The European Commission’s Activation of Article 7: Better Late than Never?


by Dimitry Kochenov, Professor of EU Constitutional Law at the University of Groningen; Laurent Pech, Professor of European Law at Middlesex University London; and Kim Lane Scheppele, Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Princeton University
‘The European Union is first and foremost a Union of values and of the rule of law. The conquest of these values is the result of our history. They are the hard core of the Union’s identity and enable every citizen to identify with it. The Commission is convinced that in this Union of values it will not be necessary to apply penalties pursuant to Article 7 of the Union Treaty’ European Commission, 15 October 2003
1. What has just happened?
On Wednesday, the European Commission reacted to the continuing deterioration of the rule of law situation in Poland by (i) issuing a fourth Rule of Law Recommendation, which complements three previous Recommendations, adopted on 27 July 2016, 21 December 2016 and 27 July 2017; (ii) submitting a Reasoned Proposal for a Decision of the Council on the determination of a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law by Poland under Article 7(1) TEU and (iii) referring the Polish Law on the Ordinary Courts Organisation to the Court of Justice of the EU under Article 258 TFEU and in the context of which the Commission is raising for the first time (to the best of our knowledge) a violation of Article 19(1) TEU in combination with Article 47 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights by Poland to the extent that the Minister of Justice has been given a discretionary power to prolong the mandate of judges which have reached retirement age (a similar combination was raised in the first stage of an infringement action against Hungary in December 2015 with regard to immigration issues but this language was dropped by the time it got to the Court of Justice).
Should the Polish authorities finally decide to implement the Commission’s recommendations within three months, the Commission has indicated its readiness to ‘reconsider’ its Article 7(1) proposal (para 50 of the Commission’s fourth rule of law recommendation).
The intensity and repeated nature of Poland’s ruling party attacks on the most basic tenets of the rule of law are unprecedentedly aggressive and in obvious breach of the Polish Constitution, which in our view warrants the Commission’s action (this is not to say that Article 7(1) should not also be activated against Hungary as two of the present authors previously argued in this 2016 article). Indeed, as rightly noted by the Commission, the Polish authorities have adopted over a period of two years no less ‘than 13 laws affecting the entire structure of the justice system in Poland, impacting the Constitutional Tribunal, Supreme Court, ordinary courts, National Council for the Judiciary, prosecution service and National School of Judiciary’. It was time therefore for the Commission to defend the independence of Member State judiciaries and the rule of law (as nicely put by Maximilian Steinbeis, ‘Polish courts are our courts’, that is, ‘if the legal system in a Member State is broken, the legal system in the whole of the EU is broken’).
The media have so far only almost exclusively focused on the first ever invocation of what is often described as the EU’s ‘nuclear option’, which, however, as correctly pointed out by Frans Timmermans in his press conference announcing the Commission’s actions, is a misnomer (as we previously argued here). To put it briefly, Article 7 TEU provides for two main mechanisms: a preventive one in case of a ‘clear risk of a serious breach’ of the values common to the EU and its Member States and a sanctioning one where ‘a serious and persistent breach’ of the same values has materialised (for more detailed commentaries on the mechanics of Article 7 see hereand here).
The Commission merely initiated the preventive mechanism on Wednesday when one could however reasonably argue that we are already way beyond the stage of a ‘clear risk’ and entered ‘serious and persistent breach’ territory following the capture of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal in obvious breach both of the Polish Constitution and the Commission’s first and second rule of law recommendations (see Pech and Scheppele, January 2017). Before however offering further details on the situation in Poland, however, it may be worth offering a brief overview of Article 7’s genesis.


2. Genesis of Article 7

Continue reading “The European Commission’s Activation of Article 7: Better Late than Never?”

UK/EU Security Cooperation After Brexit: the UK Government’s Future Partnership Papers


Professor Steve Peers

The Prime Minister’s big speech in Florence has received the most attention in recent weeks, but it’s also worth looking at the UK government’s recent papers on its planned EU/UK close partnership after Brexit.  I’ll look here at the papers on two aspects of security – external security (foreign policy and defence) on the one hand, and internal security (police and criminal law cooperation) on the other. Both of them are impacted in the short term by the Florence speech, since the Prime Minister called for the current UK/EU security arrangements to apply for a period of around two years, followed by a comprehensive EU/UK security treaty. Assuming that such a transition period is agreed, the issue is what happens after that. In other words, what will be the content of that future comprehensive security treaty?

External security: Foreign policy and defence

The UK government’s foreign policy paper devotes much of its space – the first 17 pages – to explaining the UK’s major commitments in this field, including via its EU membership. A Martian reader would assume that the UK was applying to join the Union. Only the last few pages discuss the government’s preferred policy – which is both rather vague and highly resembles EU membership.

In short (although there’s no long version), the government seeks to maintain a relationship with the EU in this field that’s closer than any other non-EU country – although without offering many specifics. The government does, however, state that it wants to contribute to EU defence missions and to align sanctions regimes with the EU. The point about sanctions is particularly relevant, since the UK provides intelligence to justify their imposition and some of the individuals concerned have placed their assets in the UK.

For instance, in the recent ECJ judgment in Rosneft (discussed here), which followed a reference from the UK courts, the sanctioned company tried to reopen the case to argue that the referendum result already meant that EU sanctions ceased to apply in the UK. The ECJ simply replied that the Russian company had not explained how the Brexit vote altered the jurisdiction of the Court or the effect of its judgments.

Of course, the legal position will certainly change from Brexit Day: the UK government plans to propose a new Bill regulating post-Brexit sanctions policy in the near future, following a White Paper on this issue earlier this year (see also the government response to that consultation). One key question will be whether that Bill already attempts to regulate the UK’s post-Brexit coordination with the EU on sanctions, or whether that will be left to the Brexit negotiations to address.

This brings us to the issue of the ECJ, which is a difficult question as regards many aspects of the Brexit talks. In principle, in the area of foreign policy and defence, Brexit talks should not be too complicated by ECJ issues, since the Court has only limited jurisdiction. However, as the case of Rosneft illustrates, it does have jurisdiction over sanctions issues. In fact, there are frequent challenges to EU sanctions and many challenges are successful, so there will be a risk of divergence between EU and UK policy after Brexit that may need to be discussed. Such divergence could lead to a knock-on complication with capital movement between the UK and EU.

The paper also covers development and external migration policy, where the UK again seeks something which is both vague and much like membership – collaboration on coordinating policy. While the EU has its own development policy, Member States are free to have their own policies, subject to loose coordination – which is what the UK is aiming for as a non-member.

This was, perhaps, a missed opportunity here to touch on the most difficult issue in the talks: the financial liabilities upon leaving in the EU. Some of the EU’s spending in these areas is not part of the ordinary EU budget (as the ECJ has confirmed), although it is part of the EU negotiation position. So the UK could have addressed that issue to move talks along and to make links between ‘upfront’ and ‘future’ issues to get around sequencing problems in the Brexit talks. (The Prime Minister’s subsequent speech in Florence did not explicitly mention these funds). Furthermore, the UK government could have used this paper to reassure some febrile people that it will have a veto on what it chooses to participate in, as well as on the ECJ.

Internal security: Criminal Law and Policing

In many ways, the government paper on criminal law matters is similar to the foreign policy paper. It also starts out by saying how useful the current relationship is, for instance as regards data on wanted persons and stolen objects uploaded into the Schengen Information System, the use of the European Arrest Warrant for fast-track extradition, and the EU police intelligence agency, Europol.

What happens after Brexit? The UK paper correctly points out that the EU already has agreements in this area with many non-EU countries, particularly as regards the exchange of policing data but also as regards some forms of criminal justice cooperation. But as with foreign policy and defence, the UK wants a distinctive relationship after Brexit, given the existing close links.

Again, however, the actual content of what the UK wants is vague. Which of the current EU laws in this field which the UK has signed up to (for a summary of those laws, see my referendum briefing here) would it still like to participate in? The only clear point is that the government doesn’t want direct ECJ jurisdiction. In principle, that should be fine for the long term, since the EU27 negotiation position only refers to the ECJ during a transition period. There’s no insistence on using it afterward, which is consistent with EU treaties in this field with non-EU countries.

