Think of the children: the ECJ clarifies the status of non-EU parents of EU citizen children living in their own Member State


Professor Steve Peers

What immigration rights do non-EU citizens have under EU law? There are three main areas of EU law that address this issue: EU immigration and asylum law; EU treaties with non-EU countries; and EU free movement law. The latter area of law is focussed on EU citizens’ right to move between Member States, and so only covers non-EU citizens if they are family members of EU citizens who have moved to another Member State. Those rules also apply by analogy where an EU citizen with a non-EU family member has moved to another Member State, then moved back to that citizen’s home Member State. (These are known as Surinder Singh cases: see this discussion of the ECJ’s most recent ruling on such cases, from 2014).

But what if an EU citizen has a non-EU family member, but has never moved to another Member State? Such cases fall outside the scope of EU free movement law. They will therefore in principle fall solely within the scope of national law, unless either EU immigration and asylum law or EU treaties with non-EU countries apply (they usually will not). But in a limited number of cases, there is a fourth category of EU law which might apply to them: EU citizenship law.

This principle was first set out in the 2011 judgment in Ruiz Zambrano, which concerned Belgian children living in Belgium with two non-EU parents. The ECJ ruled that expelling the non-EU parents would in effect would result in the departure of the children from the EU, thereby risking the ‘genuine enjoyment of the substance’ of those children’s EU citizenship rights.

Subsequent ECJ case law (discussed here) made clear that this principle is apparently restricted to the non-EU parents of EU citizen children living in their home State. Cases very similar to Zambrano – two non-EU parents of an EU child – are rare, because Member States now rarely, if ever, confer nationality upon children simply because they are born on the territory. However, there are rather more cases where: a) a home-State EU citizen marries a non-EU citizen, b) their child gets home-State citizenship because one of her parents is a home-State citizen; and c) the parents’ relationship ends.

In those cases, Ruiz Zambrano still potentially applies, as long as the non-EU parent is the ‘primary carer’ for the home-State EU citizen child. In that case, removing this parent to a non-EU country would in effect force the EU citizen child to leave the EU as well.  But when exactly does the ‘primary carer’ test apply? The ECJ clarified this issue in today’s important judgment in Chavez-Vilchez and others.


Chavez-Vilchez and others concerned a number of non-EU parents of Dutch children in the Netherlands, who sought to argue that they were primary carers of those children, and so entitled to residence in accordance with the Ruiz Zambrano judgment. The Dutch government argued that they could not automatically be considered primary carers if it was possible for the other parent, ie the Dutch citizen, to take care of the children:

…the mere fact that a third-country national parent undertakes the day-to–day care of the child and is the person on whom that child is in fact dependent, legally, financially or emotionally, even in part, does not permit the automatic conclusion that a child who is a Union citizen would be compelled to leave the territory of the European Union if a right of residence were refused to that third-country national. The presence, in the territory of the Member State of which that child is a national or in the territory of the Union, as a whole, of the other parent, who is himself a Union citizen and is capable of caring for the child, is, according to the Netherlands Government, a significant factor in that assessment (para 66)

While the Court of Justice agreed that the non-EU parents could not automatically be considered as primary carers where the home state EU citizen child was dependent upon them, the Court’s approach was more open. It began by restating prior case law: the key issue was ‘who has custody of the child and whether that child is legally, financially or emotionally dependent on the third-country national parent’ (para 68). It then reiterated, following Zambrano, that dependency was particularly significant (para 69). Then it added new detail on how to assess dependency:

…it is important to determine, in each case at issue in the main proceedings, which parent is the primary carer of the child and whether there is in fact a relationship of dependency between the child and the third-country national parent. As part of that assessment, the competent authorities must take account of the right to respect for family life, as stated in Article 7 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, that article requiring to be read in conjunction with the obligation to take into consideration the best interests of the child, recognised in Article 24(2) of that charter (para 70).

For the purposes of such an assessment, the fact that the other parent, a Union citizen, is actually able and willing to assume sole responsibility for the primary day-to-day care of the child is a relevant factor, but it is not in itself a sufficient ground for a conclusion that there is not, between the third-country national parent and the child, such a relationship of dependency that the child would be compelled to leave the territory of the European Union if a right of residence were refused to that third-country national. In reaching such a conclusion, account must be taken, in the best interests of the child concerned, of all the specific circumstances, including the age of the child, the child’s physical and emotional development, the extent of his emotional ties both to the Union citizen parent and to the third-country national parent, and the risks which separation from the latter might entail for that child’s equilibrium. (para 71; emphases added)

The Court went on to answer questions from the national court about the burden of proof in Zambrano cases, which were connected with the substantive test to be applied. The Dutch government had argued:

…the burden of proof of the existence of a right of residence under Article 20 TFEU lies on the applicants in the main proceedings. It is for them to demonstrate that, because of objective impediments that prevent the Union citizen parent from actually caring for the child, the child is dependent on the third-country national parent to such an extent that the consequence of refusing to grant that third-country national a right of residence would be that the child would be obliged, in practice, to leave the territory of the European Union (para 74).

Although the ECJ accepted that the burden of proof lay upon the non-EU parent (para 75), it also ruled that national authorities ‘must ensure that the application of national legislation on the burden of proof’ in such cases ‘does not undermine the effectiveness’ of EU citizenship rights (para 76). This meant that the authorities had to make ‘the necessary inquiries’ to find out where the EU citizen parent lived, ‘whether that parent is, or is not, actually able and willing to assume sole responsibility for the primary day-to-day care of the child’ and whether the EU citizen child was dependent upon the non-EU parent (para 77).

In effect, the Court ruled that while the non-EU citizen must make a prima facie case, national authorities share some of the burden to investigate some aspects of the case. Again, the substantive test applicable is less stringent than urged by the Dutch government.


Today’s judgment clarified a number of issues relating to Zambrano cases, following on from last year’s judgments in CS and Rendón Marín (discussed here) which clarified when non-EU Zambrano parents could be expelled for public policy reasons. While the 2016 judgments referred to the child’s best interests, age, situation and dependency (referring to case law of the European Court of Human Rights), today’s judgment also refers to ‘physical and emotional development’, ‘emotional ties’ to both parents, and the effect of separation on the child. All of these are factors relating to the child, not to the non-EU parent; but all of them nevertheless concern the child’s links with that parent.

The Dutch government’s desired focus on the capability of the EU citizen parent takes a back seat to the child’s best interests, as further elaborated by the Court. This will protect more non-EU parents, but in a differential way. Oddly, the Court’s case law does not take express account of situations of joint custody, or the more general argument that the child’s best interest will usually be to maintain strong relationships with bothparents (assuming they are not negligent or abusive).

Could it also be argued that the requirement of always seeking to identify a ‘primary carer’ is problematic from the point of view of gender equality?  Due to the division of labour relating to child care in practice, the Court’s rulings would classify more non-EU mothers than non-EU fathers as ‘Zambrano carers’; but the expulsion of those fathers will only increase the childcare demands on the EU citizen mother who remains, as well as disrupt the child’s right to maintain a relationship with his father. Of course, the presence of the parent who looks after a child day-to-day is essential; but children love the parent who kicks the ball as well as the parent who cooks the meal.

The procedural aspects of the Court’s judgment are interesting, but raise further questions: is there a right to appeal, to a decision within a reasonable time, to a lawyer, to legal aid? In last year’s judgments, the Court of Justice referred to concepts from EU free movement law and its relevant case law when discussing the substantive test for expelling Zambrano carers; but it made no such cross-references today. The long-term immigration status of the parent is also an open question, although Zambrano noted that there should be access to employment to make the residence rights of the parent effective.

Finally, a Brexit point: the draft EU position for negotiating acquired rights does not appear to cover Zambrano carers. From a technical point of view, this is logical because the case law concerns (from the UK’s perspective) non-EU parents of UK citizens who have not moved within the EU. So no free movement rights have been acquired; we are rather talking of EU citizenship rights which will necessarily be lost when the UK ceases to be a Member State, since citizenship of the EU is defined as deriving from the nationality of a Member State. But from a human point of view, any deterioration in legal status could damage or even shatter the family lives of the children concerned. Zambrano carers should therefore be protected ideally in the Brexit talks, or failing that by the UK unilaterally.

See also further reading on UK Zambrano case law by Charlotte O’Brien and Desmond Rutledge

EU accession to the Istanbul Convention preventing and combating violence against women. The current state of play.

by Luigi LIMONE (*)

The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as ‘Istanbul Convention’, is the first legally binding treaty in Europe that criminalises different forms of violence against women including physical and psychological violence, sexual violence, sexual harassment and rape, stalking, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, forced abortion and forced sterilization.

It emphasises and recognises that violence against women is a human rights violation, a form of discrimination against women and a cause and a consequence of inequality between women and men. The Convention requires the public authorities of State parties to adopt a set of comprehensive and multidisciplinary measures in a proactive fashion to prevent violence, protect its victims/survivors and prosecute the perpetrators. The Convention recognises that women experience multiple forms of discrimination and requires the State parties to ensure that tits implementation is made without discrimination on any ground such as sex, gender, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, state of health, disability, marital status, migrant or refugee status or other. It also states that violence against women can never be justified in the name of culture, custom, religion, tradition nor so-called ‘honour’.

It foresees obligations to adopt a specific gender-sensitive approach in migration and asylum matters, and the establishment of a specific monitoring mechanism, (The Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence “GREVIO”), tasked with ensuring effective implementation of its provisions by the Parties.

The Convention contains 81 articles set out in 12 separate chapters and was adopted by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on 7 April 2011, and opened for signature.  on 11 May 2011.  The Convention is open for signature and approval by the (47) member States of the Council of Europe, non-member States which have participated in its elaboration and the European Union, and is open for accession by other non-member States. The Istanbul Convention came into force in 2014. It has been signed by all the EU Member States (but the ratification is still missing for Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czeck Republik, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Slovakia and UK)

EU Accession : different perspectives of the Commission and of the Council

It should be noted that from a legal point of view the Istanbul Convention, like many other international treaties, is a ‘mixed agreement’ which allows for EU accession in parallel to the Member States’ accession.  While the EU cannot sign up to older international human rights treaties, like the UN Covenants, since they are only open to States, newer treaties expressly provide for the EU to sign up to them. This holds particularly true for the Istanbul Convention, which deals with a number of fields the EU is competent in, including victims’ rights and protection orders, asylum and migration, as well as in judicial cooperation in criminal matters.

