Case C-364/13 – Patentability of embryonic stem cells and parthenotes: Inherently Uncertain?

plomerAurora Plomer

On 18th December 2014, the Grand Chamber of the CJEU revisited the scope of the moral exclusion on industrial and commercial uses of “human embryos” in Article 6(2) (c) in Directive 98/44/EC on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions (Biotech Directive) and held that the exclusion does not cover unfertilized human eggs produced by parthenogenesis (parthenotes).

The referral followed the refusal of the UKIPO to grant two national patents to International Stem Cell Corporation (‘ISCO’) [2013] EWHC 807 (Ch) on the ground that the patents fell within the definition of the term ‘human embryo’ adopted by the Grand Chamber in Brüstle (EU:C:2011:669) .     The first patent, GB0621068.6, entitled “Parthenogenetic activation of oocytes for the production of human embryonic stem cells” covered both the methods for producing pluripotent human stem cell lines from parthenogenetically-activated oocytes and the stem cell lines themselves.   The second application GB0621069.4 , entitled “Synthetic cornea from retinal stem cells” similarly included claims to methods and ‘product-by-process’. The UKIPO applied the Grand Chamber’s reasoning in Brustle that parthenotes were ‘capable of commencing the process of development of a human being just as an embryo created by fertilisation of an ovum can do so’ and therefore fell within the meaning of paragraph 36 of the judgment in Brüstle (C‑34/10, EU:C:2011:669). ISCO appealed on the grounds that, according to current scientific knowledge, mammalian parthenotes can never develop to term because, in contrast to a fertilised ovum they do not contain any paternal DNA, which is required for the development of extra-embryonic tissue (para 17). In this light, the High Court of Justice (England & Wales), Chancery Division (Patents Court), decided that the appeal “raised a question of considerable importance. What is meant by the term “human embryos” in Article 6(2)(c) of the Biotech Directive? In particular, what was meant by the CJEU in Brüstle by the expression “capable of commencing the process of development of a human being”? Does that contemplate the commencement of a process which must be capable of leading to a human being? Or does it contemplate the commencement of a process of development, even though the process cannot be completed, so that it is incapable of leading to a human being?” (At para. 3).

Continue reading

Opinion 2/13 on EU Accession to the ECHR: The CJEU as Humpty Dumpty

Aidan O’Neill QC

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

Lewis Carroll: Chapter 6 of Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there (1871)


 

The Human Rights Gap in the EU

The European Court of Human Rights noted in Cooperatieve Producentenorganisatie van de Nederlandse Kokkelvisserij UA v Netherlands (2009) 48 EHRR SE18 (non-admissibility decision of the ECtHR, 20 January 2009):

“The European Community has separate legal personality as an international intergovernmental organisation (see Article 281 of the EC Treaty, quoted above). At present, the European Community is not a party to the Convention … The application is therefore incompatible with the provisions of the Convention ratione personae within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 of the Convention in so far as the applicant association’s complaints must be understood as directed against the European Community itself (see Confédération française démocratique du travail v The European Communities, alternatively: their Member States a) jointly and b) severally, no 8030/77, Commission decision of 10 July 1978, Decisions and Reports (DR) 13, p 235) and must be rejected pursuant to Article 35 § 4.

Although the European Court of Human Rights is thus prevented from deciding issues of EU law (Jeunesse v. France [2014] ECHR 12738/10 (Grand Chamber, 3 October 2014) at para 110) or from examining the procedure of the CJEU directly in the light of the requirements of the ECHR (notably Article 6(1) ECHR), the possibility for an indirect Strasbourg review of the Convention compatibility of the CJEU’s procedures arises from the degree to which the Strasbourg Court considers that the events complained of in any application engage the responsibility of all or any of the individual Member States which are also all contracting parties to the Council of Europe. This is, perhaps, a less than satisfactory solution, certainly for the Member States who might find themselves saddled with responsibility by the European Court of Human Rights for procedures and proceedings before the CJEU over which, as individual States, they have no direct control and little influence (see Boivin v France and 33 other Member States of the Council of Europe [2008] ECtHR 73250/01 (Fifth Section, 9 September 2008) and Connolly v 15 Member States of the European Union [2008] ECtHR 73274/01 (9 December 2008)) should the Strasbourg Court come to the view that the procedures of the CJEU did not provide ‘equivalent protection’ to that directly guaranteed under the Convention.

The Agreement on the Accession of the EU to the ECHR

After largely secret negotiations (see Case T-331/11 Besselink v. Council of the European Union 12 September [2013] ECR II-nyr [2014] 1 CMLR 28) negotiations between the two European (EU and Council of Europe) institutions on the accession of the EU to the ECHR successfully ended on 5 April 2013 and a concluded agreement was reached on how the EU – and EU law – could be integrated within the Strasbourg system for the protection of European human rights (See the Fifth Negotiation Meeting between the CDDH Ad Hoc Negotiation Group and the European Commission on the Accession of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights, Final Report to the CDDH, April 5, 2013, 47+1(2013)008, available here.