However, some of those treaties refer to taking account of each other’s case law, and dispute settlement or (in some treaties) possible termination in the event of judicial or legislative divergences. The UK paper gives no idea of how it will tackle those issues, whereas the recent paper on the parallel issue of civil litigation (discussed here) at least indicated a willingness to require UK courts to take account of relevant ECJ rulings.


The contrast between the importance of these issues and the vagueness with which they are treated is striking. Imagine a television viewer aching to watch Tenko or Broadchurch – but having to settle for Last of the Summer Wine.  It is fair to assume that the government has more detailed plans than this but doesn’t want to release them; but presumably anything more specific would have opened division in the cabinet or run the perceived risk of making the government look awkward by disclosing an ultimately unsuccessful negotiation position (what the government refers to as undermining negotiations). Increasingly these papers look like an attempt to respond to poor polls about negotiations rather than a contribution to the talks.

The government does have a point, however: the UK and EU have significant shared interests in this area, and the UK has a lot to offer, in terms of its defence contribution, supply of intelligence and round-up of fugitives from other Member States, for instance. Of course, the UK benefits in turn from having swifter access to other countries’ intelligence, as well as fast track extradition and transfer of criminal evidence.  The Brexit process might also be an opportunity to address the civil liberties concerns that sometimes arise about these measures, but there is no detailed discussion of that.

It will likely be awhile before these issues are discussed in detail in the talks, and it remains to be seen how interested the EU27 side is in the UK government’s position. But at first sight, it seems possible that the future of the EU/UK relationship on security issues will not be vastly different from the present.

The 2016 EU Justice Scoreboard


The 2016 EU Justice Scoreboard was adopted by the European Commission on 10 April 2016 under reference number COM(2017) 167.


(…) Introduction

‘Effective justice systems support economic growth and defend fundamental rights. That is why Europe promotes and defends the rule of law (1).’ This role of Member States’ justice systems underlined by Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, is crucial for ensuring that individuals and businesses can fully enjoy their rights, for strengthening mutual trust and for building a business and investment-friendly environment in the single market.

Moreover, as underlined by Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, effective justice systems also underpin the application of EU law: ‘The European Union is built on a common set of values, enshrined in the Treaty. These values include respect for the rule of law. That is how this organisation functions, that is how our Member States ensure the equal application of EU law across the European Union (2).’ For these reasons, improving the effectiveness of national justice systems is a well-established priority of the European semester — the EU’s annual cycle of economic policy coordination.

Independence, quality and efficiency are the key elements of an effective justice system. The 2017 EU Justice Scoreboard (‘the Scoreboard’) helps Member States to achieve this priority by providing an annual comparative overview of the independence, quality and efficiency of national justice systems. Such a comparative overview assists Member States in identifying potential shortcomings, improvements and good practices as well as trends in the functioning of national justice systems over time. It is also crucial for the effectiveness of EU law (3).

When applying EU law, national courts act as EU courts and ensure that the rights and obligations provided under EU law are enforced effectively. For this reason, the Scoreboard looks closely at the functioning of courts when applying EU law in specific areas.

The 2017 edition further develops this overview and examines new aspects of the functioning of justice systems:

– to better understand how consumers access the justice system, it examines which channels they use to submit complaints against companies (e.g. courts, out of court methods), how legal aid and court fees influence access to justice, particularly for persons at-risk-of-poverty, the length of court proceedings and before consumer authorities and how many consumers are using the online dispute resolution (ODR) platform which became operational in 2016.

–  to keep track of the situation of judicial independence in Member States, this edition presents the result of a new survey on the perception of citizens and companies; it shows new data on safeguards for protecting judicial independence.

– this edition continues to examine how national justice systems function in specific areas of EU law relevant for the single market and for an investment-friendly environment.

It presents a first overview of the functioning of national justice systems when applying EU anti-money laundering legislation in criminal justice. It also examines the length of proceedings for provisional measures to prevent imminent damages in certain areas of law.

– in order to have a clearer picture of the current use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in justice systems, this edition presents the results from a survey of lawyers on how they communicate with courts and for which reasons they use ICT.

– as standards on the functioning of courts can drive up the quality of justice systems, this edition examines in more detail standards aiming to improve the court management and the information given to parties on progress of their case.

As this is the fifth edition, the Scoreboard also takes stock of the progress achieved over time.

Although data are still lacking for certain Member States, the data gap continues to decrease, in particular for indicators on the efficiency of justice systems.

The fruitful cooperation with Member States’ contact points on national justice systems (4) and various committees and European judicial networks have enriched the data significantly.

The remaining difficulties in gathering data are often due to insufficient statistical capacity or to the fact that the national categories for which data are collected do not exactly correspond to the ones used for the Scoreboard. In very few cases, the data gap is due to the lack of willingness of certain national authorities to contribute. The Commission will continue to encourage Member States to further reduce this data gap.

(…) 2. Context

Justice remain high on the agenda (…)

In 2016, a large number of Member States pursued their efforts to improve the effectiveness of their national justice system. Justice reforms take time, sometimes several years from the first announcement of new reforms, over the adoption of legislative and regulatory measures, to the actual implementation of the adopted measures. Figure 1 presents an overview of adopted and envisaged justice reforms. It is a factual presentation of ‘who does what,’ without any qualitative evaluation. In that respect, it is important to underline that any justice reform should uphold the rule of law and comply with European standards on judicial independence. Figure 1 shows that procedural law remains an area of particular attention in a number of Member States and that a significant amount of new reforms have been announced for legal aid, alternative dispute resolution methods (ADR), court specialisation and judicial maps. A comparison with the 2015 Scoreboard shows that the level of activity generally remained stable, both on the announced reforms and measures under negotiation. (…)

The EU is encouraging certain Member States to improve the effectiveness of their justice system. In the 2016 European semester, based on a proposal from the Commission, the Council addressed country specific recommendations to six Member States in this area (21).

Two of the Member States which were subject to a country specific recommendation in 2015 did not receive a recommendation in 2016 due to the progress they had achieved (22).

In addition to those Member States subject to country specific recommendations, a further eight Member States are still facing particular challenges and are being closely monitored by the Commission through the European semester and economic adjustment programmes (23). The Commission further assists justice reforms in Romania and Bulgaria through the cooperation and verification mechanism (24).

In 2016, the Commission adopted, under the EU Rule of Law Framework (25), two recommendations regarding the rule of law in Poland, setting out the Commission’s concerns and recommending how these concerns can be addressed (26). The Commission considers it necessary that Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal is able to fully carry out its responsibilities under the Constitution, in particular to ensure an effective constitutional review of legislative acts.

The Commission continues to support justice reforms through the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESI Funds). During the current programming period 2014 – 2020, ESI Funds will provide up to EUR 4.2 billion to support Member States’ efforts to enhance the capacity of their public administration, including justice. 14 Member States have identified justice as a priority area for support by the ESI Funds. The Commission emphasises the importance of taking a result-oriented approach when implementing these priorities and calls upon Member States to evaluate the impact of ESI Funds support. In 2016, five Member States (27) requested technical assistance from the Structural Reform Support Service of the Commission, for example on sharing national experiences regarding judicial map reforms.

The positive economic impact of the good functioning of justice system deserves these efforts. A 2017 study by the Joint Research Centre identifies correlations between improvement of court efficiency and the growth rate of the economy and between businesses’ perception of judicial independence and the growth in productivity (28).

Where judicial systems guarantee the enforcement of rights, creditors are more likely to lend, firms are dissuaded from opportunistic behaviour, transaction costs are reduced and innovative businesses are more likely to invest. This positive impact is also underlined in further research, including from the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank, OECD, World Economic Forum, and World Bank (29). (…)

Questions and Answers

 What is the EU Justice Scoreboard?