As Steve Peers said, the EU accession to the Istanbul Convention can only be welcomed. Although it may not, by itself, prevent any act of violence from being committed, it may accelerate a broader process of ratification and corresponding national law reform on this issue. It may also have the important practical impact of helping victims receive support or protection, particularly in the context of the law on crime victims, immigration or asylum.

More specifically, the EU ratification of the Istanbul Convention could provide encouragement to its Member States, as well as non-EU Member States, to ratify the Convention and, since the CJEU will have jurisdiction to interpret those provisions of the Convention which fall within the scope of EU competence, it could promote a uniform interpretation of those provisions within the EU, thus establishing a truly comprehensive  framework for preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

On 4th March 2016, the European Commission has then issued a proposal for a Council decision on the conclusion, by the European Union, of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

The Commission proposal for the EU accession to the Istanbul Convention has recognised the mixed nature of the Convention and but has explicitly stated that the European Union has exclusive competence to the extent that, according to art.3(2) the Convention may affect common EU rules or alter their scope (recital 6).

However it has to be noted that according to art.73 of the Convention  :“The provisions of this Convention shall not prejudice the provisions of internal law and binding international instruments which are already in force or may come into force, under which more favourable rights are or would be accorded to persons in preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.”  Consequently, contracting Parties to the Convention are allowed to maintain or introduce a higher level of protection for women and girls than the norms set out in the Convention.

This gives some leeway to the Member States which have already signed and in some cases also ratified the Convention. Moreover in cases where relevant Union legislation contains minimum standards as well, it can be questioned if they have lost their possibility of adopting national legislation more favorable to the victims. On September 2016, the Slovak Presidency has then requested the Legal Service to give an opinion on the competences of the Union relating to the Convention, and to identify the parts of the Convention, if any, that fall within the Union’s exclusive competence.

This opinion was issued on 27 October 2016 (doc. 13795/16 -only partially accessible to the public) and as a result of subsequent debates in the Council working Groups it was decided that the Convention should be signed on behalf of the EU only as regards matters falling within the competence of the Union insofar as the Convention may affect common rules or alter their scope.

According to an internal Council source the EU must be held to have exclusive competence for some of the provisions of the Convention set out in Chapters IV (“Protection and Support”), V (‘Substantive Law) and VI (‘Investigation, prosecution, procedural law and protective measures’) but only insofar as they relate to victims covered by Directive 2011/92/EU and Directive 2011/36/EU. (Moreover in the case of the Victim Directive it deals with minimum EU rules so that some competence remain at MS level).

On the contrary it seems indisputable that the Union has acquired exclusive competence in relation to two of the three provisions of Chapter VII (‘Migration and Asylum’).  In relation to Article 60(1) and (2) of the Convention, the current EU rules of the “Qualification Directive” does not appear to be much leeway for Member States to exceed the protection level set out in Union rules. The same applies to Article 60(3) of the Convention, in the light of the detailed provisions of the same Qualification Directive, the “Procedures Directive” and the “Reception conditions Directive”, even if they set, technically speaking, Member States to maintain or introduce more favourable protection.  As for Article 61 of the Convention, on non-refoulement, this appears to set “minimum” norms, but only in theory.  The same must be held for the corresponding provisions of EU provisions, whether primary (Article 78(1) TFEU), or secondary law.

Therefore, to protect the MS competence the Council has decided to change the legal basis and the draft decision on the signing on behalf of the European Union of the Istanbul Convention was divided into two decisions: one with regard to matters related to judicial cooperation in criminal matters and the second with regard to asylum and non-refoulement.

Both Council and Commission have recognised that the respective competences of the European Union and the Member States are inter-linked and have considered that it is appropriate to establish arrangements between the Commission and the Member States for the monitoring mechanism provided by the Convention, the so-called Group of experts on action against violence against women and domestic violence (GREVIO).

…in the meantime the European Parliament ..

At the European Parliament level, on several occasions MEPs have recalled that the EU accession to the Istanbul Convention would guarantee a coherent European legal framework to prevent and combat violence against women and gender-based violence and to protect the victims of violence, provide greater coherence and efficiency in EU internal and external policies and ensure better monitoring, interpretation and implementation of EU laws, programs and funds relevant to the Convention, as well as more adequate and better collection of comparable desegregated data on violence against women and gender-based violence at EU.

According to the MEPs the EU ratification would also reinforce the EU accountability at international level and, last but not least, it would apply renewed political pressure on Member States to ratify this instrument (note that so far all EU Member States have signed the Istanbul Convention, but only fourteen of them have ratified it).

The European Parliament has also recalled that the Commission is bound by Article 2 TEU and by the Charter of Fundamental Rights to guarantee, promote and take action in favour of gender equality. It has, therefore, welcomed the Commission proposal to sign and conclude the EU accession to the Istanbul Convention.

In this respect, a draft interim report between the LIBE and FEMM Committees is being drafted by two rapporteurs, Anna Maria Corazza Bildt (EPP – Sweden) and Christine Revault D’Allonnes Bonnefoy (S&D – France). A first LIBE/FEMM joint hearing on the issue took place on 29 November 2016. It was followed by a second joint hearing, which was held on 27 March 2017, whose aim was to highlight the importance as well as the necessity for the EU to access the Istanbul convention as a unique body.

During the latter hearing, some MEPs reiterated the importance of the EU accession to the Istanbul Convention, which could represent the basis for the introduction of a holistic approach addressing the issue of violence against women and girls and gender-based violence from a wide range of perspectives, such as prevention, the fight against discrimination, criminal law measures to combat impunity, victim protection and support, the protection of children, the protection of women asylum seekers and refugees and better data collection.

According to Malin Björk  (GUE/NGL – Sweden), the EU accession to the Istanbul convention would represent a very important step forward and it would allow to see violence against women as a political issue. For her, the EU ratification would be an opportunity to make people understand that such an issue is part of gender politics and it has to be recognised as such.

For Iratxe García Pérez (S&D – Spain), it would be extremely important to use all the best practices provided by some EU countries, such as Spain and Sweden, in order to define a common European framework for an active policy to combat violence against women. In her opinion, the European society is still unequal and gender-based violence derives from such an unbalance of power. The EU accession to the Istanbul Convention would be therefore crucial in order to set the basis for a common European strategy aiming to eliminate gender unbalances across Europe.

The key elements of the interim report were outlined during a third joint hearing which took place on 11 April 2017. On that occasion, the two rapporteurs stressed the needs for a joint effort between the European Parliament and the European Commission, in order to set up a holistic and comprehensive approach towards violence against women. Both the rapporteurs  expressed their strong support for the introduction of an EU directive and recalled that violence against women should not be considered as a national issue but as a European issue, since it affects the whole European society.

Despite the progress made at the European Parliament level, some MEPs deplored the fact that negotiations in the Council were not proceeding at the same speed.

It is not clear if the LIBE members were aware of the debates on the Council side or if they have been “timely and fully informed” of the new approach emerging on the Council side as it should had be the case according to art. 218 of the TFUE. Nor it is clear if the Commission has taken duly informed the LIBE Members in compliance with the EP-Commission Framework agreement.

(*) FREE-GROUP Trainee


Legally sophisticated authoritarians: the Hungarian Lex CEU



On 28 March the Hungarian government tabled an amendment to the Act on National Higher Education in Parliament. Even though the draft is formulated in normative terms, the only targeted institution is the Central European University (CEU), founded by George Soros, one of the main enemies of the Viktor Orbán’s ‘illiberal state’. Michael Ignatieff, former professor of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, current president and rector of CEU assessed the draft as a discriminatory political vandalism, violating Hungarian academic freedom. Here I do not want to deal with the clear ideological and political motivations of the action of the current Hungarian Prime Minister, a that time liberal recipient of Soros’s financial support during his studies in Oxford three decades ago.

I want rather focus on the behavior of a contemporary authoritarian (or dictator, as Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission once greeted him). As William Dobson argues is his book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve, “today’s dictators and authoritarians are far more sophisticated, savvy, and nimble that they once were”. They understand, as Orbán does, that in a globalized world the more brutal forms of intimidation are best replaced with more subtle forms of coercion. Therefore, they work in a more ambiguous spectrum that exists between democracy and authoritarianism, and from a distance, many of them look almost democratic, as the leader of Hungary, a Member State of the EU, does. Their constitutions, as the Fundamental Law of Hungary, often provide for a division of powers among the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary – at least on paper. They are also not particularly fearful of international organizations. Even a threat of foreign or international intervention and criticism can be a useful foil for stirring up nationalist passions and encouraging people to rally around the regime, as for Orbán, who claims to protect Hungary to became a colony of the EU. If necessary, they use the most refined European discourses, for instance about national constitutional identity, as the Orbán government did in order not to take part in any European efforts to solve the refugee and migration crisis. And as opposed to previous dictators of the old good times of totalitarian regimes, who just closed up organizations they did not like, without any scruples, today’s authoritarians take advantage of formalistic legal arguments against their enemies. The Russian authorities in the fall of 2016 revoked the educational license of the European University in St. Petersburg following unscheduled checks in the buildings referring to several violations against regulations, such as lack of fitness room and an information stand against alcoholism.

Similarly, the new draft law of the Hungarian government also uses legal tricks to force CEU to cease operation in Budapest. Such a clearly unacceptable requirement would be to open an additional campus in the State of New York. This wasn’t a condition in 1995, when CEU, holding a charter from the New York State Education Department, received its license to operate in Hungary from the Ministry of Culture and Education. Like other international universities chartered in the US, CEU does not maintain any academic or other programs in the United States. Moreover, in 2004 Hungary promulgated a special law on the establishment of Közép-európai Egyetem (KEE) as a Hungarian university, which was accredited by the Hungarian Accreditation Committee together with ten graduate and doctoral programs of the CEU as programs of KEE. Ever since the university has a dual legal entity, as KEE and CEU, but it is one university with only one campus, one academic staff, senate and rector, the latter appointed by the President of Hungary. According to the new law Hungarian universities could only deliver programs of European universities and not of countries from the OECD (including the US), therefore KEE, the Hungarian university could no longer deliver its single set program with CEU, which was allowed under the current law. 

