of having its EU membership come to an end without a deal.

Alternatively, should a deal be reached within the two-year period but the European Parliament signals its intention to withhold consent, it is conceivable that this may prompt a move to extend the negotiating period via a unanimous vote of the European Council and, in so doing, perhaps provide the European Parliament scope to have some input into the substance of the withdrawal agreement.

In light of this, the role of the European Parliament is not to be taken lightly in the months and years that follow – not least because national governments will have much less control over their MEPs than their representatives in the European Council and the Council.

Furthermore, whereas Article 50 (4) TEU makes it clear that for the purposes of Article 50 (2) and 50 (3) the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it, nothing is said about the MEPs of the withdrawing state. Will the UK’s MEPs be involved in the vote to give consent to the withdrawal agreement prior to moving to Qualified Majority Voting in the Council?

To my mind this brings an additional and as yet largely unexplored question to the table regarding the role that Scotland (and perhaps Northern Ireland) can play in the Article 50 withdrawal process. Whilst it may not be possible as a matter of UK domestic law for the devolved governments to block Brexit (see Mark Elliott’s post), there would appear to be scope for Scottish and Irish MEPs to begin building alliances across the European Parliament to withhold consent from any future withdrawal agreement lest their interests be protected. The great risk with this, of course, is that the European Parliament withholds consent, no extension to the negotiations is agreed in the European Council, and Scotland, with the rest of the UK, leaves the EU with nothing.

The above is of course speculative in nature and much negotiating lies ahead before we begin to build up a clearer picture of what any future UK-EU relationship will look like. Following last week’s standing ovation in the European Parliament for a MEP who is a member of the Scottish National Party, however, the European Parliament may yet prove to be a key player in how that future relationship takes shape.

Brexit : questions de frontières entre l’Union et le Royaume Uni


Henri Labayle

Les commentaires du feuilleton politico médiatique accompagnant le feuilleton du Brexit ne sont pas à la hauteur de ses enjeux. Les mêmes qui stigmatisent les mensonges et approximations de la campagne référendaire britannique, trouvent logique de sacraliser le procédé référendaire qui l’a conclue, comme si cette technique était un modèle à révérer dans une démocratie accomplie. Elle appelle pourtant presque par nature de prendre de telles libertés avec la vérité.

Oublieux qu’ils sont des conditions dans lesquelles les « non » de 2005 s’étaient agrégés, ils persistent à penser que l’on peut répondre de façon binaire à des questions complexes et nourrissent l’illusion démocratique. L’inconséquence de Boris Johnson a-t-elle quoi que ce soit à envier aujourd’hui au « plan B » de Laurent Fabius et mêler les voix de Jean Luc Mélenchon et du Front national avait-il un sens à l’époque ?

C’est dire si les nouveaux chantres de la (dé)construction européenne ignorent l’essentiel. Parmi les questions brûlantes passées par pertes et profits dans le débat et que découvrent les citoyens britanniques, celle de la redéfinition des frontières extérieures du Royaume Uni n’est pas la moindre. Qu’il s’agisse du maintien de situations antérieures, à Gibraltar comme aux abords du tunnel sous la Manche, ou de l’appréhension nouvelle des relations avec la République d’Irlande, les défis sont sérieux. Ils ne sont pas de même nature.

1. La plaie ouverte de Calais

Vu du continent, le Brexit a immédiatement ravivé les polémiques liées à la situation anormale qui prévaut dans la région de Calais depuis plus de dix ans. Au prétexte aisément compréhensible que, le Royaume Uni quittant l’Union, plus rien ne justifierait que la France garantisse sur son territoire le contrôle de la frontière britannique.

La chose est un peu plus compliquée que cela.

En droit, d’abord, le problème est essentiellement placé sous un régime bilatéral et la situation actuelle résulte de la conjonction de différents facteurs réglés par des textes de nature et de portée différente. Le premier de ces facteurs est lié au fait que le tunnel sous la Manche et le trafic l’empruntant réclamaient des solutions particulières en matière de contrôle des flux de personnes, sans parler des contraintes liées au trafic maritime.