This agreement made provision to allow for the involvement of the EU institutions in all cases where an application to the Strasbourg court alleged that a provision of EU law is incompatible with the ECHR. In effect, the agreement setting up of some kind of “preliminary reference downward” from the Strasbourg Court to the CJEU, in applications from individuals complaining of an incompatibility between EU law and the ECHR, so as to allow the CJEU to exercise an “internal review” on the issue before the European Court of Human Rights exercises its “external review” under the Convention. Article 3(6) of Draft revised agreement on the accession of the European Union to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (June 2013) provided as follows:

“6. In proceedings to which the European Union is a co-respondent, if the Court of Justice of the European Union has not yet assessed the compatibility with the rights at issue defined in the Convention or in the protocols to which the European Union has acceded of the provision of European Union law as under paragraph 2 of this article, sufficient time shall be afforded for the Court of Justice of the European Union to make such an assessment, and thereafter for the parties to make observations to the Court. The European Union shall ensure that such assessment is made quickly so that the proceedings before the Court are not unduly delayed. The provisions of this paragraph shall not affect the powers of the Court.”

 In such proceedings contracting States to the ECHR were to have the same opportunity as member State of the EU to submit written observations to the Court of Justice on the proper disposal of the matter by the Luxembourg Court. The Draft declaration by the European Union to be made at the time of signature of the Accession Agreement.

“Upon its accession to the Convention, the European Union will ensure that:

a) it will request to become a co-respondent to the proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights or accept an invitation by the Court to that effect, where the conditions set out in Article 3, paragraph 2, of the Accession Agreement are met;

b) the High Contracting Parties to the Convention other than the member States of the European Union, which in a procedure under Article 267 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union are entitled to submit statements of case or written observations to the Court of Justice of the European Union, be entitled, under the same conditions, to do so also in a procedure in which the Court of Justice of the European Union assesses the compatibility with the Convention of a provision of European Union law, in accordance with Article 3, paragraph 6, of the Accession Agreement.”

The subordination of the Court of Justice to the European Court of Human Rights?

It is clear that the intention of the parties to this agreement was to give the European Court of Human Rights jurisdiction in cases to which the EU is party so as to close the perceived human rights gap.   This means, of course, that the decision of the Strasbourg Court would become binding as a matter of international law on EU institutions, including the CJEU.

Going by its past case law, it was always clear that the Court of Justice would have a problem with any agreement which results in it being subordinated to any other court.   In its Opinion 1/91 Re a Draft Treaty on a European Economic Area [1991] ECR I-6079, the Court of Justice vetoed the establishment of an EEA court hierarchy to provide a system of judicial supervision over the whole EEA beyond the EU. The proposed new court structure consisted of an independent EEA Court, functionally integrated with the ECJ, and an EEA Court of First Instance. The new EEA courts were to consist of a number of judges from the ECJ and the CFI sitting together, with judges appointed from the various EFTA Member States. The Court of Justice found that such a system of judicial supervision proposed under the draft EEA Treaty was not lawful on the grounds, inter alia, that the proposed system of EEA courts might undermine the autonomy of the EU legal order in pursuing its own particular objectives, going so far as to claim (at paras 70–71):

“Article 238 of the EEC Treaty [now, after amendment, Art 218 TFEU] does not provide any basis for setting up a system of courts which conflicts with Article 164 of the EEC Treaty [now, after amendment, Art 19(1) TEU] and, more generally, with the very foundations of Community law. For the same reasons, an amendment of Article 238 in the way indicated by the Commission could not cure the incompatibility with Community law of the system of courts to be set up by the agreement.” (emphasis added).

 And in its Opinion 1/09 Re draft agreement on the European and Community Patents Court [2011] ECR I-1137 the Court of Justice states (at para 89):

“[T]he envisaged agreement, by conferring on an international court which is outside the institutional and judicial framework of the European Union an exclusive jurisdiction to hear a significant number of actions brought by individuals in the field of the Community patent and to interpret and apply European Union law in that field, would deprive courts of Member States of their powers in relation to the interpretation and application of European Union law and the Court of its powers to reply, by preliminary ruling, to questions referred by those courts and, consequently, would alter the essential character of the powers which the Treaties confer on the institutions of the European Union and on the Member States and which are indispensable to the preservation of the very nature of European Union law.   Consequently, the CJEU (Full Court) gives the following Opinion: the envisaged agreement creating a unified patent litigation system (currently called “European and Community Patents Court”) is not compatible with the provisions of the EU Treaty and the FEU Treaty.”

The decision in Opinion 2/13

A hearing before the CJEU seeking its Opinion on the compatibility of this draft agreement with the requirements of EU law was heard in Luxembourg in the first half of 2014.   In its Opinion 2/13 which was issued on 18 December 2014 the EU Court of Justice sitting as a Full Court has rejected the legal submissions of the Commission, the Council, the European Parliament and the 24 Member States who submitted observations to it (only Croatia, Luxembourg Malta Slovenia failed to take part in this procedure) and has ruled that

“the agreement on the accession of the European Union to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms is not compatible with Article 6(2) TEU or with Protocol (No 8) of the Treaty on European Union on the accession of the Union to the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.”

The relevant Treaty provisions

The relevant Treaty provisions to this Opinion 2/13 are as follows:

Article 6(2) TEU

2. The Union shall accede to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Such accession shall not affect the Union’s competences as defined in the Treaties.

This provision was inserted into the Treaties by the Member States after the Court of Justice declared in its Opinion 2/94 Re Accession by the EU to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms [1996] ECR I-1759 that it was not competent for the EU to accede to the ECHR without specific Treaty provision to this effect.