The amendment if passed would make it impossible for CEU to continue its research and teaching activities, including its highly ranked comparative constitutional law LLM and SJD programs. This violates scientific freedom in Hungary, which on paper is still part of the Hungarian Fundamental Law. In the absence of an independent constitutional court in Hungary, the only domestic ‘remedy’ which one can imagine in an authoritarian regime is that the ‘wise leader’ graciously withdraws from his plan.

(*) Halmai, Gábor: Legally sophisticated authoritarians: the Hungarian Lex CEU, VerfBlog, 2017/3/31,, DOI:

What is the point of minimum harmonization of fundamental rights? Some further reflections on the Achbita case.


Eleanor Spaventa, Director of the Durham European Law Institute and Professor of European Law, Law School, Durham University

Ronan McCrea has already provided a very thoughtful analysis of the headscarf cases; this contribution seeks to complement that analysis by focusing on two issues arising from the Achbita case: first of all, the structural problems with the ruling of the Court, both in terms of reasoning and for the lack of information provided; secondly, the more general implications of the ruling for fundamental rights protections and the notion of minimum harmonization in the EU context.

It might be recalled that in the Achbita case a Muslim woman was dismissed from her employer for refusing to remove her headscarf, contrary to the employer’s policy of neutrality, which included a ban on wearing religious symbols. The case then centred on the interpretation of the framework discrimination Directive (2000/78) which prohibits, inter alia, discrimination on grounds of religion. The Belgian and French Government (which had a direct interest because of the Bougnaoui case) intervened in favour of the employee, believing that the discrimination at issue was not justified (Achbita opinion, para 63). The Court, following the Opinion of AG Kokott, found that the rules at issue might constitute indirect discrimination; that the employer’s aim to allegedly maintain neutrality was a legitimate aim as it related to its freedom to conduct a business as protected by Article 16 Charter. It then indicated that the policy was proportionate, if applied with some caveats.

The reasoning of the Court – some structural deficiencies

The headscarf cases are of fundamental importance to the European Union and to all of its citizens, not only those who practice a non-dominant religion, and as such have been widely reported even outside of the EU. One might have expected the Court to engage with a more thorough analysis of the parties’ submissions and of the issues at stake. Instead, we have two very short rulings with very little detail. Just to give an important example – in both cases the French and the Belgian governments sided with the claimants, hence drawing a very important conceptual limit to the principle of laïcité which is justified, in this view, because of the very nature of the State and its duty of neutrality, a duty which cannot be extended to private parties (or if so only exceptionally). This important distinction is not discussed in the ruling, not are the views of the governments who would be directly affected by the rulings.

More importantly though, the fact that the arguments of the parties are not recalled has also more general consequences: as it has been noted by Bruno De Witte elsewhere, the fact that no hermeneutic alternative is provided might give the impression that no hermeneutic alternative is in fact possible, as if legal interpretation is simply a matter of discovering the true hidden meaning of a written text. This approach, not uncommon in civil law jurisdiction but more nuanced in constitutional cases, hides the fact that, especially in cases of constitutional significance, there is more than one legitimate interpretative path that could be chosen, which also reflect different policy alternatives. Interpretation then is also a choice between those different paths: a choice which is, of course, constrained by the relevant legal system and one that might be more or less persuasive.  The failure to acknowledge counter-arguments then results in rulings, like the ones here at issue and many others in sensitive areas, which are not only potentially unhelpful, but also close the door to more effective scrutiny of the reasons that lead the Court to follow a given interpretation.

In the same vein, the analysis of the discriminatory nature of these provisions is rather superficial. In particular, there is no thought given to the fact that contractual clauses allegedly protecting a principle of neutrality, might not only have a discriminatory effect against certain individuals, but might have important inter-sectional (or multiple) discriminatory effects. In other words, a rule banning religious symbols might in fact also have a more pronounced effect on people from a certain ethnic background or a certain gender. Equally disappointing, and in this writer’s opinion legally flawed, is the approach taken in relation to the finding of the potentially indirectly discriminatory effects of the rules at issue. Here, the Court requires the national courts to determine whether the ‘apparently neutral obligation [(not to wear religious symbols)] (…) results in fact in persons adhering to a particular religion or belief being put at a particular disadvantage.” (para 34, emphasis added).

There are two issues to be noted here: first of all, the Court remains silent as to what type of evidence of indirect discrimination is required, and by whom. In discrimination cases, burden of proof is crucial. This is recognised by the discrimination directives at EU level, including Directive 2000/78 which provides that if the claimant shows direct or indirect discrimination, then it is for the ‘respondent to prove that there has been no breach of the principle of non-discrimination’ (Article 10(1)). One would have expected then the Court of Justice to instruct the national court to require the defendants to discharge this duty with a certain rigour, also by means of statistical analysis of the effect of such policies on religious minorities. Yet, the Court does not even engage with this question.

Secondly, and not less important, the Court seems to imply that a rule that discriminates all religious people would not be problematic. For instance if, say, Muslims and Orthodox Jews were equally discriminated against, whilst non-religious persons were unaffected, then, based on the dicta of the Court, there would be no discrimination. This interpretation seems restrictive and not supported by the text of the directive (or the Charter) that refers to discrimination on grounds of religion in general. In any event, in discrimination cases it is crucial to identify the comparator, and the Court fails to do so clearly and to support its choice with sound legal arguments. But, beside these very important structural issues, the Achbita ruling raises other more technical as well as general issues, as to the extent to which the Court’s interpretation might affect the Member States’ discretion to provide more extensive protection that that provided for in the Directive.

Minimum harmonization and fundamental rights

Directive 2000/78 is intended only to set minimum standards, so that Member States can, if they so wish, provide for a more extensive protection. Indeed many Member States have done so by extending either the protected categories of people, or the field of application of the legislation, or both. In theory then, the Achbita ruling should not be seen as the last word in relation to the treatment of religious people at work. After all, if Belgium or France or any other country finds the ruling problematic, it can simply pass legislation prohibiting private employers from requiring religious neutrality from its employees, unless of course a specific dress code is necessary to ensure the health and safety of the worker or the public. Viewed in this way, and notwithstanding the structural problems identified above, the ruling seems very sensible: it is agnostic, in that it does not impose either model on Member States, allowing therefore a degree of variation in a very sensitive area, something which, as eloquently discussed in McCrea’s post, might not be a bad thing. After all, this is the same path that has been taken by the European Court of Human Rights.

However, things are slightly more complicated in the European Union context. In particular there is nothing in the ruling to indicate that the Directive sets only minimum standards so that it would be open to those Member States to go further in protecting people holding religious beliefs. And, more crucially, the Court, mirroring the opinion of Advocate General Kokott, refers to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights when assessing the legitimacy of the justification put forward by the employer. In particular, it finds that the business’s wish to ‘project an image of neutrality (…) relates to the freedom to conduct a business that is recognised in Article 16 of the Charter and is, in principle, legitimate’.

The reference to the Charter, which indirectly frames the question as a clash of fundamental rights, is important because, in the EU context, when the Charter applies it sets the fundamental rights standard. In simpler terms this means that should a Member State wish to provide more extensive protection to ensure that employees are not discriminated on grounds of their religious belief, something that is allowed under Directive 2000/78, it might be prevented from doing so since, pursuant to the Achbitaruling, it would infringe the right to conduct a business as protected by the Charter. In this way, far from leaving the desired flexibility and discretion to the Member States, the Court sets the standard – employers have a fundamental right, albeit with some limitations, to limit the employees’ right not to be discriminated against. One might well ask then, much as it has been remarked in relation to the Alemo Herron case, what is the point of minimum harmonization directives if the upward discretion of the Member States is so curtailed.


The Court of Justice did not have an easy task in the Achbita case: it was pretty much a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ scenario. For sure, some of us would have liked the balance at issue to be tilted firmly in favour of religious minorities, especially given the growing evidence of attacks and discrimination against, particularly, Muslim women. The Court chose a different path and that is, of course, within its prerogatives. However, the way that path was trodden upon leaves many open questions both in relation to the way the result was achieved, and to the many questions it overlooks. What is most troubling is the implication that the freedom of Member States to provide greater protection towards minorities may, in principle, be constrained by the Court’s interpretation of the freedom to conduct a business.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 9, chapter 20


Headscarf bans at work: explaining the ECJ rulings


Professor Steve Peers

When can employers ban their staff from wearing headscarves? Today’s rulings of the ECJ have attracted a lot of attention, some of it confused. There have been previous posts on this blog about the background to the cases, and about the non-binding opinions of Advocates-General, and there will hopefully be further more analytical pieces about today’s judgments to come. But this post is a short explanation of the rulings to clear up any confusion.


The EU has long had laws on sex discrimination, and discrimination regarding EU citizens on grounds of nationality. Since 2000, it has also had laws against race discrimination and also a ‘framework directive’ against discrimination at work on grounds of disability, age, sexual orientation or religion. The ECJ has often been called upon to rule on the first three of those grounds, but today’s two judgments (G4S v Achbita and Bougnaoui) are the first time it has been asked to rule on non-discrimination at work on religious grounds.

EU law does not generally apply to other aspects of religion, except that EU law on asylum applies to people who have been persecuted on religious grounds. So today’s judgments are not relevant as regards regulating religion in education, for instance.

It should also be noted that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) protects the freedom of religion.  The European Court of Human Rights – a separate body – has previously ruled on how that freedom applies in the workplace, concluding that in some cases employers must allow employees who wish to wear religious symbols (see Eweida v UK, for example).

The rulings

The G4S ruling is the more significant of the two cases, in which the ECJ’s reasoning is most fully set out. First the Court rules that clothing worn for religious reasons is an aspect of religious belief. Then it concludes that there was no direct discrimination (ie discrimination purely on religious grounds) against Ms. Achbita, who was not allowed to wear a headscarf when dealing with customers, because her employer had a general ban on any employee display of religious or political belief.

Next, the ECJ ruled on whether there was any indirect discrimination (ie discrimination not on religious grounds, but which affected people of a particular religion more than others). Such discrimination can be ‘objectively justified by a legitimate aim…if the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary.’ In the Court’s view, the national court which had asked the ECJ these questions should consider that an employer’s ‘neutrality’ policy regarding customers was ‘legitimate’, and was part of its ‘freedom to conduct a business’.