Dès 1986 et le Traité de Cantorbery , les autorités des deux Etats, dont François Mitterrand et Margaret Thatcher, avaient convenu de déroger aux procédés classiques de contrôle des frontières. Déconnectant la question de la délimitation de la frontière physique, située en mer sur la ligne de démarcation des deux plateaux continentaux, de celle des contrôles policiers et douaniers, opérés sur le territoire de chacun, respectivement à la gare du Nord et de Saint Pancrace, la coopération bilatérale des deux Etats allait rapidement prendre la forme d’un véritable chemin de croix.

Le 25 novembre 1991, afin de compléter le traité du 12 février 1986, les deux pays signaient le protocole relatif aux contrôles frontaliers et à la police, à la coopération judiciaire en matière pénale, à la sécurité civile et à l’assistance mutuelle, concernant la liaison fixe transmanche, dit « Protocole de Sangatte », texte renforcé par un protocole additionnel relatif à la création de bureaux chargés du contrôle des personnes empruntant la liaison ferroviaire reliant la France et le Royaume-Uni, signé le 22 mai 2000. Ces deux accords visaient à accentuer les moyens de lutte contre l’immigration clandestine, mis rapidement dans l’incapacité de répondre à la situation dramatique de Sangatte, dont la sinistre réputation était justifiée.

Attirés comme des papillons par la lumière pour les raisons que l’on sait par un système britannique vécu par eux comme un eldorado, des milliers de ressortissants de pays tiers, le plus souvent en situation irrégulière et parfois demandeurs de protection internationale aboutissaient en effet à l’impasse du Calaisis. Dans des conditions inhumaines autant qu’indignes, comme la CNCDH eut l’occasion récente de le stigmatiser vigoureusement dans un avis en 2015.

D’où la conclusion du traité du Touquet , en 2003, sous l’impulsion du ministre de l’Intérieur de l’époque Nicolas Sarkozy, permettant de fermer le camp de Sangatte et d’accentuer et de pérenniser la collaboration des autorités britanniques, moyennant compensations financières et humaines. Le tout conservant des conséquences toujours évidentes : enkyster la pression migratoire sur quelques kilomètres carrés situés en France en vue d’un hypothétique passage clandestin vers le Royaume Uni. D’où un renforcement, dans un nouvel arrangement en 2014, des moyens mis en œuvre sans que la pression migratoire se relâche, quoi qu’en prétende l’actuel ministre de l’Intérieur français.

Le plus baroque de cette situation est rarement dénoncé à son juste prix : l’impasse de Calais démontre qu’il est plus facile de pénétrer de façon irrégulière dans l’espace Schengen, ce qu’on fait les migrants présents à Grande-Synthe, que d’en sortir en direction d’un Etat non membre de cet espace, ce qu’est la Grande Bretagne …

Bien évidemment, le caractère strictement bilatéral de cette construction n’a échappé à personne et ce avec une force d’autant plus grande que l’hypothèse d’un départ de la Grande Bretagne se précisait. L’idée d’une dénonciation de ces accords s’est alors posée.

Elle est juridiquement possible, en vertu de l’article 25 §2 du traité franco-britannique qui dispose que « chaque partie peut y mettre un terme à tout moment en informant l’autre par la voie diplomatique, laquelle prendra effet deux ans après la dite notification ». Tout dépendrait alors d’un acte de volonté politique des autorités françaises.

Toujours en droit, la réponse à cette question est moins évidente qu’il n’y paraît. Certes, se dégageant de l’Union, le Royaume Uni a toutes chances de se dégager aussi de sa politique d’asile et notamment du règlement Dublin qui faisait obligation de reprendre les demandeurs d’asile aux Etats par lesquels ces demandeurs avaient transité. Contribuant à permettre aux britanniques de se défausser sur des tiers, malgré quelques gestes timides envers les mineurs isolés justement désignés par la CNCDH, cette situation était scandaleuse mais protectrice de la quiétude britannique.

Il reste que, du point de vue des frontières, la frontière franco-britannique était déjà et demeure une frontière extérieure à l’espace Schengen, dont le Royaume Uni n’a jamais fait partie. Son retrait ne change pas fondamentalement la donne concernant les obligations pesant sur les uns et les autres et d’autres obligations pèsent sur la France.