The EU Justice Scoreboard is a comparative information tool that aims to assist the EU and Member States to improve the effectiveness of their national justice systems by providing objective, reliable and comparable data on the quality, independence and efficiency of justice systems in all Member States. The Scoreboard does not present an overall single ranking but an overview of how all the justice systems function, based on various indicators that are of common interest for all Member States. The Scoreboard does not promote any particular type of justice system and treats all Member States on an equal footing. Timeliness, independence, affordability and user-friendly access are some of the essential parameters of an effective justice system, whatever the model of the national justice system or the legal tradition in which it is anchored.

The Scoreboard mainly focuses on litigious civil and commercial cases as well as administrative cases in order to assist Member States in their efforts to pave the way for a more investment, business and citizen-friendly environment. The Scoreboard is a comparative tool which evolves in dialogue with Member States and the European Parliament, with the objective of identifying the essential parameters of an effective justice system.

What is the methodology of the EU Justice Scoreboard?

The Scoreboard uses various sources of information. Large parts of the quantitative data are provided by the Council of Europe Commission for the Evaluation of the Efficiency of Justice (CEPEJ) with which the Commission has concluded a contract to carry out a specific annual study. These data range from 2010 to 2015, and have been provided by Member States according to CEPEJ’s methodology. The study also provides detailed comments and country specific information sheets that give more context. They should be read together with the figures (5).

Data on the length of proceedings collected by CEPEJ show the ‘disposition time’ which is a calculated length of court proceedings (based on a ratio between pending and resolved cases). Data on courts’ efficiency in applying EU law in specific areas show the average length of proceedings derived from actual length of court cases. It should be noted that the length of court proceedings may differ substantially geographically within a Member State, particularly in urban centres where commercial activities may lead to a higher caseload.

The other sources of data are: the group of contact persons on national justice systems (6), the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ) (7), the Network of the Presidents of the Supreme Judicial Courts of the EU (NPSJC) (8), Association of the Councils of State and Supreme Administrative Jurisdictions of the EU (ACA-Europe) (9), the European Competition Network (ECN) (10), the Communications Committee (COCOM) (11), the European Observatory on infringements of intellectual property rights (12), the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network (CPC) (13), the Expert Group on Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (EGMLTF) (14), Eurostat (15), the European Judicial Training Network (EJTN) (16), the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) (17) and the World Economic Forum (WEF) (18).

The methodology for the Scoreboard has been further developed in close cooperation with the group of contact persons on national justice systems, particularly through a questionnaire and collecting data on certain aspects of the functioning of justice systems.

The Scoreboard contains figures on all three main elements of an effective justice system: quality, independence and efficiency. These should be read together, as all three elements are necessary for the effectiveness of a justice system and are often interlinked (initiatives aimed at improving one of them may have an influence on the other).

How does the EU Justice Scoreboard feed into the European semester?

The Scoreboard provides a comparative overview of the quality, independence and efficiency of national justice systems and helps Member States to improve the effectiveness of their national justice systems. This makes it easier to identify shortcoming and best practices and to keep track of challenges and progress. In the context of the European semester, country-specific assessments are carried out through bilateral dialogue with the national authorities and stakeholders concerned. This assessment takes into account the particularities of the legal system and the context of the Member States concerned. It may lead to the Commission proposing to the Council to adopt country-specific recommendations on the improvement of national justice systems (19).



(1) 2016 State of the Union Speech delivered before the European Parliament on 14 September 2016:
(3) See also Communication from the Commission — EU law: Better results through better application, 13 December 2016, 2017/C 18/02.
(4) In view of the preparation of the EU Justice Scoreboard and to promote the exchange of best practices on the effectiveness of justice systems, the Commission asked Member States to designate two contact persons, one from the judiciary and one from the ministry of justice. Regular meetings of this informal group are taking place.
(6) In view of the preparation of the EU Justice Scoreboard and to promote the exchange of best practices on the effectiveness of justice systems, the Commission asked Member States to designate two contact persons, one from the judiciary and one from the ministry of justice. Regular meetings of this informal group are taking place.
(7) ENCJ unites the national institutions in the EU Member States which are independent of the executive and legislature, and which are responsible for the support of the Judiciaries in the independent delivery of justice:
(8) NPSJC provides a forum through which European institutions are given an opportunity to request the opinions of Supreme Courts and to bring them closer by encouraging discussion and the exchange of ideas:
(9) ACA-Europe is composed of the Court of Justice of the EU and the Councils of State or the Supreme administrative jurisdictions of each EU Member State:
(10) ECN has been established as a forum for discussion and cooperation of European competition authorities in cases where Articles 101 and 102 of the TFEU are applied. The ECN is the framework for the close cooperation mechanisms of Council Regulation 1/2003. Through the European Competition Network, the Commission and the national competition authorities in all EU Member States cooperate with each other:
(11) COCOM is composed of representatives of EU Member States. Its main role is to provide an opinion on the draft measures that the Commission intends to adopt:
(12) The European Observatory on Infringements of Intellectual Property Rights is a network of experts and specialist stakeholders. It is composed of public- and private-sector representatives, who collaborate in active working groups.
(13) CPC is a network of national authorities responsible for enforcing EU consumer protection laws in EU and EEA countries:
(14) EGMLTF meets regularly to share views and help the Commission define policy and draft new legislation:
(15) Eurostat is the statistical office of the EU:
(16) EJTN is the principal platform and promoter for the training and exchange of knowledge of the European judiciary. It develops training standards and curricula, coordinates judicial training exchanges and programmes, disseminates training expertise and promotes cooperation between EU judicial training institutions. EJTN has some 34 members representing EU states as well as EU transnational bodies.
(17) CCBE is an international non-profit association which represents European bars and law societies. CCBE membership includes the bars and law societies of 45 countries from the EU, the EEA, and wider Europe:
(18) WEF is an International Organisation for Public-Private Cooperation, whose members are companies:
(19) The reasons for country-specific recommendations and the progress on the implementation of such recommendations are presented on an annual basis by the Commission in individual country reports in the form of Staff Working Documents:
(20) The information has been collected in cooperation with the group of contact persons on national justice systems for 25 Member States. PL and UK did not submit information. DE explained that a number of reforms are under way as regards judiciary, where the scope and scale of the reform process can vary within the 16 federal states.
(21) BG, HR, IT, CY, PT, SK; see Council Recommendation of 12 July 2016 on the 2016 National Reform Programme of Bulgaria and delivering a Council opinion on the 2016 Convergence Programme of Bulgaria, (2016/C 299/08); Council Recommendation of 12 July 2016 on the 2016 National Reform Programme of Croatia and delivering a Council opinion on the 2016 Convergence Programme of Croatia (2016/C 299/23); Council Recommendation of 12 July 2016 on the 2016 National Reform Programme of Italy and delivering a Council opinion on the 2016 Stability Programme of Italy, (2016/C 299/01); Council Recommendation of 12 July 2016 on the 2016 National Reform Programme of Cyprus and delivering a Council opinion on the 2016 Stability Programme of Cyprus, (2016/C 299/07); Council Recommendation of 12 July 2016 on the 2016 National Reform Programme of Portugal and delivering a Council opinion on the 2016 Stability Programme of Portugal, (2016/C 299/26); Council Recommendation of 12 July 2016 on the 2016 National Reform Programme of Slovakia and delivering a Council opinion on the 2016 Stability Programme of Slovakia, (2016/C 299/15).
(22) LV and SI.
(23) BE, ES, LV, MT, PL, RO, SI. These challenges have been reflected in the recitals of the Country-Specific Recommendations and the country reports relating to these Member States. The country reports are available at: Furthermore, justice reforms in EL are closely being monitored in the context of the Economic Adjustment Programme for Greece.
(24) Report on progress in Bulgaria under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, COM(2017) 43 final; Report on progress in Romania under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism COM(2017) 44 final.
(25) COM(2014) 158 final/2.
(26) Commission Recommendation (EU) 2016/1374 of 27 July 2016 regarding the rule of law in Poland, OJ L 217, 12.8.2016, p. 53; Commission Recommendation (EU) 2017/146 of 21 December 2016 regarding the rule of law in Poland, OJ L 22, 27.1.2017, p. 65. See also IP/16/2643 and IP/16/4476.
(27) BG, EL, HR, CY, SI.
(28) ‘The judicial system and economic development across EU Member States’, JRC (forthcoming).
(29) See references in the 2016 EU Justice Scoreboard.