However, such as policy had to be ‘systematic’ and ‘undifferentiated’ as regards different beliefs. It also should be considered whether it was limited to those workers who ‘interact with customers’, and whether it would have been possible to reassign the employee to a different role without ‘visual contact’ with customers, without the employer taking on an extra burden.

In the second case, the Court ruled that employers could not discriminate due to a customer request that employees not wear a headscarf.  This was not ‘a genuine and determining occupational requirement’ that could justify reserving a job to those who did not wear headscarves.


The ECJ’s rulings must be applied by the two national courts that requested it to rule. They are also binding more generally on the courts of all 28 EU Member States.

In principle the rulings mean that employers may ban employees from wearing headscarves, but only in certain cases. First of all, the cases only concern customer-facing employees, on condition that the employer has a ‘neutrality’ policy. The ECJ was not asked to rule on other groups of employees, but its rulings indicate that it would be more difficult, if not impossible, to justify bans in those cases. Nor was it asked to clarify further what a ‘customer-facing’ employee is exactly.

A neutrality policy mean an employer also has to ban other religious or political symbols worn by customer-facing employees. So no kippas, no crucifixes, no turbans – and no icons of Richard Dawkins either. This could be rather awkward in light of the human rights case law referred to above, which says wearing crucifixes (for instance) is sometimes an aspect of an employee’s right to manifest her freedom of religion.

There is a thin line between saying that employee headscarves can’t be banned just because customers ask for it on the one hand, and allowing employers to ban such clothing in effect due to anticipation of customer reaction. In practice this might prove something of a legal fiction.

The bottom line is that today’s judgments do not constitute a ‘workplace headscarf ban’, but merely permit employers to establish such a ban – subject to limits which might prove difficult to comply with in practice.


The Mejiers Committee on the inter-parliamentary scrutiny of Europol


  1. Introducton

Article 88 TFEU provides for a unique form of scrutiny on the functioning of Europol. It lays down that the [regulations on Europol] shall also lay down the procedures for scrutiny of Europol’s activities by the European Parliament, together with national Parliaments.

Such a procedure is now laid down in Article 51 of the Europol Regulation (Regulation (EU) 2016/794), which provides for the establishment of a “specialized Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Group (JPSG)”, which will play the central role in ensuring this scrutiny. The Europol Regulation shall apply from 1st of May 2017.

Article 51 of the Europol Regulation also closely relates to Protocol (1) of the Lisbon Treaty on the role of national parliaments in the EU. Article 9 of that protocol provides: “The European Parliament and national Parliaments shall together determine the organization and promotion of effective and regular inter-parliamentary cooperation within the Union.”

Article 51 (2) does not only lay down the basis for the political monitoring of Europol’s activities (the democratic perspective), but also stipulates that “in fulfilling its mission”, it should pay attention to the impact of the activities of Europol on the fundamental rights and freedoms of natural persons (the perspective of the rule of law).

The Meijers Committee takes the view that improving the inter-parliamentary scrutiny of Europol, with appropriate involvement of both the national and the European levels, will by itself enhance the attention being paid by Europol on the perspectives of democracy and the rule of law, and more in particular the fundamental rights protection. It will raise the alertness of Europol as concerns these perspectives.

Moreover, the scrutiny mechanism could pay specific attention to the fundamental rights protection within Europol. This is particularly important in view of the large amounts of – often sensitive – personal data processed by Europol and exchanged with national police authorities of Member States and also with authorities of third countries.

The implementation of Article 51 into practice is currently debated, e.g. in the inter-parliamentary committee of the European Parliament and national parliaments.1 As specified by Article 51 (1) of the Europol regulation, the organization and the rules of procedure of the JPSG shall be determined.

The Meijers Commitee wishes to engage in this debate and makes, in this note, recommendations on the organization and rules of procedure.

  1. Context

Continue reading “The Mejiers Committee on the inter-parliamentary scrutiny of Europol”

EU law and the ECHR: the Bosphorus presumption is still alive and kicking – the case of Avotiņš v. Latvia


by Stian Øby Johansen,

PhD fellow at the University of Oslo Faculty of Law*

Yesterday, 23 May 2016, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) delivered its judgment in the case of Avotiņš v. Latvia. This seems to be the ECtHR’s first detailed appraisal of the so-called Bosphorus presumption (the rule on the relationship between EU law and the ECHR) after the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Opinion 2/13 rejected a draft agreement providing for the accession of the EU to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). It also provides a first glimpse of how the ECtHR views the EU law principle of mutual trust, which has become particularly dear to the CJEU over the last couple of years.


For the uninitiated: the Bosphorus presumption refers to a doctrine in the case-law of the ECtHR that goes back to the 2005 judgment in Bosphorus Hava Yolları Turizm ve Ticaret Anonim Şirketi v. Ireland. In that judgment the ECtHR first stated, in line with previous case-law, that member states of an international organization (such as the EU) are still liable under the ECHR for “all acts and omissions of its organs regardless of whether the act or omission in question was a consequence […] of the necessity to comply with international legal obligations” (Bosphorus para 153). It also recognized “the growing importance of international cooperation and of the consequent need to secure the proper functioning of international organisations” (Bosphorus para. 150). In an attempt to reconcile these two positions, the ECtHR established what is now known as theBosphorus presumption or the presumption of equivalent protection of ECHR rights by the EU, even though the EU is not a party to the ECHR:

  1. In the Court’s view, State action taken in compliance with such legal obligations is justified as long as the relevant organisation is considered to protect fundamental rights, as regards both the substantive guarantees offered and the mechanisms controlling their observance, in a manner which can be considered at least equivalent to that for which the Convention provides […]. By “equivalent” the Court means “comparable”; any requirement that the organisation’s protection be “identical” could run counter to the interest of international cooperation pursued […]. However, any such finding of equivalence could not be final and would be susceptible to review in the light of any relevant change in fundamental rights protection.
  2. If such equivalent protection is considered to be provided by the organisation, the presumption will be that a State has not departed from the requirements of the Convention when it does no more than implement legal obligations flowing from its membership of the organisation.

However, any such presumption can be rebutted if, in the circumstances of a particular case, it is considered that the protection of Convention rights was manifestly deficient.

Many have been curious about whether the ECtHR would modify the  Bosphorus  presumption following the rather belligerent rejection of EU accession to the ECHR by the CJEU in Opinion 2/13. In the foreword of the ECtHR’s 2015 Annual Report its President,  Guido Raimondi, indeed seemed to signal an interest in shaking things up (emphasis added):

The end of the year was also marked by the delivery on 18 December 2014 of the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) eagerly awaited opinion on the draft agreement on the accession of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights. [T]he CJEU’s unfavourable opinion is a great disappointment. Let us not forget, however, that the principal victims will be those citizens whom this opinion (no. 2/13) deprives of the right to have acts of the European Union subjected to the same external scrutiny as regards respect for human rights as that which applies to each member State. More than ever, therefore, the onus will be on the Strasbourg Court to do what it can in cases before it to protect citizens from the negative effects of this situation.

Yet, in the ECtHR Grand Chamber judgment in the case of Avotiņš v. Latvia, it can clearly be seen that – spoiler alert – the Bosphorus presumption is still alive and kicking. Indeed, as I will show below, the ECtHR for the first time applies it to a case concerning obligations of mutual recognition under EU law. This is notable, since one of the main arguments the CJEU put forward in Opinion 2/13was that EU accession to the ECHR posed such a big threat to the principle of mutual trust that it would “upset the underlying balance of the EU and undermine the autonomy of EU law” (Opinion 2/13 para 194).

BACKGROUND TO THE CASE Continue reading “EU law and the ECHR: the Bosphorus presumption is still alive and kicking – the case of Avotiņš v. Latvia”

VERFASSUNGSBLOG :How to protect European Values in the Polish Constitutional Crisis



The Polish crisis puts Europe to the test. It raises hard questions and requires fine answers. These are, in a nutshell, the points I made on the panel at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities on March 14:

Is the Polish Development ‘Our’ Business?

In her talk before the EU Parliament, the Polish prime minister stressed that Poland is a sovereign country. She called to respect the current government’s democratic mandate. Indeed, sovereignty and democracy are fundamental values. Any interference from outside Poland requires strong grounds. I want to make a normative and a functional argument to state that the Polish development may indeed concern us—us, that is, the European citizens and the European institutions we have set up.

The normative argument is that the European Union organizes a community of states that profess allegiance to a set of fundamental values—among others, democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. These values are open-ended but not indeterminate. The question the Polish legislation raises is whether disrespecting decisions by the constitutional court and dismantling the separation of powers is covered by these values. To me, this cannot be: ‘democracy through law’ is what we stand for; the legal identity of the European project is that of a ‘community of law’. Hence, our own self-understanding is at stake.

The functional reason is that the European legal space presupposes mutual trust. European law operates on the presumption that all institutions are law-abiding. Otherwise, the legal edifice crumbles. When the presumption is rebutted, a systemic deficiency in the rule of law emerges that threatens the very existence of European law and integration. If a country defies its own constitutional court at the cost of constitutional crisis, how can we expect European law to be respected when it does not suit the government?

II. What Are the Instruments?

However, there is no reason to despair. Though there is no silver bullet, many instruments can convince the Polish government to follow European values. These are the Holy See, the United Nations, the OSCE, NATO, the Council of Europe, the European Union, and other states, all of which have their own instruments. Very few have been deployed so far. Currently, the most important are the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission opinion and the European Union’s rule of law framework. They support a dialogue with the Polish government and a European public debate on what went wrong and how to right the problem.

These instruments are not for the impatient. Of course, neither an opinion by the Venice Commission nor a recommendation of the EU Commission can force the Polish government to change its stance. Their potential also relies on the possibility of further steps, and much of the discussion is held up here. Many feel helpless because they view the Article 7 TEU mechanisms—including the freezing of payments—as totally impractical. Much of that is due to Manuel Barroso unwisely calling these mechanisms a ‘nuclear option’. That qualification stuck: today, anybody who proposes to use the Article 7 TEU mechanisms appears as irresponsible as someone who proposes to press the nuclear-weapons button. However, a sanction under Article 7 TEU does not devastate entire countries; actually, it supports basic values. It is an instrument like the others, legal and legitimate, an instrument that—as all others—needs to be deployed wisely.