Against that background, Article 6(2) TEU might have been understood as a provision intended by the Member States, as Masters of the Treaties, to alter the constitutional law of the EU and to stipulate as a matter of law, contrary to the Court of Justice’s expressed concerns, that the accession of the EU to the ECHR (which all the Member States wished for) would not affect EU competences as defined in the Treaties.   Instead the Court of Justice appear to have interpreted Article 6(20 TEU more along the following lines:

“If, in the opinion of the Court of Justice, the accession of the Union to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms shall affect the Union’s competences as defined in the Treaties, then the EU cannot accede to the ECHR.”

Article 51 TEU states that “The Protocols and Annexes to the Treaties shall form an integral part thereof.”   Protocol (No. 8) TEU on the EU’’s accession to the ECHR provides as follows

Article 1

The agreement relating to the accession of the Union to the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (hereinafter referred to as the ‘European Convention’) provided for in Article 6(2) of the Treaty on European Union shall make provision for preserving the specific characteristics of the Union and Union law, in particular with regard to:

(a) the specific arrangements for the Union’s possible participation in the control bodies of the European Convention;

(b) the mechanisms necessary to ensure that proceedings by non-Member States and individual applications are correctly addressed to Member States and/or the Union as appropriate.

 Article 2

The agreement referred to in Article 1 shall ensure that accession of the Union shall not affect the competences of the Union or the powers of its institutions. It shall ensure that nothing therein affects the situation of Member States in relation to the European Convention, in particular in relation to the Protocols thereto, measures taken by Member States derogating from the European Convention in accordance with Article 15 thereof and reservations to the European Convention made by Member States in accordance with Article 57 thereof.

Article 3

Nothing in the agreement referred to in Article 1 shall affect Article 344 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

 Article 344 TFEU states:

“Member States undertake not to submit a dispute concerning the interpretation or application of the Treaties to any method of settlement other than those provided for therein.”

Again the Court of Justice in its Opinion 2/13 appears to have interpreted these provisions of Protocol No. 8 to mean that:

“If, in the opinion of the Court of Justice, any agreement relating to the accession of the Union to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms authorises Member States to submit a dispute concerning the interpretation or application of the Treaties to any method of settlement other than its final resolution by the “Court of Justice, then this does not provide a lawful basis for the EU to accede to the ECHR.

Conclusion

Effectively what we have in this Opinion 2/13 is a claim by the Court of Justice that it is Master of the Treaties and a declaration that it will refuse to recognise the lawfulness of any agreement among the Member States which might be threaten to displace the Court of Justice as the apex Court for the European Union.

The Opinion appears to be more about the Court of Justice’s fears about its constitutional position rather than about the closing of any gap in human rights protection in the EU.

The Court of Justice places great stress on the autonomy of EU law, but nowhere explains why that autonomy is threatened by the possibility of direct human rights review by the European Court of Human Rights of the action and inaction of all the EU institutions (including the CJEU) any more than the autonomy of the legal systems and constitutions of the existing contracting States of the Council of Europe is threatened or called into question by the fact that they operate under the ultimate jurisdiction supervision of the Strasbourg Court as the relevant regional international human rights court for Europe.

 Notoriously, Humpty Dumpty – after re-defining the questions asked of him as meaning essentially that they were about “which is to be master – that’s all” – had a great fall and could not be put back together again.     The Court of Justice, too, should remember that with hubris comes nemesis.

EU Free Movement as a Legal Construction – not as Social Imagination

Daniel Thym

Monetary union demonstrates that some EU projects are realised without preparation for all eventualities. In the case of the euro, the financial crisis revealed lacunae in the field of economic and budgetary supervision, which the euro countries had to bridge through the introduction of new instruments. In the case of Union citizenship the legal gaps are less dramatic, but nonetheless visible – in particular with regard to access to social benefits for persons who do not work. It was these uncertainties that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) had to confront in the Dano judgment of last Tuesday. It opts for a surprisingly conventional solution, which abandons earlier attempts to conceive of Union citizenship as a projection sphere for political visions of a good life and just society.

The European Court of Justice as Legal Technician

A reminder of the debate about the Free Movement Directive demonstrates the absence of clear political guidance. Initially, the EU Commission had suggested to lay down explicitly that Union citizens who do not work should not have access to social benefits during the first five years of their stay in another EU country (Art. 21.2). It later abandoned the project after the ECJ had ruled in Grzelczyk that similar provisions on study grants do not pre-empt recourse to the Treaty guarantee of non-discrimination. As a result, the final version of the Free Movement Directive reiterated existing Treaty rules, whose precise bearing for people like Ms Dano remained unclear. Otherwise put, there was never a positive political agreement at EU level on the status of Union citizens who do not work. This shifted the responsibility upon judges to resolve open questions.

Judges in Luxembourg used this room for manoeuvre for progressive decisions on various occasions. Judgments such as Grzelczyk, Martínez Sala, Collins, Trojani, Bidar, Vatsouras and Ruiz Zambrano constitute the most ambitious and tantalising line of case law in recent memory. They are characterised by an attempt to breathe life into the abstract Treaty provisions on Union citizenship by granting equal access to social benefits for various categories of economically inactive citizens irrespective of the limits laid down in secondary legislation. It would have been possible for the Court to decide the Dano case differently under recourse to the argumentative arsenal of these judgments.