Casse-tête jurisprudentiel autour de l’exequatur (A propos des arrêts Meroni et Avotins)


by Maxime Barba, EDIEC

Les arrêts Avotins et Meroni, rendus coup sur coup selon un timing remarquable, l’un par la Grande Chambre de la Cour EDH, l’autre par la CJUE en formation classique, mettent aux prises la discipline européenne de l’exequatur et les exigences du procès équitable. Si le relief individuel de ces décisions est déjà remarquable, leur comparaison n’en est que plus exceptionnelle. Certains enseignements fondamentaux peuvent être retirés d’un bref exercice de confrontation.

1. Dans sa configuration, l’affaire Avotins (CEDH, 23 mai 2016, req. n°17502/07) est relativement connue et l’on renverra sur ce point à d’autres contributions (sur ce blog : -S. BERGE, Avotins ou le calme qui couve la tempête; J.-S. BERGE, Une, deux et… trois lectures : de l’avis 2/2013 (CJUE) à l’affaire Avotins (CEDH); notre contribution ; dans la littérature spécialisée, v. not. F. MARCHADIER, « Présomption d’équivalence dans la protection des droits fondamentaux », RCDIP 2014.679 ; P. DEUMIER, « Le règlement Bruxelles I, l’exequatur et la CEDH », RDC 2014.428).

Quant aux aspects factuels de l’affaire Meroni (CJUE, 25 mai 2016, C-559/14), il faut brièvement en faire état. Synthétiquement, M. Meroni s’opposait, au for polonais, à l’exequatur d’une ordonnance de gel, décidée au for anglais, destinée à un autre que lui et qui produisait malgré tout des effets indésirables à son endroit (pts. 20 et ss). Pour ce faire, il se fondait techniquement sur l’article 34§1 du règlement n°44/2001, dont nul n’ignore qu’il met en place l’exception d’ordre public international qu’il est possible d’opposer à un jugement étranger dont l’exequatur est requis. Plus précisément, il était suggéré d’avoir recours à l’ordre public international pris dans sa composante procédurale et, au regard des fondements, de lire l’article 34§1 du règlement « Bruxelles I » en conjugaison avec l’article 47 de la Charte des droits fondamentaux de l’Union européenne (CDFUE).

2. Juridiquement, la question préjudicielle posée était de savoir si « la reconnaissance et l’exécution d’une ordonnance rendue par une juridiction d’un Etat membre, qui a été prononcée sans qu’un tiers dont les droits sont susceptibles d’être affectés par cette ordonnance ait été entendu, doivent être considérées comme manifestement contraires à l’ordre public de l’Etat membre requis et au droit à un procès équitable» au sens de l’article 34§1 du règlement « Bruxelles I » lu à la lumière de l’article 47 de la CDFUE. La réponse de la Cour de Justice passe par plusieurs temps, dont certains sont classiques en matière d’ordre public international, et d’autres moins.

3. Quelques rappels sont judicieusement articulés quant à cette notion d’ordre public international à la spécificité indéniable. Tout d’abord, celle-ci est d’interprétation stricte (pt. 38). Ensuite, si la détermination de son contenu relève de la liberté des Etats membres, elle ne relève pour autant pas de leur discrétion puisqu’un contrôle de la Cour de Justice est toujours envisageable au regard de la mise en œuvre de l’exception (pts. 39 et 40). Enfin, il n’est pas question de procéder à une révision au fond sous le couvert de l’exception d’ordre public international (pt. 41). En bref, « un recours à l’exception d’ordre public […] n’est concevable que dans l’hypothèse où la reconnaissance ou l’exécution de la décision rendue dans un autre Etat membre heurterait de manière inacceptable l’ordre juridique de l’Etat membre requis, en tant qu’elle porterait atteinte à un principe fondamental» (pt. 42), atteinte qui « devrait constituer une violation manifeste d’une règle de droit considérée comme essentielle dans l’ordre juridique de l’Etat membre requis ou d’un droit connu comme fondamental dans cet ordre juridique» (idem). Ce sont là de solennels rappels mais qui demeurent classiques. L’intérêt se situe ailleurs.

4. Le passage suivant de l’arrêt Meroni est décisif : « le règlement n°44/2001 repose sur l’idée fondamentale selon laquelle les justiciables sont tenus, en principe, d’utiliser toutes les voies de recours ouvertes par le droit de l’Etat membre d’origine. Sauf circonstances particulières rendant trop difficile ou impossible l’exercice des voies de recours dans l’Etat membre d’origine, les justiciables doivent faire usage dans cet Etat membre de toutes les voies de recours disponibles afin d’empêcher en amont une violation de l’ordre public» (pt. 48, cnqs). Le cœur de l’arrêt est là. La Cour de Justice met explicitement en place un principe général de mise en œuvre préalable des voies de recours au pays d’origine avant tous recours à la clause d’ordre public international au pays requis. Ce positionnement, déjà présent dans la célèbre jurisprudence Diageo Brands (CJUE, 16 juill. 2015, C-681/13; sur ce blog : NOURISSAT, De l’ « encadrement » à la « mise sous tutelle » de l’exception d’ordre public international en matière de reconnaissance des décisions civiles ou commerciales… Nouvelle étape sous la plume de la CJUE), appelle une double analyse : l’une externe, en contemplation du très récent arrêt Avotins de la CEDH ; l’autre interne, au regard de la jurisprudence de la CJUE en matière d’ordre public international (v. billet C. NOURISSAT à paraître). On se concentrera ici sur la première de ces analyses. Si la ressemblance entre les arrêts Avotins et Meroni est palpable et incite à évoquer une certaine convergence des solutions (I), un examen plus attentif permet de parler d’une divergence fondamentale, non seulement en termes de raisonnement, mais surtout en termes de posture des juges européens sur la question du recours préalable au for d’origine en matière d’exequatur (II).

I) La convergence des solutions

5. Les affaires Avotins et Meroni présentent une parenté presque intuitive, jusqu’à l’Etat concerné, la Lettonie. La chose n’avait d’ailleurs nullement échappé à l’avocat général Kokott, chargée de conclure dans l’affaire Meroni, qui s’était abondamment référée à l’arrêt de 2014 intervenu dans l’affaire Avotins (Conclusions présentées le 25 février 2016, pts. 39 et 40). Les ressemblances entre ces deux affaires sont sensibles. Dans leur configuration d’abord : dans un cas comme dans l’autre, la personne procéduralement lésée, défendeur dans Avotins, tierce dans Meroni, n’avait pu faire valoir ses droits lors de l’instance directe au for d’origine. Et, dans un cas comme dans l’autre, la personne procéduralement lésée n’avait pas mis en œuvre les recours disponibles au for d’origine. Et, dans les deux hypothèses, la solution finalement adoptée est incontestablement à la défaveur de la partie absente, dont on attendait donc qu’elle mette en œuvre préalablement les recours au for d’origine. Ainsi, il revenait bien au requérant, dans l’affaire Avotins, de s’employer au for chypriote à recourir contre la décision de première instance l’ayant condamné. À défaut de quoi, son inertie procédurale pouvait lui être reprochée au for letton, au regard du droit européen incarné par le règlement « Bruxelles I » pris en son article 34§2, comme – mais dans une mesure moindre à notre sens – au regard du droit de la Convention, lequel interdit au requérant de se plaindre devant la Cour d’une situation qu’il aurait lui-même contribué à créer « par son inaction et son manque de diligence» (CEDH, 23 mai 2016,Avotins, §124 ; v. égal. CEDH, 6 mai 2004, Hussin c/ Belgique, req. n°70807/01 et CEDH, 29 mai 2008, McDonald c/ France, req. n°18648/04). De même, il revenait au tiers lésé dans l’affaire Meroni de procéder d’abord au for anglais d’origine avant d’exciper une éventuelle violation de l’ordre public international de procédure au for polonais requis.