Ainsi, le Code frontières Schengen, auquel la France est soumise, souligne expressément et notamment dans son article 8 l’obligation de contrôle, même minimal, pesant sur les Etats membres lors du franchissement des frontières extérieures en vue de sortir de l’espace commun… Le tout pour des raisons d’ordre public aisément compréhensibles, indépendamment du traité du Touquet. Que n’a-t-on dit de la libre circulation des terroristes dans l’espace Schengen lors des attentats de Paris et Bruxelles à cet égard …

Au delà de cette situation juridique, dans les faits, il s’ajoute une série de considérations expliquant les prises de position publiques des autorités françaises hostiles à tout changement.

La première est incontestablement liée à la précarité de la situation migratoire en France. Si la lâcheté française sur le front de la crise des migrants de l’année 2015/2016 l’a relativement mise à l’abri de la tempête ayant frappé ses principaux voisins, ce qui est visible dès lors que l’on raisonne en volume et non en pourcentage d’immigrants parvenus en France, Paris entend persister dans ce créneau. Sa crainte est en effet de déclencher un véritable « appel d’air » en dénonçant les accords du Touquet. Cette dénonciation enverrait selon elle un message d’ouverture au monde d’extérieur, quitte à le surévaluer. La difficulté de franchir la Manche demeurant tout aussi grande en pratique avec ou sans coopération franco-britannique, ce message ne se traduirait d’ailleurs pas nécessairement par une amélioration des chances de franchir le Channel. La posture française étant celle de la dissuasion, tout élément allant à l’encontre de cette stratégie est donc proscrit.

La seconde raison est d’ordre sécuritaire. Elle est systématiquement mise en avant par le ministre de l’Intérieur pour balayer les discours qui estiment que les flux migratoires cesseront dès lors que les contrôles au profit du Royaume Uni disparaitront et que les britanniques doivent en quelque sorte « payer » leur sortie. Ce discours est tenu dans l’opposition mais aussi à ses cotés au gouvernement, à entendre le ministre de l’Economie. Incontestablement de ce point de vue, la prise en compte de la traite des êtres humains et des trafics en tous genres, les préoccupations liées au terrorisme comme la sécurisation des lieux et des équipements conduisent au statu quo.

Quitte à mettre en balance les avantages et les inconvénients d’un tel statu quo et d’une dénonciation, malgré le prix politique à en payer auprès de l’opinion publique, la première option paraît avoir été arbitrée si l’on en croit les déclarations concordantes du Président de la République, du ministre des affaires étrangères et du ministre de l’Intérieur. D’autant que la relation franco-britannique n’est pas faite que de cette question et qu’il n’est pas douteux que la partie française tire argument de cette situation désavantageuse pour obtenir compensation dans un autre secteur en discussion.

Enfin, un simple raisonnement de bon sens oblige à la prudence : comment imaginer concrètement un démantèlement des installations portuaires et ferroviaires garantissant actuellement la frontière, au contact de milliers de personnes, immédiatement rejointes par des flux équivalents et prétendant forcer le passage britannique ? Comment envisager sereinement l’hypothèse d’éventuels passages maritimes clandestins à l’image de ceux de la Méditerranée dans l’une des voies maritimes les plus fréquentées de la planète, au seul prétexte de « faire payer » un partenaire défaillant. Les migrants mal traités par la République et refusés par le Royaume Uni ont donc toutes chances de ne trouver durablement que l’appui compatissant des ONG pour toute réponse à leur calvaire.

2. L’imbroglio de l’Irlande du Nord

Vue des îles britanniques, la question la plus sensible est vraisemblablement la question irlandaise. Toute insulaire qu’elle soit, la position des îles britanniques pose désormais problème : deux Etats y disposeront d’un statut différent au regard de l’Union européenne.

Jusqu’à présent en effet, la force des liens qui unissait le Royaume Uni et la République d’Irlande expliquait que, malgré certaines velléités irlandaises contraires, ces deux Etats membres aient adopté une même attitude de refus à l’encontre de l’espace de libre circulation Schengen. D’où une relation transfrontalière très particulière entre ces deux Etats, à la fois de manière générale mais aussi des deux cotés des 500 kilomètres de frontières les unissant et destinées demain, selon toute vraisemblance, à les séparer.