That did not happen. For more than a decade, the ECJ had ignored the arguments put forward by his most outspoken academic critic, Kay Hailbronner – but they now dominate its reasoning on why citizens like Ms Dano cannot claim social benefits. This presents us with a noteworthy shift of emphasis from a promise of equality inherent in EU citizenship towards the ‘limitations and conditions’, which primary law had always provided for (Art. 21.1 TFEU). Judges abandon the aspirational underpinning of the citizenship concept to the benefit of conventional doctrinal arguments such as the wording or the systematic structure. In short, the Court turns into a legal technician.

Anuscheh Farahat criticises the Court’s outcome and, yet, she follows a similar path as the ECJ, when she argues that the technical rules on inter-state social security coordination mandated a different outcome. It is not convincing to maintain that this specialised field of secondary law should have defined the answer, not least since doing so would have required the Court to disconnect the interpretation of the non-discrimination principle in Article 4 of Regulation (EC) Nr. 883/2004 from primary law. A fundamental question, such as this one, should be answered primarily on the basis of the EU Treaties and the citizenship concept – even by those who disagree with the Court’s conclusion.

It seems to me that the outcome of the Dano case is no coincidence. Judges in Luxembourg are not autistic and listen to the general political context. The Pringle judgment on the compatibility of the ESM Treaty with the rules on monetary union was a case in point – and the same held for the Förster ruling, in which the Court shied away from open conflict with the EU legislator, when it accepted a five-year waiting period for access to study grants for incoming EU students in line with the Free Movement Directive. The Grand Chamber deciding the Dano case will have considered potential implications of its judgment for the overall support for the integration project at a time, when eurosceptic political parties are on rise across the continent, not only in the United Kingdom. Continue reading

The End of Free Movement of persons? The CJEU Decision in Dano

Dr Iyiola Solanke

In January 2014, I wrote a post discussing the plans of the UK Coalition government to withhold some benefits from ‘jobless’ EU migrants. I suggested that this group would be hard to define and that the most obvious persons to fall into this category would be those who are not only unemployed but also for some reason unemployable, such as Wadi Samin, an Austrian army veteran deemed permanently unable to work due to ill health. In Dano, the Grand Chamber of the CJEU seems to have confirmed that this is indeed the case. This decision has been welcomed by leaders including but not limited to David Cameron. However, it does not place major new restrictions on the right of free movement – rather it provides a welcome affirmation of the existing restrictions in the Treaties and secondary legislation. It does this by establishing that ‘sufficient resources’ in Article 7 of the Citizenship Directive refers to ‘own’ resources.

Ms Dano grew up in Romania but migrated to Germany where her 2-year old son, Florin, was born in 2009. Both are Romanian nationals. She settled in Leipzig with her sister and was issued with a permanent residence card in July 2011. She received no support from the child’s father but in addition to help provided by her sister, Dano received child benefit for her son, as well as an additional amount in maintenance payments. (totalling around EUR 317 per month). In 2011 she applied for a series of basic provision benefits (‘Grundsicherung’) provided under German legislation to jobseekers – subsistence benefit (‘existenzsichernde Regelleistung’) for herself, social allowance (‘Sozialgeld’) for her son as well as a contribution to accommodation and heating costs. This application was refused, as was a second application in 2012. An administrative challenge to the 2012 decision, based on Article 18 and 45 TFEU, failed. It was held that she was not eligible to receive these benefits under the relevant German legislation (Paragraph 7(1) of SGB II and Paragraph 23(3) of SGB XII).

She subsequently brought an action before the Social Court in Leipzig, challenging the refusal to grant these basic benefits. The Leipzig Court, although it agreed with the decision under appeal, was unsure that the German provisions were compatible with EU law, in particular the general principle of non-discrimination resulting from Article 18 TFEU, the general right of residence resulting from Article 20 TFEU and Article 4 of Regulation No 883/2004. It therefore referred four questions to the CJEU.

Question 1: the scope ratione personae of Article 4 Regulation No 883/2004

The first question concerned the scope ratione personae of Article 4 Regulation No 883/2004, which replaced Regulation No 1408/71 from 1 May 2010.  Article 4, headed ‘Equality of treatment’, provides:

‘Unless otherwise provided for by this Regulation, persons to whom this Regulation applies shall enjoy the same benefits and be subject to the same obligations under the legislation of any Member State as the nationals thereof.’

Having decided that the basic provision benefits sought were ‘special non-contributory cash benefits’ (within the meaning of Article 70(2) of Regulation No 883/2004) the Leipzig Court asked whether such benefits were covered by Article 4. The Grand Chamber confirmed that they did. Continue reading

Very private lives: “acceptable questioning” in sexual orientation asylum cases

Anita Davies

The CJEU’s judgment in the case of A, B and C is due by the end of the year. Ahead of the expected judgment, this post recaps the opinion handed down by Advocate General Sharpston in July.

In February 2014 The Guardian published details of the lines of questioning used by the UK Home Office in questioning gay and lesbian asylum seekers. The questions considered appropriate to ask vulnerable asylum seekers were shocking; including queries such as “what is it about men’s backsides that attracts you?”.