Many also consider the Article 7 TEU mechanism impractical in the Polish case because its para 2 imposes a very high voting threshold. This position, however, overlooks at least two features. The first is that a first sanction falls under Article 7 para 1 TEU: the Council can make the determination by four fifths of its members, i.e., 22 Member States, that a Member State exhibits ‘a clear risk of a serious breach’. This determination is a sanction by itself; and this is why the Polish government wants to avoid it so much.

Moreover, even the threshold Article 7 para 2 TEU requires does not seem unrealistic. Of course, the leader of the Polish governing party is in close contact with the Hungarian prime minister. However, there is a big difference between the Hungarian and the Polish reforms: Hungary respected the formal rule of law, which is currently one of the core issues with Poland. Given the centrality of Europe being ‘a community of law’ and the help that the Hungarian governing party has received from its fellow members in the European People’s Party in the past, I see a realistic chance that even the current Hungarian government does not stand with the PiS government in undoing Europe; a possible abstention would not prevent a decision from being adopted.

III. How to Deploy the Instruments?

There are many instruments and many institutional actors. This can be a handicap because diverging strategies or uncoordinated statements may lead to reciprocal weakening. Here, inspiration can be taken from the 1990s when the Council of Europe and the European Union operated hand-in-hand in order to help the Central and Eastern European countries become constitutional democracies. The general division of labour, which proved successful, was that the Council of Europe (including its Venice Commission) set the substantive standards while the European Union added the compliance-‘pull’ through the prospect of membership. The Council of Europe is much less suspected of bullying, which provides legitimacy when it comes to formulating concrete standards on how to be a constitutional democracy.

For that reason, it seems important in the given case that all actors and in particular the EU rally behind the opinion of the Venice Commission of 11 March 2016. The EU does not need to define what is required from a Member State under Article 2 TEU, a very difficult exercise indeed, but can rely on what the Venice Commission asks for, in particular to respect the rule of law.

When deploying these instruments, it is important to do so in a dialogical way. One element of that is to stress that what is required is nothing other than to stand by Polish identity. The Polish constitution of 1791 is the first modern written constitution in Europe and a beacon of European constitutionalism. Though only 14 months in force, it proved an icon of Polish identity in the 123 years that Poland did not exist as a sovereign country, and was taught all those years by eminent scholars such as F. K. Kasparek or J. B Oczapowski. They embedded constitutionalism deeply into Polish identity. Polish administrative law—the rule of law limiting the executive— was even taught in German prison camps during World War II, for example by J. S. Langrod or F. Longchamps de Bérier. Indeed, few have fought for those European values as much as the Poles have done and certainly will continue to do so in the future.

A German version has been published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on March 31. 2016

Violence against women: what will be the impact of the EU signing the Istanbul Convention?


by Steve Peers

The scourge of violence against women is a serious human rights abuse and the worst form of sex discrimination. Several years ago, the Council of Europe (a body different from the EU) drew up the Istanbul Convention on this issue. It came into force in 2014, and currently applies to 20 countries, including 12 EU Member States (for ratification details, see here). Today, the EU Commission proposed that the EUsign and then conclude the Convention. What practical impact will that have on violence against women?

If the EU does sign and conclude (ie ratify) the Treaty, it will be the second human rights treaty binding the Union. The first is the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. While most attention has been focussed on the EU’s attempt to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which was essentially thwarted by the EU’s Court of Justice (CJEU) in 2014 (as discussedhere), the EU’s capacity to sign up to other human rights treaties is also relevant. While the EU cannot sign up to older international human rights treaties, like the UN Covenants, because they are only open to States, newer treaties (like the Istanbul Convention) expressly provide for the EU to sign up to them – if it wishes.

Impact of EU ratification

Like many international treaties, the Istanbul Convention is a ‘mixed agreement’, meaning that (if the EU ratifies it), the treaty will bind both the Union and its Member States. EU ratification should have six main effects (I’ve updated this list from the previous post on the reasons why the EU should ratify).

First of all, the EU’s ratification of the Convention could provide encouragement to its Member States, as well as non-Member States of the EU, to ratify the Convention. It would increase the prominence of the Convention worldwide, perhaps inspiring changes to national law and regional treaty-making outside Europe. It should be noted that the treaty is open for signature to non-EU countries: the 19 Council of Europe countries not in the EU (8 of them have ratified it already), as well as the 4 non-European countries (plus the Holy See) which took part in drawing it up.

Do you live in a country which hasn’t ratified the Convention? You can sign up to a campaign for the UK to ratify the Convention here. Please let me know of any other campaigns in the UK or any other country, and I’ll list them with a link in an Annex to this post.

Secondly, ratification could, as regards this Convention at least, address the argument that the EU has ‘double standards’ as regards human rights, insisting that Member States, would-be EU Member States and associated countries should uphold human rights standards that the EU does not apply itself. If the EU is perfectly able to ratify the Istanbul Convention, but chooses not to, what moral authority does it have to urge any countries to do so?

Thirdly, ratification of the Convention should enhance its role in EU law, because it could more easily be used as a parameter for the interpretation and validity of EU legislation. While there’s no general EU criminal law on violence against women (on the case for such a law, see here), there are other relevant EU rules. In particular, the Commission proposal refers to EU free movement law, substantive EU criminal law relevant to violence against women, EU immigration and asylum law, and the EU law on crime victims’ rights, applicable from last autumn (on the content of the crime victims’ law, see discussion here). It should also mean that the Convention will already bind those EU Member States which had not yet ratified it, as regards those provisions within EU competence.The proposal is based on EU competence over victims’ rights, and would apply (if agreed) to every Member State covered by the crime victims’ law – meaning every EU country except Denmark.

In practical terms, that should mean that (for instance), EU law must be interpreted to mean victims receive a residence permit based on their personal situation, if the authorities consider it necessary (Article 59(3) of the Convention). That would apply to citizens of other Member States and their (EU or non-EU) family members, in all 27 Member States covered by the proposal. It would also apply to non-EU citizens in general, in the Member States which apply EU law on non-EU migration (ie the 25 Member States other than the UK, Ireland and Denmark, which have mostly opted out of such laws).  

For asylum cases, Article 60 of the Convention makes clear that gender-based violence is a ground of persecution. This is more explicit than the EU’s qualification Directive, which says that ‘gender-related aspects shall be given due consideration’, with further reference in its preamble to specific practices like genital mutilation. (Note that the UK and Ireland are covered by the first-phase qualification Directive, which has less precise wording on this issue; so the EU’s ratification of the Convention might have more influence in these countries).

As regards victims of domestic violence crimes (of any nationality and residence status), Chapter IV of the Convention, concerning support and protection, could in particular have an impact on the interpretation of the crime victims’ Directive in each Member State.

Fourth, since the CJEU will have jurisdiction to interpret those provisions of the Convention which fall within the scope of EU competence, this could promote a uniform interpretation of those provisions within the EU.  

Next, the relevant provisions of the Convention will be more enforceable if the EU ratifies it. While the CJEU ruled in the Z case that the UN Disabilities Convention did not have direct effect, and might rule the same as regards the Istanbul Convention, at least that Convention would have ‘indirect effect’ (ie the obligation to interpret EU law consistently with it), and the Commission could bring infringement actions against Member States which had not applied the Convention correctly, as regards issues within the scope of EU competence. Ensuring the enforceability of the Convention is all the more important since it does not provide for an individual complaint system.

Finally, ratification would subject the EU to outside monitoring as regards this issue, and avoid the awkward scenario of its Member States being monitored as regards issues within EU competence – meaning that the Convention’s monitoring body would in effect to some extent be monitoring whether EU Member States were complying with EU law.


For all the above reasons, the EU’s planned ratification can only be welcomed. It may not, by itself, prevent any act of violence from being committed, but it may accelerate a broader process of ratification (and corresponding national law reform) on this issue. And it may have the important practical impact of helping victims receive support or protection, particularly in the context of the law on crime victims, immigration or asylum.

Brexit : un arrangement, vraiment ? un départ, enfin ?


 par Henri Labayle, CDRE


Le Conseil européen des 18 et 19 février s’est achevé à 23 heures 59, par la publication des conclusions auxquelles les dirigeants de l’Union étaient parvenus, accompagnées des commentaires du Président du Conseil européen.

Cousue de fil blanc, la négociation présentée comme celle de la « dernière chance », pour la 18eme fois selon un comptage journalistique, ne pouvait qu’aboutir à un accord. Sous peine de signifier l’échec du Premier ministre britannique et donc son obligation de sonner le retrait de son pays de l’Union européenne avant un référendum fixé au 23 juin.

Quitte à manger un cornet de frites devant le Conseil en attendant que l’heure tourne, comme la presse le rapporte à propos de la Chancelière allemande, ou à occuper son temps libre avec une émission radio pour le président français, il fallut donc simuler la tension, la sueur, le sang et les larmes. L’objectif de la mise en scène était connu : permettre au demandeur britannique de persuader son opinion publique qu’il avait arraché un « statut spécial » pour le Royaume Uni, garantissant à son pays le « meilleur des deux mondes » et justifiant son maintien. De même qu’il fallut multiplier les félicitations de ses pairs à David Cameron pour sa « combativité » et un « bon accord », à pur usage externe évidemment.

L’achèvement de ce simulacre peu glorieux permet de réfléchir au fond des choses, à l’instant où près d’un million de réfugiés soumettent l’Union à une pression sans pareille, sans bénéficier d’une attention aussi soutenue.

L’ampleur des compromis passés par le Conseil européen fournit-elle vraiment une réponse à la menace d’un Brexit ou bien n’y a-t-il là qu’apparence et jeux de rôle ? Au vu de leur forme et de la somme des démissions collectives que ces petits arrangements entre amis révèlent, ne faut-il pas aujourd’hui souhaiter que l’abcès soit percé, enfin ?