6. Dans les deux cas, le message est clair : ce n’est qu’après épuisement du contentieux au for d’origine, en amont, qu’il est possible de se plaindre d’une éventuelle iniquité procédurale au for requis, en aval. La différence de fondement, articles 34§1 ou 34§2 du règlement n°44/2001, n’apparaît pas décisive : les conclusions semblent convergentes, si ce n’est similaires. Le principe du recours au pays d’origine se présente comme invariable. Cette belle cohérence vole pourtant en éclats à l’analyse car si les deux arrêts se rejoignent en termes de résultat concret, ils diffèrent radicalement dans leur cheminement théorique, voire jusque dans les positionnements sous-jacents respectivement adoptés par les juges européens. Derrière cette convergence des solutions se loge en réalité une véritable divergence de posture.

II) La divergence de posture

7. La divergence de points de vue peut être mise en exergue au travers d’une démarche progressive, en repartant des fondements. Dans l’affaire Avotins, la clause d’ordre public international n’avait pas été mobilisée devant le juge letton (CEDH, 23 mai 2016, §108). C’est d’ailleurs regrettable car la solution aurait pu être substantiellement différente sur le fondement de l’article 34§1 du règlement n°44/2001. Au regard de la technique internationaliste, tout d’abord, il demeure en effet que l’article 34§1 n’exige textuellement pas la mise en œuvre préalable des recours au pays d’origine. Et, à une époque où la jurisprudence Diageo Brands n’avait pas encore émergé, la chose a son importance. Ensuite, au regard du droit de la Convention, la notion d’ordre public international induit des différences notables. Si la présomption Bosphorus a pu être mobilisée par la Cour EDH dans cette affaire, c’est en raison de l’absence de marge de manœuvre du juge letton dans la mise en œuvre du droit de l’Union (la chose se discute d’ailleurs, CEDH, 23 mai 2016, §§105 et ss). Or, la notion d’ordre public international ne se prête pas aux mêmes conclusions, les Etats membres conservant une certaine liberté, même encadrée, en la matière (supra, n°3). Ainsi, le point d’entrée « ordre public international », bien présent dans l’arrêt Meroni, ne se retrouve techniquement pas dans l’arrêt Avotins. Et de cette différence de fondements s’induisent d’importantes différences dans le raisonnement, lesquelles laissent transparaître une véritable divergence de points de vue.

8. Le principe de recours préalable au pays d’origine est le fruit d’une construction dans l’affaire Meroni alors qu’il est le fruit d’une déduction dans l’affaire Avotins. Ce constat est essentiel. La conclusion de l’affaire Meronin’est pas mécaniquement extraite de l’article 34§2 et de son libellé explicite, mais artificiellement construite sur le fondement de l’article 34§1 – d’une façon relativement poussive qui plus est. La différence dans la lettre des deux dispositions devait ainsi être méthodiquement dépassée, le juge de Luxembourg se retrouvant forcé d’élever le principe de recours préalable au for d’origine au rang d’« idée fondamentale» (CJUE, Meroni, préc., pt. 48), expression qui mériterait d’ailleurs l’analyse. Synthétiquement, la Cour de Justice fait du recours préalable au for d’origine son cheval de bataille.

9. Dans l’affaire Avotins, c’est bien l’application de la présomption de protection équivalente, combinée à quelques observations propres à l’espèce, qui mène à la conclusion du recours préalable au pays d’origine. La solution n’émane alors pas d’une confrontation directe de la difficulté au droit de la Convention. Et d’ailleurs, là où tout s’était fait de façon mécanique et automatique en 2014, la Cour EDH exprime en 2016 ses réserves, et de la belle manière. Un extrait doit être évoqué, tout à fait représentatif : « Lorsque les juridictions des Etats qui sont à la fois parties à la Convention et membres de l’Union européenne sont appelées à appliquer un mécanisme de reconnaissance mutuelle établi par le droit de l’Union, c’est en l’absence de toute insuffisance manifeste des droits protégés par la Convention qu’elles donnent à ce mécanisme son plein effet. En revanche, s’il leur est soumis un grief sérieux et étayé dans le cadre duquel il est allégué que l’on se trouve en présence d’une insuffisance manifeste de protection d’un droit garanti par la Convention et que le droit de l’Union européenne ne permet pas de remédier à cette insuffisance, elles ne peuvent renoncer à examiner ce grief au seul motif qu’elles appliquent le droit de l’Union» (CEDH, 23 mai 2016, §116). Que dire de plus ? On le voit : la CEDH ne fait nullement du principe de recours préalable au for d’origine sa religion, à l’inverse du juge de Luxembourg. C’est la présomption Bosphorus et la réunion de circonstances factuelles, supposées accablantes pour le requérant, qui mèneront finalement à la nécessité d’un recours préalable au for d’origine et au constat de non-violation de l’article 6§1er. Mais l’insuffisance manifeste, permettant de renverser la présomption, n’était pas loin (CEDH, 23 mai 2016, §121, faisant état d’une simple « défaillance regrettable »).

10. En conclusion, là où le juge de l’Union s’emploie en matière d’exequatur à construire et à développer un principe transversal de recours préalable au pays d’origine, le juge de la Convention paraît, quant à lui, s’ingénier à tempérer cette ardeur parfois excessive, et surtout susceptible de générer des insuffisances manifestes dans la protection des garanties fondamentales dont elle a la garde. Entre les deux postures, nul doute qu’il faudra inexorablement trancher.

EU Justice Scoreboard 2016: learning from each other to improve the effectiveness of national justice systems


European Commission – Press release    Brussels, 11 April 2016

Today, the European Commission publishes the 2016 EU Justice Scoreboard which gives a comparative overview of the efficiency, quality and independence of justice systems in the EU Member States. The aim of the Scoreboard is to assist national authorities in their efforts to improve their justice systems, by providing this comparative data.

For the first time, the Justice Scoreboard also includes the results of Eurobarometer surveys conducted to examine the perception of judicial independence in the EU among citizens and businesses in more detail. This edition of the Scoreboard also uses new indicators, in particular on judicial training, the use of surveys, the availability of legal aid and the existence of quality standards.

“The fourth EU Justice Scoreboard shows that Member States’ efforts to improve justice systems continue to bear fruit. The key role of national justice systems in upholding the rule of law, enforcing EU law and establishing an investment-friendly environment deserve these efforts” saidVĕra Jourová, EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality. “The Scoreboard serves as a tool to learn from each other to render European justice systems more effective.”

Key findings from the 2016 EU Justice Scoreboard include:

  • Shorter duration of litigious civil and commercial cases: While there is overall stability on pending cases, improvement can be observed in several Member States that faced particular challenges with a high number of pending cases.
  • Better accessibility of justice systems, in particular in matters like electronic submission of small claims or promotion of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) methods. However, there is still room for improvement in online availability of judgements or electronic communication between courts and parties.
  • Further efforts are still needed to improve the training in judicial skills and the use of information and communication technologies (ICT)for case management systems.
  • Most Member States have standards covering similar aspects of their justice systems, but there are significant differences as regards their content. For example, less than half of Member States have standards on measures to reduce existing backlogs and even fewer define the maximum age that pending cases should have.
  • The Scoreboard incorporates the results of different surveys on the perception of judicial independence. For Member States where perceived independence is very low, the most notable reasons given included interference or pressure from government and politicians, and from economic or other specific interests.

Next steps

The findings of the 2016 Scoreboard are being taken into account for the ongoing country-specific assessment carried out in the context of the 2016 European Semester process. The country reports for 26 Member States were published on 26 February 2016 and include findings on the justice systems of a number Member States (BE, BG, HR, ES, HU, IE, IT, LV, MT, PL, PT, RO, SI and SK) (see for latest reports on the 2016 European Semester, IP/16/332 and MEMO/16/334).

The Commission will continue to encourage the judicial networks to deepen their assessment of the effectiveness of legal safeguards aimed at protecting judicial independence.