The Home Office’s prurient interest in the very private lives of asylum seekers has been attributed in part to the Supreme Court judgment in HJ (Iran) and HT (Cameroon) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2010] UKSC 31, where the Court found that asylum could not be refused on the basis that an individual would not face persecution due to their sexuality if they behaved with discretion when returned. The onus in questioning therefore shifted from conditions facing gay communities in the country of return to proving sexual orientation, resulting in the Home Office seeking to verify sexual orientation via intrusive questioning. Verifying sexual orientation in asylum claims is an issue that a number of EU states have sought to deal with, and Advocate General Sharpston’s opinion in ABC constitutes guidance as to what is considered acceptable questioning. However, as will be seen below, Sharpston’s opinion has to grapple with the central problem: how do you legally “verify” human sexuality? By its very nature sexuality is impossible to “prove” by reference to anything other than what an individual considers their sexuality to be.

  1. B and C were individuals who submitted asylum claims to the Netherlands authorities on the grounds of a well founded fear of being persecuted in their respective countries of origin because they were gay men. All were refused on the basis that their claims of sexual orientation were not “credible”. Two of the applicants had gone to some lengths to prove their sexual orientation: C had submitted a video depicting him performing sexual acts with a man, and A had been willing to submit to a test to prove that he was gay.

In her opinion, Advocate General Sharpston sought to set out some guidelines as to what was an appropriate method for assessing declared sexual orientation, and if the limits were different from the limits applied to an assessment of the credibility of other grounds of persecution. Sharpston recognised that an “individual’s sexual orientation is a complex matter, entwined inseparably with his identity, that falls within the private sphere of his life” [38], therefore, an applicant’s averred sexual orientation must always be the starting point in assessing a claim, however:

The competent national authorities are entitled to examine that element of his claim together with all other elements in order to assess whether he has a well-founded fear of persecution within the meaning of the Qualification Directive and the Geneva Convention.

It therefore follows ineluctably that applications for refugee status on the grounds of sexual orientation, like any other applications for refugee status, are subject to a process of assessment as required by Article 4 of the Qualification Directive. That assessment must, however, be carried out in a way that respects the individual’s rights as guaranteed by the Charter.” [48 -49]

Continue reading

The Price is Not Right: Italian Troubles with Road Haulage and Tobacco Pricing

Angus MacCulloch, Lancaster University Law School

Two recent judgments handed down by the CJEU show how difficult it can be for a Member State to involve itself in fixing minimum prices for products. Given the ongoing challenge to minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland it is interesting that in both these cases the Court ruled against the fixing of prices, but for very different reasons. Neither case is directly analogous to the Scots alcohol MUP referred to the Court in Case C-333/14, but there are perhaps lessons that can be learnt.

Road Haulage

The first of the Italian cases is the least similar to the ongoing UK dispute, but it does indicate an important aspect of the wider problem with Member States interfering in markets. Cases C-184, 187, 194, 195 & 208/13 API and Others (ECLI:EU:C:2014:2147) concern a request for a preliminary ruling regarding the Italian Ministry for Infrastructure and Transport’s measures which fix minimum operating costs for carriage of goods by road. Charges payable by road haulage customers in Italy could not be lower than the minimum operating costs, and they therefore operated as a minimum price for services. The legislative provisions delegated the setting of the minimum operating costs to the Osservatorio; a group drawn from State, industry and stakeholder representatives. Its role was to ‘ensure the protection of road safety and the proper functioning of the market in the road haulage of goods’. The question the Court addressed was whether the fixing of prices by the Osservatorio could be compatible with EU law on the ground that it ensured road safety standards.

The Court first considered the nature of the measure itself – was it a public law measure, or a private arrangement? This is central to the applicability of EU competition law to the measure in question. Art 101 TFEU, when read in conjunction with Art 4(3) TFEU, applies where a Member State ‘requires or encourages’ anti-competitive agreements, or where it ‘divests its own rules of the character of legislation by delegating to private operators responsibility for taking decisions affecting the economic sphere’ [29]. Competition law does not apply to the legislative action of a Member State, as the Court makes clear in para [30]:

“where legislation of a Member State provides for road-haulage tariffs to be approved and brought into force by the State on the basis of proposals submitted by a committee, where that committee is composed of a majority of representatives of the public authorities and a minority of representatives of the economic operators concerned and in its proposals must observe certain public interest criteria, the fixing of those tariffs cannot be regarded as an agreement, decision or concerted practice between private economic operators”.

Even if the private parties were a majority on such a committee it would not affect the public nature of a measure ‘provided that the tariffs are fixed with due regard or the public-interest criteria defined by law’ [31]. However, on the evidence, it was clear that the Osservatorio was, in effect, a type of trade association. Eight of the ten members were industry representatives taking decisions by majority of its members; the State having no right of veto or casting vote [32-33]. The criteria upon which the Osservatorio operated were also problematic; its ‘guiding principles’ didn’t feature ‘any provision such as to prevent the representatives of the professional organisations from acting in the exclusive interest of the profession’ [35]. As to the road safety justification, the Court noted the legislation, ‘makes vague reference to the protection of road safety and, moreover, leaves a very large margin of discretion and independence to the members of the Osservatorio’ [37]. It therefore concluded, at para [38], that:

“In those circumstances, the national legislation at issue in the main proceedings does not contain either procedural arrangements or substantive requirements capable of ensuring, that, when establishing minimum operating costs, the Osservatorio conducts itself like an arm of the State working in the public interest”.