I – Les limites d’un compromis

David Cameron avait délimité lui-même le champ des concessions à arracher pour appeler à voter « oui » à un référendum qu’il avait, lui-même encore, décidé d’organiser quant au maintien du Royaume Uni dans l‘Union. Enfonçant des portes déjà largement ouvertes par les traités existants, la demande britannique se structurait autour de quatre idées simples et d’inégal intérêt : gouvernance économique de la zone euro, compétitivité, souveraineté, libre circulation et prestations sociales.

La réponse du Conseil s’ordonne en 4 sections correspondant à chacun de ces points, sans dissiper les doutes quant à sa portée juridique exacte et à sa signification politique.

A – Un accord juridiquement contraignant ?

Telle était, évidemment, la condition première pour parvenir à convaincre une opinion publique britannique dubitative. La complexité de la construction imaginée par les services du Conseil et les diplomates contient juste ce qu’il faut d’obscurité et de flou artistique pour rendre délicate une réponse franche.

a) – Le compromis de Bruxelles prend la forme d’un « arrangement», affiché comme étant « compatible avec le traité», qui sera applicable le jour où le Royaume Uni en avisera le secrétaire général du Conseil, après avoir réglé ses débats internes. il disparaîtra en cas contraire. L’arrangement est constitué par un ensemble disparate composé de 7 textes de portée inégale :

a) une décision des chefs d’État ou de gouvernement, réunis au sein du Conseil européen, concernant un nouvel arrangement pour le Royaume-Uni dans l’Union européenne (annexe 1);

b) une déclaration contenant un projet de décision du Conseil sur les dispositions particulières relatives à la bonne gestion de l’union bancaire et des conséquences d’une intégration plus poussée de la zone euro, dont l’adoption interviendra le jour où
la décision visée au point a) prendra effet (annexe 2);

c) une déclaration du Conseil européen sur la compétitivité (annexe 3);

d) une déclaration de la Commission sur un mécanisme de mise en œuvre de la subsidiarité et un mécanisme de mise en œuvre de la réduction des charges (annexe 4);

e) une déclaration de la Commission européenne sur l’indexation des allocations familiales exportées vers un État membre autre que celui où le travailleur réside (annexe 5);

f) une déclaration de la Commission sur le mécanisme de sauvegarde visé au point 2 b) de la section D de la décision des chefs d’État ou de gouvernement (annexe 6);

g) une déclaration de la Commission sur des questions liées à l’utilisation abusive du droit de libre circulation des personnes (annexe 7).

Ce montage complexe appelle évidemment des précisions quant à la valeur juridique de chaque strate, deux déclarations de la Commission ayant été ajoutées au projet initial. La nature des textes en cause commande la réponse sur la portée des engagements pris.

b) – Pour ce qui est de la « décision » figurant en annexe I, on est ici en présence d’un acte « des chefs d’État ou de gouvernement, réunis au sein du Conseil européen», « convenu» de façon intergouvernementale entre Etats membres et qui relève du droit international, en « forme simplifiée ». Les Etats eux mêmes en conviennent expressément, cette décision est « juridiquement contraignante et ne peut être modifiée ou abrogée que d’un commun accord entre les chefs d’État ou de gouvernement des États membres de l’Union européenne ». Elle n’en pose pas moins des questions sérieuses, indépendamment du fait qu’elle ne relève pas du droit de l’Union parce qu’exprimant la seule volonté des Etats membres et non celle du Conseil, qu’elle échappe à la compétence de la Cour de justice pour l’annuler (C-181/91) et que sa forme simplifiée lui permet d’éviter tout débat parlementaire, interne ou européen.

Le procédé, pour être connu, n’en est pas moins détestable lorsqu’il vise à traiter de questions aussi importantes que le prétendu « statut » d’un Etat membre au sein de l’Union. Certes, les précédents danois, en 1992, et irlandais, en 2009, avaient conduit à faire usage de cette technique mais dans un contexte très différent : régler une impasse dans la ratification des traités institutifs à la suite de votes négatifs. Ici, elle intervient à titre purement préventif et pour de strictes raisons de politique intérieure. Il s’agit d’engager l’Union dans une voie pour le moins discutable du point de vue de la conformité aux traités et à la jurisprudence actuelle de la Cour de justice, par commodité nationale.

Preuve est donnée de cette incompatibilité potentielle lorsque l’engagement est pris d’intégrer au moins deux des questions abordées par l’arrangement dans le champ de futures révisions des traités. La gestion de la zone euro verra ainsi la « substance » (???) de la section A être l’objet d’une telle promesse (point 7) ainsi que les limites à la clause de l’intégration politique plus poussée (section C point 1). La décision du 19 février 2016 préempte donc le jeu des procédures classiques de révision de l’article 48 TUE. Avec une chance réelle de succès, qu’il s’agisse de la procédure simplifiée ou de la procédure solennelle de révision ? Rien n’est moins certain lorsque chaque Etat aura soulevé le couvercle de la boite de Pandore, malgré la force de la décision du 19 février …

Les autres composantes de « l’arrangement » sont d’une portée beaucoup plus aléatoire. D’une part car le projet de décision du Conseil relative à la bonne gestion de l’union bancaire et des conséquences d’une intégration plus poussée de la zone euro, s’il est acté, dépend pour son entrée en vigueur d’une décision positive du Royaume Uni quant à sa présence dans l’Union. D’autre part car les autres éléments du compromis sont constitués de simples « déclarations » de la Commission dont la portée sera celle que les acteurs de l’Union voudront qu’elle soit …

L’accord garde en effet le silence sur une modification éventuelle des traités sur ces questions dont certaines sont éminemment sensibles à l’Est de l’Union. Il renvoie au droit dérivé l’accomplissement de ces « déclarations ». Si l’une des déclarations fait dans la nouveauté avec l’instauration d’un mécanisme de mise en œuvre de la subsidiarité, les autres impliquent une intervention normative classique modifiant le droit en vigueur.

Le contenu précis de ces textes ne sera connu qu’à la fin du débat britannique et leur issue dépendra d’un législateur invité à modifier selon la procédure législative ordinaire des dispositions du droit de l’Union aussi fondamentales que symboliques. Nul n’est capable d’en prévoir l’aboutissement. Y compris contentieux si un citoyen de l’Union s’adresse à la Cour en invoquant ses droits fondamentaux, en matière de discrimination par exemple.

Pour ce qui est de l’attitude du législateur, si l’on peut (avec beaucoup de prudence) imaginer que la cohérence des Etats membres guidera le Conseil, rien n’est moins sûr pour un Parlement soigneusement tenu à l’écart et que le verrou de sa majorité allemande ne retiendra peut-être pas de tout faire voler en éclat … après le référendum et c’est après tout cela qui compte…

L’importance des textes visés n’échappe pas puisqu’il s’agit :

  • de modifier la directive 2004/38 sur la libre circulation des citoyens pour en réduire « l’utilisation abusive » ;
  • de modifier le règlement 492/2011 relatif à la libre circulation des travailleurs à l’intérieur de l’Union afin de prévoir un mécanisme de sauvegarde ;
  • modifier le règlement 883/2004 portant sur la coordination des systèmes de sécurité sociale, afin d’instaurer un mécanisme d’indexation lors de l’exportation des allocations familiales.

On comprend dans ces conditions le soin avec lequel David Cameron a soigneusement évité de prendre langue avec le Parlement européen, laissant à la « pax germanica » gérée par le chancelier allemand et le Président du Parlement le soin de s’occuper de l’intendance !!!

B – Un accord politiquement significatif ?

Construit en trompe l’oeil, l’arrangement du 19 février est volontairement incompréhensible pour qui ne maîtrise pas les arcanes du droit institutionnel et des politiques de l’Union. Chacun peut ainsi revendiquer la victoire de ses idées ou le succès de la défense des traités, le peu d’enthousiasme du Président de la Commission indiquant son manque de goût pour l’opération.

La fonction de l’arrangement en question, au delà de son utilité politique immédiate pour le premier ministre britannique, doit être éclaircie pour en comprendre la portée.

a) – L’arrangement veut d’abord être un instrument permettant de dissiper toute ambiguïté, de préciser le sens et le rôle des dispositions des traités, faute d’être en capacité d’en modifier le contenu. Il se présente donc comme un moyen de « clarifier dans la présente décision certaines questions qui sont particulièrement importantes pour les États membres, de sorte que les clarifications apportées devront être prises en considération à titre d’instrument d’interprétation des traités» (préambule).

D’où le long rappel des souplesses multiples offertes déjà aux Etats par des traités comportant des «processus permettant aux différents États membres d’emprunter différentes voies d’intégration, en laissant aller de l’avant ceux qui souhaitent approfondir l’intégration, tout en respectant les droits de ceux qui ne veulent pas suivre cette voie ».

Respect mutuel, ambition, obligation de coopération loyale et respect du cadre institutionnel sont ainsi convoqués successivement pour clarifier le fonctionnement de la zone euro et le jeu de la compétitivité dans le sens des demandes britanniques.

C’est dans ce cadre que le sujet sensible du droit de regard d’un Etat non membre de la zone euro a été traité à la fois dans la section relative à la gouvernance économique de la décision arrêtée le 19 février et dans un projet de « décision du Conseil sur les dispositions particulières relatives à la bonne gestion de l’union bancaire et des conséquences d’une intégration plus poussée de la zone euro ». Rappelant le dialogue de sourds des deux paragraphes du compromis de Luxembourg, le projet de texte permet à un Etat non membre d’indiquer « son opposition motivée » à l’adoption d’un acte législatif concernant cette zone, le Conseil faisant « tout ce qui est en son pouvoir pour aboutir, dans un délai raisonnable et sans porter préjudice aux délais impératifs fixés par le droit de l’Union, à une solution satisfaisante pour répondre aux préoccupations soulevées par le ou les membres ». De veto, il n’y a donc pas.

b) – En second lieu, l’arrangement tente, et cet exercice est particulièrement difficile, de concilier les points de vue en ne faisant rien d’autre qu’interpréter les traités dans un sens susceptible de favoriser les compromis.

Tel est le cas de la section C consacrée à la « souveraineté » où l’on juge utile de rappeler, un peu cruellement lorsque l’on pense aux attentats de Paris ou à la situation en Grèce, que la sécurité nationale reste de la seule responsabilité de chaque État membre, que cette disposition « ne constitue pas une dérogation au droit de l’Union et ne devrait donc pas être interprétée de façon restrictive ».