This is the fourth edition of the Justice Scoreboard. The 2016 EU Justice Scoreboard brings together data from various sources, in particular data provided by the Council of Europe Commission for the Evaluation of the Efficiency of Justice (CEPEJ), which collects data from Member States. It also uses information obtained from other sources, for example Eurostat, the group of contact persons on national justice systems, the European judicial networks such as the European Network of Councils of the Judiciary (ENCJ), the Network of the Presidents of the Supreme Judicial Courts of the EU or the European Judicial Training Network.

The Scoreboard focuses on three main aspects:

  • Efficiency of justice systems: indicators on the efficiency of proceedings: length of proceedings, clearance rate and number of pending cases.
  • Quality indicators: training, monitoring and evaluation of court activities, the use of satisfaction surveys, budget, and human resources.
  • Independence: the Scoreboard incorporates data from different surveys on the perceived judicial independence by companies and the general public.

The EU Justice Scoreboard contributes to the European Semester process by helping to identify justice related issues that deserve particular attention for an investment, business and citizen-friendly environment. It focuses on civil and commercial cases as well as administrative cases.

Together with the specific assessment of the situation in Member States, the 2015 EU Justice Scoreboard contributed to the proposal of the Commission the Council to address Country Specific Recommendations to four Member States (Croatia, Italy, Latvia and Slovenia) to render their justice system more effective. The Commission also closely monitors the efforts in this area in other Member States such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Spain, Ireland, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Slovakia (see factsheet).

The findings of the Scoreboard are also taken into account when deciding the funding priorities under the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) as regards justice reforms.

While the Scoreboard does not present an overall single ranking, it gives an overview of the functioning of all justice systems based on various indicators, which are of common interest for all Member States. It does not promote any particular type of justice system and treats all Member States on an equal footing. Whatever the model of the national justice system or the legal tradition in which it is anchored, timeliness, independence, affordability, and user-friendly access are some of the essential parameters of what constitutes an effective justice system.

For more information Press pack: MEMO/16/1285

Press pack on DG Justice website Full document available:

Summary of the Justice scoreboard: Factsheet

Annotated graphs with full figures

Questions and answers on the 2016 EU Justice Scoreboard

European Semester: 

Eurobarometer: Flash 435 and Flash 436


Press contacts: Christian WIGAND (+32 2 296 22 53) Melanie VOIN (+ 32 2 295 86 59)


Europe to the Rescue? EU Law, the ECHR and Legal Aid

NOTA BENE : Chapter from Palmer, Cornford, Marique and Guinchard, Access to Justice: Beyond the Policies and Politics of Austerity (Hart, 2016)

by  Steve Peers


Some potentially radical changes in public policy are prevented, or at least constrained somewhat, by the twin protections provided by European Union (EU) law and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Is this true of cut backs of legal aid in civil and administrative cases?

Legal aid in EU countries takes two forms: support for the costs of a lawyer, and exemption from court fees.1 Some states provide for only one of these types of support, and some provide both. There are also alternative means of assisting litigants, namely: legal expenses insurance, legal advice centres, pro bono work and self-help services.2 Across the EU, there is a wide discrepancy in the amount of legal aid expenditure per person, with most Member States spending less than €5 per person and expenditure being cut in many countries.3


Although Article 6(3)(c) ECHR guarantees legal aid as regards criminal matters, there is no express provision on legal aid in civil or administrative proceedings. However, starting with the 1979 judgment in Airey v Ireland,4 the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) stated that the general right to a fair trial in Article 6(1) ECHR could include an implied right to legal aid in civil cases too, if this is necessary to ensure effective access to justice. The facts of the case concerned judicial separation proceedings, and the Court considered that the alternative of presenting her case in person would not fully guarantee the applicant’s right to a fair trial, due to the complex procedural and substantive law, the need for expert advice as regards evidence and other witnesses, and the emotional impact of the case.

The Court rejected the argument that a right to legal aid in civil proceedings brought the ECHR unduly into the field of social rights, and that Article 6(3)(c) ECHR implied a contrario that there was no right to legal aid in civil matters.

The key point was that ‘despite the absence of a similar clause for civil litigation’, Article 6(1) may sometimes compel the State to provide for the assistance of a lawyer when such assistance proves indispensable for an effective access to court either because legal representation is rendered compulsory, as is done by the domestic law of certain Contracting States for various types of litigation, or by reason of the complexity of the procedure or of the case.

Subsequent case law made clear that there is no general right to legal aid in all civil proceedings. Rather, any limitation on the right of access to the courts (the implied right which legal aid facilitates) cannot undermine the very core of the right.

Limitations of the right must pursue a legitimate aim, and must also be proportionate in light of the legitimate aim which they seek to satisfy. For instance, in Tolstoy-Miloslavsky the applicant, a defendant in a libel case, challenged an order for security for costs of over £100,000 that he would have to pay within 14 days in order to bring an appeal.5

The ECtHR ruled that there was a ‘legitimate aim’ for the costs order (protecting the other party from shouldering his own costs if the applicant could not pay them in the event of an unsuccessful appeal). The merits test imposed upon the proceedings could also be ‘said to have been imposed in the interests of a fair administration of justice’. The security for costs requirement did not impair ‘the very essence’ of the right of access to court, because there had already been an extensive first-instance hearing; the sum was a reasonable estimate of the costs involved; the applicant could not have raised the money in a longer period of time; the national court took the merits into account when considering a possible waiver of an order for security of costs; the applicant was more interested in determining liability than costs (he had refused a proposed settlement); and there was a full judicial assessment of the costs issue. Therefore there was no ‘arbitrariness’ in issuing the order for security of costs.

In the case of Kreuz v Poland,6 the ECtHR reiterated that a requirement to provide security for costs was in principle a legitimate restriction on access to court. But in that case, the required security amounted to a year’s average salary. Although the applicant was a businessman, the dispute was ‘related only loosely, if at all, to a business activity as such’. Rather it was a claim for damages against a public authority. Also, the national courts only considered his hypothetical earning capacity, not the amount which he actually earned, did not supply any evidence to contradict his account of his earnings, and made assumptions which were not supported by any evidence. Moreover, national law allows for the exemption from court fees to be revoked if the applicant’s financial situation improves. On the whole, then, there was an insufficient balance between the state interest in collecting court fees and the applicant’s right to vindicate his claim in the courts, since the required fee was excessive and deterred him from going to court at all.

Another key judgment is Steel and Morris v United Kingdom.7 In a case involving libel defendants, the ECtHR began by reiterating the basic case law on when legal aid was necessary in civil cases pursuant to Article 6 ECHR. This must be determined on the basis of the particular facts and circumstances of each case and will depend, inter alia, upon the importance of what is at stake for the applicant in the proceedings, the complexity of the relevant law and procedure and the applicant’s capacity to represent him or herself effectively. Restrictions are possible if they ‘pursue a legitimate aim and are proportionate’. So conditions can be imposed on ‘the grant of legal aid based, inter alia, on the financial situation of the litigant or his or her prospects of success in the proceedings’.

The state is not obliged to grant legal aid ‘to ensure total equality of arms between the assisted person and the opposing party, as long as each side is afforded a reasonable opportunity to present his or her case under conditions that do not place him or her at a substantial disadvantage vis-à-vis the adversary’.

Applying these criteria, first of all, this case was different from previous judgments like Airey because ‘the proceedings … were not determinative of important family rights and relationships’, and usually there is a distinction between a defamation action aiming to protect an individual’s reputation from an application for judicial separation, ‘which regulates the legal relationship between two individuals and may have serious consequences for any children of the family’. But here the applicants did not bring the proceedings, but ‘acted as defendants to protect their right to freedom of expression, a right accorded considerable importance under the Convention’, and the damages awarded against them were huge in comparison with their modest incomes.

The case was also distinct from prior judgments ruling that the English law of defamation and civil procedure is not complex enough to require legal aid,8 since those rulings concerned a single allegation while Steel and Morris concerned the longest trial in English history, with thousands of pages of evidence, over 100 witnesses, judgments running to over 1000 pages and numerous legal and procedural issues.