En d’autres termes, la frontière irlandaise deviendrait la seule frontière terrestre extérieure de l’Union avec le Royaume Uni, en réservant la question de Gibraltar, et ceci dans un contexte où, jamais, il n’a existé de contrôle de l’immigration à cet endroit.

Cette relation est faite de deux textes majeurs, l’accord de paix pour l’Irlande du Nord, dit « accord du Vendredi Saint » signé le 10 avril 1998 et, surtout, la Zone de Voyage Commune (Common Travel Area) instituée depuis les années 20 et dont le Protocole sur l’application de certains aspects de l’article 7 A du traité instituant la Communauté européenne au Royaume-Uni et à l’Irlande a officialisé l’importance à Amsterdam, réitérée à Lisbonne.

Son existence signifie que les citoyens britanniques et irlandais circulant entre les deux Etats ne sont pas soumis à des contrôles de passeport, peuvent en être dépourvus mais aussi que les deux Etats ont développé une coopération bilatérale sur les questions relatives à l’immigration et au contrôle des frontières (Amendment Order de 1975).

Faisant contre mauvaise fortune bon cœur, la République d’Irlande s’était donc alignée sur le refus sans concession du Royaume Uni d’adhérer à l’espace Schengen, considérant que les inconvénients d’un renoncement à la CTA l’emportaient. Néanmoins, dans sa déclaration n° 56 jointe au traité sur l’Union, l’Irlande se déclarait « attachée à l’Union en tant qu’espace de liberté, de sécurité et de justice dans le respect des droits fondamentaux et des différents systèmes et traditions juridiques des États membres à l’intérieur duquel les citoyens jouissent d’un niveau élevé de sécurité » et rappelait « que, conformément à l’article 8 du protocole, elle peut notifier par écrit au Conseil son souhait de ne plus relever des dispositions du protocole ».

Que la frontière séparant l’Irlande du Nord et la République d’Irlande ne soit plus une frontière intérieure aux îles britanniques mais devienne une frontière extérieure de l’Union pose évidemment une question majeure. Pour les 20 à 30 000 personnes qui les franchissent quotidiennement bien sûr mais aussi pour l’Union et les deux Etats concernés.

L’Irlande du Nord ne s’y est pas trompée, qui a voté majoritairement pour demeurer dans l’Union, l’impact économique et politique d’un départ lui apparaissant immédiatement. Que le restant du Royaume Uni ait décidé autrement, les sirènes du départ présentant l’exemple norvégien comme un modèle à atteindre, met chacun désormais au pied du mur.

On pourrait en effet concevoir que, dans l’idéal, une zone de libre circulation aussi grande que possible puisse être maintenue entre les deux parties, comme l’ont prétendu certaines autorités nord irlandaises, mais ce souhait se heurte à un obstacle majeur. La libre circulation des personnes faisant partie intégrante des exigences communautaires remises en cause par le « non » britannique, lequel faisait masse de l’immigration intra et extra-communautaire, il est difficile d’imaginer de céder sur cette question de principe. Y compris pour la partie britannique qui a fait du contrôle de sa frontière extérieure un argument de campagne et qui ne saurait oublier, à l’image de Boris Johnson et Nigel Farage, que la Norvège fait partie intégrante, elle, de l’espace Schengen …

Cette impasse ouvre donc un double risque politique, que l’Union devra assumer car il ne s’agira plus là d’un dossier irlandais mené par des négociateurs irlandais mais d’un dossier européen conduit à ce titre, dans la transparence qui convient. Risque intérieur à l’Irlande du Nord d’abord, tant on sait que la pacification opérée dans les deux dernières décennies doit beaucoup justement à ce régime de libre circulation et tant on peut craindre que le retour de la frontière ravive les tensions sur le plan de la paix civile.

Risque interne au Royaume Uni ensuite tant l’Irlande du Nord commence à mesurer les conséquences concrètes d’un départ de l’Union pour son économie, son agriculture autant que pour sa relation avec le voisin du Sud.