Having established that Art 101 TFEU applied to the measure, the Court turned to its potential for justification under Art 101(3). It rejected application of the Art 101(3) exception on the basis that while road safety may be a legitimate objective the fixing of costs was not ‘appropriate, either directly or indirectly, for ensuring that the objective is attained’ [51]. The measures also went beyond what was necessary as they did not allow carriers to prove that, although they charged lower prices, they fully complied with safety provisions [55]. The fixing of minimum costs could therefore not be justified.

Tobacco

The second case turns away from direct price fixing to a more indirect route: the taxation of tobacco products. In Case C-428/13 Yesmoke Tobacco (ECLI:EU:C:2014:2263) the Court considered the compatibility of the Italian rules setting excise duty on cigarettes. Those cigarettes with a lower retail price lower than brands in the most popular price category were charged a duty at 115% of the basic amount. This meant that the cheapest cigarettes, when compared with the most popular brands, were charged a slightly higher level of excise duty. With this higher level of duty their comparative price advantage was, at least partially, removed. It will not be a surprise to anyone that tobacco products are highly regulated in the EU, and that the protection of public health plays a significant role in that regulation. The relevant EU law is found in Directive 2011/64/EU which governs excise duty on tobacco products. The purpose of that Directive is to ensure the proper functioning of the internal market and neutral conditions of competition [23]. This reference to ensuring ‘neutral competition’ on the tobacco market became crucial to the rest of the judgment. The Directive draws a distinction between different types of tobacco product, for instance cigars and cigarettes, but treats all cigarettes as a single category without distinction. The Court made it clear, at para [31], that Member States, when imposing an excise duty, should not act in way which ran ‘counter to the objectives of that directive’:

“The establishment of different minimum tax thresholds according to the characteristics or price of cigarettes would lead to distortions of competition as between different cigarettes and would therefore be contrary to the objective pursued by Directive 2011/64 of ensuring the proper functioning of the internal market and neutral conditions of competition”.

Italy tried to rely on the public health objective to justify the imposition of the duty. The Court noted that the Directive already takes into account public health, at recitals 2, 14, and 16, and that the framework put in place by the Directive ‘does not prevent the Member States from taking measures to combat smoking and to ensure a high level of protection for public health by levying excise duties’ [36]. In that light the Court therefore ruled that the Directive precluded the setting of a differential rate of excise for a class of cigarettes based on their retail price.

It was clear in this case that the EU legislation took into account the health concerns in relation to tobacco and allowed the imposition of excise duty likely to discourage the consumption of tobacco; the Directive therefore did ‘not prevent’ health protection. But the Directive was also designed to ensure ‘neutral competition’ within the remaining market for tobacco products. The differential tax rate, which attempted to subvert normal price competition, was clearly then contrary to the purpose of the Directive.

Lessons for Minimum Alcohol Pricing

It is clear that the Scots MUP measure is not a disguised cartel, where the drinks industry’s attempts to set prices is given the protection by the State through legislation. But that does not mean that the API & Others is irrelevant to the ongoing SWA case. There is a clear connection between all three cases.

One of the questions raised in SWA regards the compatibility of MUP with Regulation 1308/2013 which governs, inter alia, the common market in wines. Art 167(1)(b) of the Regulation is particularly relevant as it prohibits Member States from laying down market rules which ‘allow for price-fixing’. On the face it of this could mean that the Scottish Parliament are constrained from introducing a minimum price for wine, in the same way as the Italian State was in relation to the imposition of a differential excise duty in Yesmoke. But if one considers Art 167 in context there is an argument that the apparently stark prohibition is more nuanced. The Regulations recitals make it clear that Producers Organisations and Interbranch Organisations (made up of producers and other industry stakeholders), as recognised in the Regulation, are to play a role in the organisation of the market; much as the Osservatorio did in Italian road haulage. It is not a surprise that the Regulation is clear that the rules in the common market, perhaps promulgated by way of a decision taken by an interbranch organisation (see Art 167(1)), should not relate to pricing. When read in this context it is not clear that the Regulation intends a bar on Member States adopting pricing controls unrelated to the common market organisation rules; i.e. where they are put in place for an entirely separate purpose.

Another interesting distinction between the Yesmoke and the SWA case is the fact that the tobacco Directive clearly has public health concerns at its forefront, and as the Directive had taken those concerns into account Italy was required to stay clearly within the terms of Directive. That is not the case in relation to the common market in wines. Health is mentioned in the Regulation, but only in relation of the production of foodstuffs, not in the wider public health concern that stems from the ‘hazardous and harmful’ consumption of alcohol. It would appear therefore that the Scottish Government may be able to argue that their separate concern for public health is outwith the terms of the Regulation and should be handled under the free movement provisions of the TFEU.

Cartel Damage Claims and the so-Called “Umbrella Pricing” Under EU Competition Law: The Kone Ruling of the CJEU

Jens-Olrik Murach and Pablo Figueroa

On June 5, 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union (respectively, the “EU” and the “CJEU”) issued a Ruling in relation to so-called “umbrella pricing” cartel damage actions.  These claims refer to damages allegedly suffered due to the surcharge applied by non-cartelists who, independently and rationally, adapted to a price increase resulting from a cartel by increasing their own prices.

Pursuant to the Ruling of the CJEU in Case C-557/12 Kone (“Kone”), the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (“TFEU”) preempts the EU Member States from having in place domestic regulations which “categorically exclude” umbrella pricing claims deriving from breaches of EU Competition law.