Compared with prior cases, in which the defamation actions were brought by professionals, the applicants would have met the means test for legal aid and benefited from some pro bono legal assistance and latitude extended by the courts. But the ECtHR ruled that this was not a ‘substitute for competent and sustained representation by an experienced lawyer familiar with the case and with the law of libel’, and the ‘disparity’ between their legal assistance and the plaintiff’s (McDonald’s Restaurants) ‘was of such a degree that it could not have failed, in this exceptionally demanding case, to have given rise to unfairness’. Therefore there was a breach of Article 6.

As for the form of legal aid granted, states have discretion to provide different forms of legal aid for different types of litigation. For instance, it was acceptable for the UK to exclude defamation cases from legal aid support, since it had granted potential litigants of defamation cases the right to two hours of free pre-litigation legal advice, if they had insufficient means.9

As regards one type of plaintiff (profit-making companies), the ECtHR ruled that their exclusion from a national legal aid scheme was acceptable since the discrimination between them and non-profit-making organisations and natural persons had an objective and reasonable justification (the possibility to deduct the legal costs from the company’s tax bill).10

EU Law Continue reading “Europe to the Rescue? EU Law, the ECHR and Legal Aid”

The Italian Job: the CJEU strengthens criminal law protection of the EU’s finances (Comment to ‘Taricco’ Case)


by  Steve Peers

The stereotype of fraud against the EU budget is a sleazy EU official in Brussels receiving manila envelopes stuffed full of bribe money, spending his ill-gotten gains to ensure that his lavish lifestyle becomes ever more decadent. But according to the EU’s annual reports on such fraud, the typical offender is actually rather different: it’s an individual or company who finds ways to get hands on EU money being spent by the Member States, since they are largely in charge of the day-to-day management of EU spending. Furthermore, not all the breaches concern EU spending: some concern the reduction of EU income, for instance by avoiding the customs duties which apply to many goods coming from third countries.

Agreeing and enforcing EU-wide rules for such behaviour has long been a challenge. But in its recent judgment in Taricco, the Court of Justice has made a major effort to strengthen the law in this field.


The CJEU ruled back in the 1980s (in the Greek maize judgment) that Member States could not simply ignore fraud against the EU budget, but had to take effective measures to stop it. This rule was later added to the Treaties, and now forms Article 325 TFEU, which reads in part as follows:

  1. The Union and the Member States shall counter fraud and any other illegal activities affecting the financial interests of the Union through measures to be taken in accordance with this Article, which shall act as a deterrent and be such as to afford effective protection in the Member States, and in all the Union’s institutions, bodies, offices and agencies.
  2. Member States shall take the same measures to counter fraud affecting the financial interests of the Union as they take to counter fraud affecting their own financial interests.

As regards criminal law, the current legal rules on the topic date back to 1995, and were adopted in the form of an international Convention (the ‘PFI Convention’) between the Member States, which came into force in 2002. This treaty applies to all Member States except for Croatia (although the Commission has just proposed its application to that State), and the UK – which was initially a party but no longer has legal obligations to apply the Convention since it opted out of many pre-Lisbon criminal law measures as from 1 December 2014 (on that process, see further here). Among other things, the PFI Convention obliges all Member States to impose criminal sanctions for serious cases of fraud against the EU budget.

The Commission proposed a Directive to replace the Convention in 2012, and this is currently in the late stages of negotiation between the Council and the European Parliament (for an update, see here; on the legal basis, see here). It’s evident that one of the main issues remaining in the negotiations is whether the proposed Directive should apply to VAT fraud, given that a small amount of VAT revenue goes to the EU budget. The Commission and the European Parliament argue that it should, while the Council argues against, presumably because the far larger part of the losses from VAT fraud affects national budgets, not the EU budget. There are other issues in the proposed legislation, such as a more precise possible penalty for fraud, and a rule on ‘prescription’ periods (ie the time limit after which a prosecution can no longer be brought or continued).

The proposed Directive is closely connected to another piece of proposed EU legislation: the Regulation establishing the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO). That’s because the EPPO will have jurisdiction only over EU fraud, and so it’s necessary to have a definition of that concept. (On the defence rights aspects of the EPPO proposal, see discussion here); for an update on negotiations, see here). And the EPPO Regulation is in turn linked to a third legislative proposal: the Regulation refounding Eurojust, the EU’s agency for coordinating national prosecutions. That’s because there will be close links between Eurojust and the EPPO, and so the Eurojust Regulation can’t be finalized before the EPPO Regulation is agreed. (The Council has agreed all of the Eurojust Regulation except for the bits relating to EPPO links: see the agreed text here. This will still have to be negotiated with the European Parliament, however).


The recent CJEU judgment in Taricco concerns alleged VAT fraud against a national budget, and in particular the question of prescription periods. Italian rules on the breaks in prescription periods mean few cases involving VAT fraud are ever seen through to completion, since time simply runs out during the proceedings.  A frustrated Italian court therefore asked the CJEU whether these national rules infringed the economic law of the EU: namely the rules on competition, state aids, economic and monetary union and the main VAT Directive.

According to the CJEU, the national law does not infringe EU competition law, because inadequate enforcement of criminal law does not as such promote cartels. It does not infringe state aid law, because the Italian government was not waiving tax obligations as such. Furthermore, it does not infringe monetary union rules, since it was not closely enough linked to the obligation to maintain sound public finances.

That left the VAT Directive. In fact, that Directive sets out the scope of VAT (ie which goods and services have to be taxed), but does not include any rules on criminal law issues. The Court therefore assumed that the national court was asking it questions about EU law more generally, and proceeded to interpret Article 325 TFEU and the PFI Convention. According to the Court, building on the previous case law such as Fransson, there was not only an obligation pursuant to the VAT Directive and Article 325 TFEU to take effective measures in general against VAT fraud to defend the EU budget, there was also a specific obligation to criminalise such activity, where it was ‘essential to combat certain serious cases of VAT evasion in an effective and dissuasive manner’. This was consistent with obligations under the PFI Convention; the Court confirmed that the Convention applied to VAT fraud, despite the absence of express provisions to this effect under the Convention. Given the size of the alleged fraud in this case (several million euros), it had to be considered serious.

Furthermore, the Court ruled that the operation of the limitation periods in Italian law infringed Article 325 TFEU. A limitation period was not objectionable as such, but national law made it effectively possible to prosecute offences because the way in which it calculated breaks in the prosecution. Also, the national law infringed the principle of equality set out in Article 325, since other national laws on similar types of economic crime did not contain the same problematic rules on calculation of breaks.

The Court then ruled on the consequences of this breach of EU law. In the Court’s view, the national court has to disapply the relevant national law. This obligation was based on Article 325 TFEU, which sets out precise and unconditional rules on effective and equal protection of the EU’s financial interests. So the ‘precedence’ (ie, primacy or supremacy) of EU law required national law to be disapplied.

Finally, the CJEU dismissed a human rights objection to its ruling. While Article 49 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights does ban the retroactive application of more stringent criminal penalties than those in force when a crime was committed, the CJEU ruled (following the case law of the European Court of Human Rights on the equivalent Article 7 ECHR) that a limitation period was distinct from a substantive criminal offence. The acts which the defendants were accused of committing were undoubtedly criminal offences in national law at the time of their alleged commission, so there was no retroactivity of criminal law in the sense prohibited by the Charter.


“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” This classic quote from The Italian Job aptly summarises the CJEU’s approach to the relationship between national law and EU law in this judgment. Asked only to rule on the interpretation of EU economic law, the Court decided instead to strengthen the constitutional foundations of EU law in the criminal field.

Substantively, the Court’s judgment is significant because it extends EU criminal law obligations to VAT fraud. This is, in the Court’s view, a pre-existing obligation not only in the PFI Convention, but also in the TFEU itself. To overturn it, Member States would therefore have to amend the Treaty, not just the Convention (in the form of the proposed Directive). Also, Member States’ obligations extend not only to criminalisation of serious cases of VAT fraud, but to prescription (and so potentially other procedural issues) as well.  So if Member States (in the Council) do insist on excluding VAT from the scope of the EU fraud Directive, that would have limited impact. Indeed, the Council Presidency has already asked Member States if there is any point maintaining their opposition on this point after the Taricco judgment.