3. La menace de Gibraltar

Vue d’un autre Etat membre, le Royaume d’Espagne, le Brexit relance une autre polémique, celle relative au statut de Gibraltar. Peuplés de 33 000 habitants et d’un nombre non négligeable de singes, ses 6 kilomètres carrés sont placés sous souveraineté britannique depuis 1713 et le traité d’Utrecht.

De la gestion d’une partie de sa piste d’aéroport aux incursions des pêcheurs en passant par l’organisation des élections aux Parlement européen vérifiée par le juge européen, tout est régulièrement prétexte et objet de tensions entre les deux Etats membres, allant parfois jusqu’au blocage de la frontière et de l’accès au territoire. Le Brexit devenu réalité, force est donc pour les protagonistes d’imaginer une solution.

Le point de vue espagnol n’est évidemment, pas de dentelle. Son ministre des Affaires étrangères l’a immédiatement signifié : « il faudra désormais trouver quel type de relation Gibraltar veut avoir ». Sa vision est simple et sa conclusion limpide : « notre formule est celle d’une co-souveraineté britannico-espagnole pendant une période limitée, qui débouche sur la restitution de Gibraltar » à l’Espagne et « la perspective de voir le drapeau espagnol flotter sur Gibraltar se rapproche ».

Les autorités du Rocher, quoique farouchement favorables au statu quo depuis le référendum plébiscitaire de 2002, se résignent donc à explorer des voies leur permettant de conserver leur accès au marché commun européen et leur statut de paradis fiscal, quitte à s’aligner sur la position diplomatique de l’Ecosse. Si le spectre des Malouines s’éloigne après le Brexit, faudra-t-il alors revisiter celui du statut de Hong Kong

Leaving the EU: UK Parliament’s Role in the Process

Published Thursday, June 30, 2016

Following the result of the referendum held on 23 June 2016, this House of Lords Library briefing examines what Parliament’s role would be in the process of withdrawing from the European Union in several key areas: invoking Article 50; overseeing the negotiation process; ratifying agreements; repealing and reviewing domestic legislation.

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Following a vote in the referendum on 23 June 2016 in favour of the UK leaving the European Union, the Prime Minister said that this decision “must be accepted”, adding that “Parliament will clearly have a role in making sure that we find the best way forward”. Drawing on parliamentary material and recent legal and constitutional comment, this Library briefing examines what Parliament’s role would be in the process of withdrawing from the European Union in several key areas:

Invoking Article 50—The Prime Minister has said it would be for his successor and his or her Cabinet to decide whether the House of Commons should have a vote on the decision to trigger Article 50, the formal process set out in the Treaty on European Union for member states to follow should they decide to leave the EU. Some legal commentators agree that prerogative powers would enable a Prime Minister to take this decision; some have suggested that Parliament could have a role, and others have gone further, arguing that prior parliamentary approval would be required before Article 50 could be invoked.

Overseeing the Negotiation Process—Formal negotiations between the UK and the European Union would not begin until the UK made a notification under Article 50 of its decision to withdraw from the EU. Parliament’s involvement in overseeing or scrutinising such negotiations has not yet been set out in great detail. The chair of the House of Lords European Union Committee has called for Parliament to be “fully involved” in the process.

Ratifying Agreements—Parliament would have a statutory role in ratifying an eventual withdrawal agreement and any other international agreements arising from the negotiations if they were subject to the usual procedure for ratifying treaties. The House of Commons potentially has the power to block the ratification of a treaty indefinitely; the House of Lords does not. Under the terms of Article 50, the UK’s membership would cease two years after it gave formal notification of its intention to leave, if no withdrawal agreement had come into force by that point, although the two-year period could be extended on the unanimous agreement of all EU member states.

Repealing and Reviewing Domestic Legislation—As part of the process of leaving the EU, decisions would need to be made about how to deal with existing domestic legislation passed to enable EU law to have effect in the UK, a process which the House of Lords European Union Committee has described as “domestic disentanglement from EU law”. Parliament would have an important role to play in reviewing, repealing, amending and replacing legislation, a process which is predicted by many to be complex and time-consuming. Once the UK had formally triggered Article 50, its timescales would apply independently of Parliament approving domestic legislative changes associated with leaving the EU.

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