I.   Background

In February 2007, the European Commission issued a Decision imposing fines on the members of an alleged cartel in the markets for lifts and escalators.  The members of the alleged cartel included the Finnish company Kone AG.

Relying on the “umbrella effect” of the cartel, ÖBB-Infrastruktur AG (“ÖBB”), a subsidiary of the Austrian Federal Railway, brought an action before the Austrian courts against the members of the alleged cartel, including Kone AG, claiming damages.  These damages would result from ÖBB buying from third party suppliers which were not a member of the cartel at a higher price than ÖBB would have paid but for the existence of that cartel, on the ground that those third undertakings benefited from the existence of the cartel in adapting their prices to the higher level (see Kone, at § 10).

ÖBB’s action was rejected by an Austrian Court of First Instance but it was upheld by the appellate Court.  The Austrian Supreme Court (“Oberster Gerichtshof“) asked the CJEU for a preliminary ruling on the issue of whether Article 101 TFEU (namely, the provision of EU law which prohibits anti-competitive agreements, the EU equivalent to § 1 Sherman Act) requires the recognition of “umbrella claims”.  This recognition would apparently be contrary to the requirements, applicable to damages claims under Austrian torts law, of “adequate causal link” between the conduct of the infringing entity and the injury and “unlawfulness”, that is, whether the provision infringed had as its object the protection of the interests of the injured person (see Kone, at § 13 to 15). Continue reading

Case Comment: Opinion of Advocate General Cruz Villalon in International Stem Cell Corporation (C-364/13)

Prof. Aurora Plomer

Three years after the landmark Brustle ruling, the CJEU is poised to revisit the scope of exclusion on industrial and commercial uses of “human embryos” in Article 6(2) (c) of the EU Directive on Biotechnological Inventions. This time, the referral is from a national court of first instance, the Chancery Division (Patents Court) of the UK High Court of Justice Court. In the Opinion of Advocate General Cruz Villalon, whilst the question raised by the UK court is “virtually identical” to the questions raised in the Brustle reference of the German Federal Court of Justice (BGH), the answer should be different.

One of the questions raised by the BGH in Brustle was whether the term ‘human embryo’ encompassed ‘unfertilised human ova whose division and further development have been stimulated by parthenogenesis’ (parthenotes). In Brustle, the Grand Chamber of the CJEU held that parthenotes fell within the scope of exclusion of Article 6(2) (c) because the term ‘human embryo’ had to be given an autonomous meaning in EU law and should be “be understood in a wide sense” to include any human ovum, as soon as fertilised “… since that fertilisation is such as to commence the process of development of a human being.” The criterion of whether an organism is “capable of commencing the process of development” (the ‘commencement’ test) was relied upon by the UK intellectual Property Office to reject two patent applications by International Stem Cell Corporation (ISC) relating to human embryonic stem cell lines produced by parthenogenesis activation of ova. In its appeal, ISC argued that the Brustle exclusion should not extend to parthenotes because such organisms are incapable of developing into human beings. In this light, the UK High Court raised the following question for a preliminary ruling: “Are unfertilised human ova whose division and further development has been stimulated by parthenogenesis, and which, in contrast to fertilised ova, contain only pluripotent cells and are incapable of developing into human beings, included in the term ‘human embryos’ in Article 6(2)(c) of Directive 98/44 on the Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions?”.

France, Sweden and the Commission submitted that, in the current state of science, parthenotes cannot be considered identical to embryos at any stage of their development and parthenogenesis cannot be regarded as a technique capable of commencing the process of development. Portugal expressed concern about the risks of further genetic manipulation and would have left the decision to national courts. The UK submitted that the critical factor was the capacity of the cell itself and not its capacities after genetic manipulation (para. 60). By contrast, Poland submitted that, even though parthenotes cannot develop into human beings according to current scientific understanding, nonetheless respect for human dignity requires that they should be treated as human embryos as they “initially undergo the same stages of development as a fertilised ovum (para. 60).

The analysis of Advocate General Cruz Villalon proposes to read into the Grand Chamber’s ‘commencement’ rule in Brustle a functional equivalence test, so that the decisive criterion which should be taken into account for determining whether an unfertilised ovum is a human embryo is “whether that unfertilised ovum has the inherent capacity of developing into a human being, i.e. whether it really constitutes the functional equivalent of a fertilised ovum.” (at para. 73). On this basis, the mere possibility that a parthenote could be genetically manipulated so that it can develop to term and into a human being does not change the fundamental character of the parthenote before manipulation. According to current scientific knowledge parthenotes do not have the capacity to develop into human beings but “where the parthenote is manipulated in such way that it actually obtains the respective capacity, it can no longer be considered a parthenote and it cannot be, consequently patented.” (at para. 77). Continue reading

Not waving, but drowning ? : European law in the UK courts

Aidan O’Neill QC

The relationship between EU law and the municipal law of the United Kingdom seems to lend itself to allusions to water.   In Bulmer v. Bollinger [1974] Ch. 401 Lord Denning famously referred (at 418F) to the incoming tide of EU law, observing that “it flows into the estuaries and up the rivers. It cannot be held back, Parliament has decreed that the Treaty is henceforward to be part of our law. It is equal in force to any statute.”   And the Factortame litigation, too, was all about water, and the right to fish in it – specifically the Treaty based rights of Spanish fishermen not to be subject to discrimination on grounds of nationality when seeking to exercise their free movement rights to trawl for fish in UK waters.