Presumably the Court’s rulings on prescription and criminalisation apply to other forms of EU fraud too. This means that including prescription rules in the Directive (as all of the EU institutions are willing to do) simply confirms the status quo – although the final Directive will likely be more precise on this issue than the CJEU’s ruling. Furthermore, since the Taricco judgment could help to unblock talks on the PFI Directive, this could have a knock-on effect on the negotiations on the EPPO and Eurojust.

Moreover, the Court’s ruling limits the effect of various opt-outs. Ireland and Denmark have opted out of the proposed Directive, but will remain bound by the PFI Convention; the UK has opted out of both. But they remain bound by the Court’s interpretation of the Convention (for Ireland and Denmark) and the Treaty (for all three Member States). This has limited practical impact, as long as national law remains compliant (assuming that it is already compliant) with these measures as interpreted by the Court. While the UK is no longer free to decriminalise fraud against the EU budget, it was never likely to use that ‘freedom’ anyway, particularly as regards VAT fraud, where the main loss would be to the British government’s revenue, not the EU’s.

More fundamentally, the Taricco judgment strengthens the constitutional foundations of criminal law obligations in the EU legal order. While this may only be relevant for EU fraud cases, the Court has already broadened that concept to include VAT fraud. In such cases, there is an obligation for national courts to disapply incompatible national law as regards the procedural aspects of criminal proceedings. Conversely, there is no obligation to disapply incompatible substantive national criminal law, since this would lead to a breach of Article 49 of the Charter.

The ruling is based on the legal effect of the Treaties – the Court does not rule on the legal effect of the ‘third pillar’ Convention. It sets out a test for primacy similar to the test for direct effect (the Court refers to the precise and unconditional nature of the rules in Article 325 TFEU). It is not clear how this rule fits into the EU’s overall constitutional architecture – as a clarification of the general rules or as a special rule relating to protection of the EU’s financial interests. But in any event, the Taricco judgment is a significant contribution toward strengthening the EU’s role in this particular field.


EU Anti-Money Laundering legal framework: the race has started again…

by Dalila DELORENZI (FREE Group Trainee)

After two years, the revision of the new EU Anti-Money Laundering (AML) framework has finally come to an end. The 20th May the European Parliament at its second reading has adopted the Fourth Directive AML  (Directive (EU) 2015/849) along with the new Regulation on information on the payer accompanying transfers of funds (Regulation (EU) 2015/847).

The revision was triggered by the necessity to adapt the legal framework to counter new threats of money laundering and terrorist financing and to reflect recent changes due to revised Financial Actiont Task Force (FATF)  Recommendations. In the following lines the new legal framework is presented by including some crucial measures which could represent a real step-up in the fight against money laundering, financing terrorism and tax evasion.

  1. Introduction of an European register of beneficial ownership

The creation of an European register of beneficial ownership has been one of the sticking point and the reason why the text has attracted much more political attention than the latest directives and the negotiations have taken much longer than it was expected.

1.1 Definition of beneficial ownership and the problems caused by “phantom firms”

A beneficial owner  is a natural person – a real, live human being and not another company or trust – who stands behind a company (or trust) as the ultimate owner and controller, directly or indirectly exercising substantial control over the company or receiving substantial economic benefits (such as receipt of income) from the company. If the true owner’s name is disguised, we deal with “anonymous companies”. In a majority of countries, keeping unknown the true owner’s name is perfectly legal and there is typically no requirement to disclose that the names listed are merely front-people.

Such anonymous companies can be created by using “nominees”, people who front the company in place of the true owner, or by incorporating one or more of the companies in a country which does not make details of the beneficial owners publicly available. Also called “phantom firms”, they exist only on paper, with no real employees or office.

Now, it’s certainly true that such entities can also have legitimate uses, but the untraceable company can also be a vehicle of choice for crimes such as money laundering, tax evaders and financier of terrorism.

1.2 The role of anonymous companies in money laundering

Although there are countless ways to launder money, money laundering can be broken down into three stages:

  • Placement: the initial entry of illicit money into the financial system. This might be done by breaking up large amounts of cash into less conspicuous smaller sums that are then deposited directly into a bank account.
  • Layering: the second step consists in the process of separating the funds from their source. This purpose is often followed by using anonymous shell companies: for instance, wiring money to account owned by anonymous shell company.
  • Integration: money re-enter the legitimate economy. For instance, by investing the funds into real estate and luxury assets.
  • That being said, it is clear that these secretive “shell” companies and trusts play a central role in laundering and channelling funds, concealing behind a veil of secrecy the identity of corrupt individuals and irresponsible businesses involved in activities, including tax evasion, terrorist financing, and the trafficking of drugs and people. More precisely, it is impossible for law enforcement officials go back to the real individuals ultimately responsible for the company’s actions and to track the origin of illicit funds.
  • 1.3 The importance of central registers

Continue reading “EU Anti-Money Laundering legal framework: the race has started again…”

VERFASSUNGSBLOG : Europe’s Justice Deficit


The EU affects the lives of many people in ways they perceive as profoundly unjust. Lives are dramatically affected by the policies of austerity, widely understood to be EU-imposed. With the Court of Justice appearing to stand for its own authority and EU autonomy at any cost; with migrants attempting to reach fortress Europe and drowning en masse as the EU cuts back its rescue services; and with economic inequalities in the Member States reaching new heights, could it be that there is a justice deficit in Europe, exacerbated by the European Union? There is an urgent need to address the question of justice as an EU objective openly and without reservation, and not to permit nationalists and Eurosceptics to monopolize this debate. On the occasion of the newly launched book “Europe’s Justice Deficit?”, co-edited by EU constitutional law scholars Dimitry Kochenov, Gráinne de Búrca and Andrew Williams, we put this question up for debate.


Summer School on The European Area of Criminal Justice (Brussels, 29 June – 3 July 2015)

NB: This Summer School is particularly designed for practitioners in the field of police cooperation and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, EU or national civil servants, as well as researchers and students interested in EU “Freedom, Security and Justice” policies.

Programme (See updated version here)

The 12th edition of the Summer School “The EU Area of Criminal Justice” will take place in Brussels from 29 June – 3  July  2015.

The objective of the Summer School is to provide participants with an extensive knowledge of EU criminal law. The classes are both theoretical and practical. They are conducted by academics, national experts or European officials who deal every day with the European criminal area.

The Summer School is specially designed for practitioners in the field of police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, EU or national civil servants as well as researchers and students interested in the EU area of freedom, security and justice.

Concerning the programme: the Summer School takes place over a week, lectures are in English, participants receive a certificate of attendance, the final examination entitles participants to receive 3 ECTS and lawyers to gain 37 points from the OBFG (Ordre des Barreaux Francophones et Germanophone de Belgique).

The Summer School covers essentially 5 topics :

  • subject I (day 1): general introduction (historical evolution, institutional issues – Schengen included, judicial control – EU accession to ECHR included);
  • subject II (day 2): cooperation between national authorities in criminal cases, covering both police cooperation and judicial co-operation. The latter will address the evolution from classic judicial cooperation (Mutual Legal Assistance instruments) to mutual recognition instruments, with special attention to the  European Arrest Warrant;
  • subject III (day 3): approximation of criminal law, in theory and practice. Thus, following a class on the approximation of substantive criminal law, the example of financial crimes will be addressed. Similarly, the theoretical course on approximation of procedural law will be complemented with the study of the Directive on the right of access to a lawyer;
  • subject IV (day 4): current and future actors of the European criminal area, particularly Eurojust, Europol and the EPPO.
  • subject V (day 5): data protection and external dimension of the EU area of criminal justice. The Summer School will end with a negotiation exercise.

Special events during the Summer School:

  • Mid-week conference : “Foreign fighters – a criminal law revolution?” 

The conference will be chaired by Hans G. Nilsson (General Secretariat of the EU Council) and will count on speeches from illustrious practitioner and professors. For details, please download the programme on the right.

The Summer School is organised by the Institute for European Studies of the Free University of Brussels (IEE-ULB) in collaboration with the European Criminal Law Academic Network (ECLAN).