Multipliant les références au principe de subsidiarité et à l’existence d’une organisation variable selon les Etats des compétences attribuées à l’Union, l’arrangement en conclut que « les références à une union sans cesse plus étroite entre les peuples sont donc compatibles avec la possibilité, pour les différents États membres, d’emprunter différentes voies d’intégration ». Aussi, affirme-t-il sans cultiver le doute et espérant rassurer le demandeur, « les traités permettent aux États membres partageant une telle vision d’un avenir commun d’évoluer vers une intégration plus poussée, sans qu’elle s’applique aux autres États membres ».

Cependant, la limite de l’exercice est rapidement atteinte et c’est bien de modifications à venir qu’il se préoccupe. Ainsi, même si l’on découvre que, malgré leur ratification, « il est admis que, eu égard à sa situation particulière en vertu des traités, le Royaume-Uni n’est pas tenu de prendre part à une intégration politique plus poussée dans l’Union européenne », le besoin d’une révision des traités est admis. Par précaution sans doute, et parce que sa lecture du droit positif et des coopérations renforcées auxquelles il ne daigne pas faire grandes allusions, peut-être parce que ces coopérations visent selon l’article 20 TUE à « renforcer son processus d’intégration », l’arrangement promet de graver dans le marbre des futurs traités cette constitutionnalisation d’une Europe à la carte.

La volonté de modifier l’ordre des choses est, en revanche, encore plus clairement établie lorsque l’on se penche sur la subsidiarité et la libre circulation des personnes.

La confusion entourant les débats relatifs à la subsidiarité indique sans doute que l’on est peut-être arrivé ici à la fin de l’exploitation du filon politique qu’il représente pour des Etats en mal de justifications devant leurs opinions publiques. Un mécanisme supplémentaire est donc évoqué dans la Section C relative à la « souveraineté », dans son paragraphe 3. Evoquant la nécessité de prendre des dispositions « appropriées » pour garantir l’application du protocole n°2 relatif au principe de subsidiarité, la décision rajoute une hypothèse supplémentaire au jeu du contrôle politique de la subsidiarité.

Dans le cas où les avis motivés sur le non-respect du principe de subsidiarité par un projet d’acte législatif de l’Union, adressés dans un délai de douze semaines à compter de la transmission du projet, représentent plus de 55 % des voix attribuées aux parlements nationaux, la présidence du Conseil inscrira la question à l’ordre du jour du Conseil afin que ces avis et les conséquences à en tirer fassent l’objet d’une délibération approfondie. Là, et c’est une curiosité de l’arrangement intergouvernemental, les représentants des États membres, « agissant en leur qualité de membres du Conseil », mettront fin à l’examen du projet d’acte législatif, sauf prise en compte des préoccupations exprimées dans les avis motivés.

Pour ce qui est de la libre circulation, le texte de la section D est divisé en deux rubriques : « interprétation actuelle du droit de l’Union » et « modification à apporter au droit dérivé de l’Union ». Il s’agit donc soit de délivrer une interprétation neutralisante du droit positif et de la jurisprudence existante soit de modifier directement la législation, notamment et y compris en matière de droits familiaux des citoyens de l’Union ayant exercé leur droit à la libre circulation. Quitte, en laissant agir le conditionnel employé dans ce passage de l’arrangement, à laisser planer le doute en cas de gêne.

L’impact juridique de l’arrangement ne doit donc pas être sous estimé même si la presse britanniques et les opposants de David Cameron avaient largement relativisé son impact matériel et son application dans le temps. Les « travailleurs nouvellement arrivés » en seraient les principales victimes, « durant une période de sept ans » en ce qui concerne l’accès aux prestations liées à l’emploi.

Par ailleurs, nombre d’Etats membres et notamment la Belgique, ont immédiatement cerné le risque représenté pour l’avenir par l’aval ainsi donné au Royaume Uni, même en vue de faciliter son maintien dans l’Union.

On les comprend. L’affirmation du point 4 des conclusions selon laquelle « il est entendu que, si l’issue du référendum au Royaume-Uni devait être la sortie du pays de l’Union européenne, l’ensemble des dispositions visées au point 2 cesseront d’exister » n’engage en effet que ceux qui veulent croire que ce sera la fin de cette technique de renégociation permanente, en forme de chantage, et que d’autres pourraient être tentés d’utiliser à l’avenir.

II – Les dangers d’un « arrangement »

Le comportement britannique vis-à-vis de son engagement dans l’Union entraîne une lassitude conduisant à penser que l’on est parvenu, là, à un point de rupture entre le projet européen conduit depuis un demi-siècle et le Royaume Uni. La compréhension de ses pairs dissimule difficilement que le Royaume Uni dénature ici les conditions de son engagement autant que le contenu d’une politique centrale de l’Union, celle de la libre circulation.

A – La dénaturation de l’engagement européen

Le Conseil européen en effectue lui-même le recensement : la position du Royaume Uni est aujourd’hui une incongruité au regard des principes fondateurs de l’Union européenne.

a) – A ce jour en effet, le Royaume Uni est autorisé par les traités :

  • à ne pas adopter l’euro et dès lors à conserver la livre britannique comme monnaie, en vertu du protocole n° 15;
  • à ne pas participer à l’acquis de Schengen en vertu du protocole n° 19 ;
  • à exercer des contrôles aux frontières sur les personnes et dès lors à ne pas participer à l’espace Schengen en ce qui concerne les frontières intérieures et extérieures en vertu du protocole n° 20 ;
  • à choisir de participer ou non à des mesures dans l’espace de liberté, de sécurité et de justice en vertu du protocole n° 21;
  • à bénéficier d’une situation particulière au regard de l’intervention de la Cour de justice en matière d’application de la Charte des droits fondamentaux en vertu du protocole n° 30.

Par ailleurs, sur la base du protocole n° 36 relatif aux dispositions transitoires, il vient de cesser d’appliquer (opt-out), le 1er décembre 2014, une grande majorité d’actes et de dispositions de l’Union dans le domaine de la coopération policière et judiciaire en matière pénale adoptés avant l’entrée en vigueur du traité de Lisbonne, le tout en choisissant de réintégrer trente-cinq d’entre eux, lui paraissant les plus utiles à ses intérêts (opt-in). Poursuivre cette œuvre de détricotage d’engagements souscrits de façon répétée et librement par le Royaume Uni est donc devenu problématique pour le projet européen, quoi que l’on en dise et même en prétendant minimiser les termes de « l’arrangement ».

La référence ici au précédent français menant au compromis de Luxembourg n’a pas de sens. Convaincre un Etat membre fondateur venant d’adopter un nouveau régime constitutionnel de s’adapter à un traité antérieurement conclu ne relevait pas d’une manoeuvre de boutiquier mais davantage d’une opération de survie pour un traité en passe de s’appliquer.

Rien n’interdit cependant, bien au contraire, pour garantir la présence britannique dans l’Union, de répéter tout haut ce que les traités disent déjà à propos des compétences ou de la subsidiarité ou ce que la Cour exprime dans jurisprudence la plus récente. Il suffit alors de feindre la conviction qu’il s’agit là de quelque chose de nouveau, arraché au forceps par le défenseur des intérêts britanniques. Tout, au contraire, conduit à refuser l’écriture d’une Europe à la carte que les conclusions du Conseil théorisent, malheureusement, le 19 février. Le reste des points actés prête davantage à être passé sous silence, au vu de menaces bien plus pressantes pesant sur l’avenir de l’Union.

b) – Ici, c’est la nature du projet européen qui est en question comme en témoigne la volonté britannique inlassable de remettre sur la table le principe d’une « union sans cesse plus étroite entre les peuples» qu’ils combattaient déjà en vain dans la négociation d’Amsterdam.

Evidemment, la référence à « une union sans cesse plus étroite » dans le préambule ne constitue pas une base légale pour étendre la portée des dispositions des traités ou du droit dérivé de l’Union, comme le souligne très sérieusement le Conseil européen. Pas plus qu’elle ne saurait être utilisée en vue d’élargir les compétences de l’Union. En des temps où des principes, inscrits eux dans les traités, tels que celui de solidarité de l’article 80 TFUE sont ouvertement foulés aux pieds par les Etats membres, la précaution oratoire fait sourire.

L’affirmation du Conseil européen selon laquelle ces références « n’obligent pas l’ensemble des États membres à aspirer à un destin commun » rompt avec le passé, posant un problème politique de première ampleur. Elle assigne clairement une finalité différente au projet européen, même si ce dernier n’est pas à la merci d’une décision intergouvernementale adoptée en catimini. Maîtres des traités, les Etats n’en sont pas les interprètes authentiques, à l’inverse de leur juge.

L’appel répété des traités à une « union sans cesse plus étroite » depuis 1957 n’est pas une clause de style. Il possède une fonction particulière et connaître la jurisprudence de la Cour de justice aurait permis de s’en pénétrer, à l’instant de vouloir satisfaire les tabloïds britanniques.

Traitant de l’adhésion de l’Union à la CEDH dans son avis 2/13 et rappelant de façon solennelle le « cadre constitutionnel » dans lequel elle raisonnait, la Cour de justice le relie aux « caractéristiques essentielles du droit de l’Union » lesquelles « ont donné lieu à un réseau structuré de principes, de règles et de relations juridiques mutuellement interdépendantes liant, réciproquement, l’Union elle-même et ses États membres, ainsi que ceux-ci entre eux, lesquels sont désormais engagés, comme il est rappelé à l’article 1er, deuxième alinéa, TUE, dans un «processus créant une union sans cesse plus étroite entre les peuples de l’Europe » (point 167).

Et, au cas où l’on aurait pas exactement saisi le sens de ce processus, elle enfonce le clou : « la poursuite des objectifs de l’Union … est, pour sa part, confiée à une série de dispositions fondamentales … Ces dispositions, s’insérant dans le cadre d’un système propre à l’Union, sont structurées de manière à contribuer, chacune dans son domaine spécifique et avec ses caractéristiques particulières, à la réalisation du processus d’intégration qui est la raison d’être de l’Union elle-même » (point 172). Partager un destin commun au sein de ce processus d’intégration est donc « la raison d’être » de l’Union, indépendamment du degré d’intégration choisi par ses membres. Est-ce cette « raison d’être » qui est niée par les Etats membres ?

D’autant qu’il ne s’agit pas là d’une simple affirmation politique. Ce processus remplit une fonction dans l’Union, précisée dès 2003 par la Cour de justice mettant en avant le principe de confiance mutuelle dans l’affaire Pupino (C-105/03) : « l’article 1er, 2eme et 3eme alinéas du TUE dispose que ce traité marque une nouvelle étape dans le processus créant une union sans cesse plus étroite entre les peuples de l’Europe et que la mission de l’Union … consiste à organiser de façon cohérente et solidaire les relations entre les États membres et entre leurs peuples » (point 41).

En tout état de cause, la position singulière du Conseil européen n’est pas non plus caractérisée par la cohérence. Ignorait-il que, dans un communiqué de presse des ministres des Affaires étrangères des 6 pays fondateurs, le 9 février 2016, Quelques jours auparavant, ces derniers affirmaient rester « déterminés à poursuivre la construction d’une union sans cesse plus étroite entre les peuples européens » … Là est donc l’inquiétude majeure, dans ce renoncement et cette dénaturation du pacte constitutionnel européen.

B – La dénaturation de la politique de libre circulation

Sans aller jusqu’à un examen détaillé et scientifique de la portée des concessions faites en matière de libre circulation des personnes par le Conseil européen, deux traits peuvent néanmoins être stigmatisés : la volonté d’en nier la spécificité en l’assimilant à une forme d’immigration y accompagne le souhait de contrecarrer la jurisprudence de la Cour de justice sur ce point.

a) – Les revendications britanniques sur le terrain de la libre circulation des travailleurs de l’Union sont anciennes, connues et passablement irresponsables au vu d’une seule interrogation : qui, au lendemain de l’adhésion, a fait en sorte qu’aujourd’hui la population étrangère la plus nombreuse au Royaume Uni soit celle des 748 207 polonais recensés en 2015 par Eurostat ?

Ces critiques ont été partiellement entendues sans que le soit la demande de contrôles préalables à l’entrée dans l’Etat membre. D’où deux rubriques, celles d’une attaque frontale quant aux avantages sociaux dont bénéficient les travailleurs de l’Union au nom du principe de non discrimination et celle d’une assimilation de la libre circulation à l’immigration ordinaire.

La présentation abusive du système social britannique comme justifiant un appel d’air de travailleurs européen par le jeu de ses avantages a conduit à mettre en question un certain nombre de prestations, le Conseil européen semblant découvrir en 2016 que « les différences de niveau de rémunération entre les États membres rendent certaines offres d’emploi plus attrayantes que d’autres et induisent des mouvements découlant directement du libre marché ». D’où sa volonté de « limiter les flux de travailleurs d’une importance telle qu’ils ont des incidences négatives à la fois pour les États membres d’origine et pour les États membres de destination », mais ceci en respectant les principes du traité et notamment celles relatives à la libre circulation des citoyens.

– L’exportabilité des allocations familiales vers un autre Etat membre devrait donc faire l’objet d’une modification du règlement 883/2004 afin d’en établir l’indexation. Marchant sur des œufs, le Conseil avait ici à l’esprit la jurisprudence Pinna (aff. 41/84) protégeant cette exportation. Néanmoins, cette indexation ne concernerait que les nouveaux arrivants jusqu’au 1er janvier 2020 et la Commission se refuse à étendre cette indexation à d’autres prestations exportables, telles que les retraites par exemple.

– Les prestations sociales liées à l’emploi constituaient le coeur du débat, au nom du prétendu « appel d’air » évoqué par le Royaume Uni. Modifié, le règlement 492/2011 instituera « un mécanisme d’alerte et de sauvegarde » en cas de « situations caractérisées par l’afflux d’une ampleur exceptionnelle et pendant une période prolongée de travailleurs en provenance d’autres d’États membres ». Sa justification ? Un afflux d’une ampleur telle qu’elle « affecte des aspects essentiels de son système de sécurité sociale, y compris la finalité première de son régime de prestations liées à l’emploi, ou engendre de graves difficultés qui sont susceptibles de perdurer sur son marché de l’emploi ou qui soumettent à une pression excessive le bon fonctionnement de ses services publics ».

L’accès aux prestations liées à l’emploi à caractère non contributif pourrait être restreint « dans la mesure nécessaire ». Le travailleur serait totalement exclu du bénéfice de ces prestations dans un premier temps, mais il y aurait progressivement accès au fur et à mesure de son rattachement au marché du travail de l’État membre d’accueil. L’autorisation de restriction aurait une durée limitée et s’appliquerait aux travailleurs de l’Union nouvellement arrivés durant une période de 7 ans.

Le flou gardé sur le déroulement de la procédure réserve cependant la question du pouvoir dévolu au Parlement européen durant ce déroulement, lequel Parlement qui devra adopter le texte instituant la dite procédure et ne pas en être fanatique …

Toute la subtilité du mécanisme, ici, tient dans la Déclaration de la Commission jointe en annexe VI. Elle y indique « qu’il ressort de la nature des informations qui lui sont transmises par le Royaume-Uni, et notamment du fait qu’il n’a pas fait pleinement usage des périodes transitoires prévues dans les actes d’adhésion récents en ce qui concerne la libre circulation des travailleurs, que le pays connaît aujourd’hui le type de situation exceptionnelle auquel le mécanisme de sauvegarde proposé devrait s’appliquer. En conséquence, il serait justifié que le Royaume-Uni active le mécanisme dans l’attente légitime d’obtenir l’autorisation requise ». D’où la victoire proclamée par le Premier ministre britannique, prêt à faire usage de cette restriction puisque la condition mise à son emploi est satisfaite.

– Les prestations dues aux personnes sans emploi ont également fait l’objet de précisions de la part du Conseil européen, sous couvert « d’interprétations » d’autant plus fermes et gratuites que la Cour de justice a déjà dit le droit à leur propos dans ses arrêts Dano C-133/13 et Alimanovic (C-67/14) : « sur la base de considérations objectives indépendantes de la nationalité des personnes concernées et proportionnées à l’objectif légitimement poursuivi, des conditions peuvent être imposées en ce qui concerne certaines prestations afin de veiller à ce qu’il y ait un degré réel et effectif de rattachement entre la personne concernée et le marché du travail de l’État membre d’accueil ».

Aussi, « les États membres ont la possibilité de refuser l’octroi de prestations sociales à des personnes qui exercent leur droit à la libre circulation dans le seul but d’obtenir de l’aide sociale des États membres alors même qu’elles ne disposent pas de ressources suffisantes pour prétendre au bénéfice d’un droit de séjour ».

b) – Beaucoup plus pernicieuse, la volonté de réduire la spécificité jurisprudentielle de la libre circulation des citoyens de l’Union s’attache à deux cibles.

Le regroupement familial dont bénéficient les citoyens de l’Union est ici en jeu, en particulier à propos des membres de la famille non citoyens d’un Etat membre qui a fait l’objet de décisions complexes de la CJUE depuis l’arrêt Singh (C-370/90). En l’espèce, la rigueur du droit britannique était plus grande que celle du droit de l’Union à propos de ses citoyens désirant être rejoints par des membres de leur famille non citoyens européens. David Cameron en avait fait un cheval de bataille.

Ici, malgré le rappel martial du Conseil européen de la nécessité de lutter contre l’abus de droit, les mariages de complaisance et autres fraudes à la libre circulation destinées à obtenir un titre de séjour, le risque d’incompatibilité avec les traités et l’article 9 de la Charte des droits fondamentaux est réel. La jurisprudence Metock (C-127/08), en 2008, forme en l’espèce un obstacle de taille.

Aussi, en annexe VII, une « déclaration » de la Commission « prend acte » de la volonté des Etats et promet une proposition de modification de la directive 2004/38 destinée à la « compléter afin d’exclure du champ d’application des droits de libre circulation tout ressortissant d’un pays tiers qui n’a pas préalablement séjourné de manière légale dans un État membre avant de se marier avec un citoyen de l’Union ou qui ne se marie avec un citoyen de l’Union qu’après que celui-ci a établi sa résidence dans l’État membre d’accueil ».

L’important ici n’est pas dans la promesse mais dans la manière de la réaliser dans le champ de la future proposition. La Commission semble sous-entendre dans sa déclaration que, pour ce qui est des situations d’abus en matière d’admission au séjour, c’est sous forme de simples « lignes directrices » établies dans une Communication sur la libre circulation à venir qu’elle interviendra.

La clause d’ordre public, enfin, dont la Cour de justice a mis un demi-siècle à réguler les excès dans l’invocation qu’en faisaient les Etats membres, était en ligne de mire du Conseil européen, tenté à la fois par un alignement sur le moins disant, c’est-à-dire sur la situation faite aux immigré ordinaires, et par la limitation de circulation de catégories de population jugées indésirables.

Accréditant l’idée d’un lien entre libre circulation et criminalité, la décision du 19 février rappelle, en faisant mine de l’établir, que les États membres d’accueil « peuvent également prendre les mesures de restriction nécessaires pour se protéger contre des individus dont le comportement personnel est susceptible de représenter une menace réelle et grave pour l’ordre public ou la sécurité publique ». Parce que cette détermination est parfois problématique à défendre devant le juge, les États membres pourraient « tenir compte du comportement que la personne concernée a eu par le passé et la menace ne doit pas toujours être imminente. Même en l’absence de condamnation pénale antérieure, les États membres peuvent agir pour des raisons de prévention, aussi longtemps qu’elles sont liées spécifiquement à la personne concernée ».

Là encore, la prudence est de mise pour la Commission qui se borne à promettre les précisions nécessaires dans sa future communication sans faire écho aux soucis de prévention et de menace non « imminente » visant exprimés par les Etats membres.

Au total, le Conseil européen ne sort pas grandi de cette épreuve factice, n’hésitant pas à sacrifier son idéal pour un plat de lentilles. Loin des promesses anciennes d’une Europe proche des citoyens, il accentue la crise d’une Union en panne d’inspiration et de leadership au moyen de pauvres biais et stratagèmes juridiques avalisés par tous. Ce faisant, il rend la parole au seul acteur décisionnaire dans une démocratie, le peuple britannique dont on doute que la conviction soit emportée par un si triste ouvrage.