The long decade of Factortame litigation – which unequivocally established that national courts in the UK should treat EU law based rights as being of a higher normative level than Acts of Parliament and that the UK could be found liable by UK courts to pay damages to those who suffered loss from Parliament’s enactment of an EU law incompatible statute – might now be seen to represent the high-water mark of the influence of EU law on domestic law.   For tides ebb, as well as flow.   The complaints of those of a Eurosceptic ilk of the Member States being “swamped” by a tsunami of EU regulation, of business drowning in EU rules have been increasingly dominant in our political discourse.   Eurocracy is associated with ever growing popular distrust.   The binding of Europe into monetary union is now seen as an act of hubris (the Greeks always have a word for it).     Even among the Europhiles, ideals and ideas seem to have drained from their grand post-War European project.   Scripture says: “without vision the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he”.   Yet what law is to kept, as the happy certainties of post-sovereign supra-nationalism embodied in une certaine idée de l’Europe no longer command common assent and have become unhappy uncertainties ?

Our courts are, of course, not insensible to this shift, this seeming turning of the political tide.   Recent judgments of the UK Supreme Court, in particular, have marked an increasing turn inward, as the continental is abandoned for the insular and the primacy of national constitutional fundamentals are re-emphasised over the provisions of international Treaties. But what “constitutional fundamentals”, you might well ask ? Classically, the only constitutional fundamental which existed in the UK under the Diceyan analysis of the constitution was the sovereignty of Parliament – and that has been considered and dealt with in Factortame.   What, then, is left within the UK constitution after Factortame ?  The judicial and extra-judicial writings of Sir John Laws seem to provide the beginnings of an answer. In R v Lord Chancellor Ex p Witham [1998] QB 575 he noted (at 581) that “in the unwritten legal order of the British state” it is “the common law [which] continues to accord a legislative supremacy to Parliament”. He also observed that the courts should recognise certain fundamental rights at common law whose “existence would not be the consequence of the democratic political process but would be logically prior to it”. In Thoburn v. Sunderland Council [2003] QB 151 he noted (at 185) that “the traditional doctrine [of Parliamentary sovereignty] has in my judgment been modified. It has been done by the common law, wholly consistently with constitutional principle” by the recognition of certain statutes as “constitutional” in the sense that, while not being entrenched, their provisions were not subject to implied repeal by later “ordinary” Acts of Parliament.   Parliament could modify their terms, but only expressly.   In Jackson v. Attorney General [2006] 1 AC 262Lord Steyn went further, suggesting (at § 102), that there might be some constitutional fundamentals “which even a sovereign Parliament acting at the behest of a complaisant House of Commons cannot abolish”.   Despite some initial scepticism about the need or utility for reliance upon notions of common law constitutionalism in a post HRA/post EU Charter era (see for example Watkins v. Home Office[2006] UKHL 17 [2006] 2 AC 395 per Lord Bingham at § 29 and per Lord Rodger at §§ 59, 61) the ideas of Sir John Laws appear now to have triumphed into the new constitutional orthodoxy.     They were certainly central to the finding of the UKSC in Axa General Insurance Company Ltd v Lord Advocate [2011] UKSC 46 [2012] AC 868 that statutes of the devolved legislatures were subject to a form of common law review (for breach of the rule of law and/or fundamental common law rights).   In Kennedy v Charity Commission [2014] UKSC 20 [2014] 2 WLR 808 Lord Toulson at § 133 regretted what he saw as “a baleful and unnecessary tendency to overlook the common law. It needs to be emphasised that it was not the purpose of the Human Rights Act that the common law should become an ossuary.”   In R (Buckinghamshire County Council) v Transport Secretary [2014] UKSC 3 [2014] 1 WLR 342 Lord Neuberger and Lord Mance – in rejecting what looked like a fairly clear line of CJEU case law on the issue of what might properly be expected in and of a Strategic Environmental Assessment for large infrastructure projects (such as HS2) – suggested that there may be constitutional fundamentals which even EU law could not overcome.   As they noted (at § 207) that

“the United Kingdom has no written constitution, but we have a number of constitutional instruments. They include Magna Carta, the Petition of Right 1628, the Bill of Rights and (in Scotland) the Claim of Right Act 1689, the Act of Settlement 1701 and the Act of Union 1707. The European Communities Act 1972, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 may now be added to this list. The common law itself also recognises certain principles as fundamental to the rule of law.”

And in R (Osborn) v Parole Board [2013] UKSC 61 [2013] 3 WLR 1020 the UKSC emphasised (in Lord Reed’s judgment at § 62) that the starting point in fundamental rights cases should be “our own legal principles rather than the judgments of the international court”. Thus is the common law is resurrected, statutes and ancient charters deemed “constitutional”, old legal rules become fundamental principles, and rights discourse is de-Europeanised, re-patriated and re-branded as embodying the une certaine idée de l’Angleterre (or sometimes, even, de l’Ecosse). Continue reading

The sudden emergence of Charter principles in the Glatzel judgment of the CJEU

european-union-flags-at-t-0021Jasper Krommendijk

The judgment of 22 May 2014 in Glatzel is the first judgment in which the CJEU explicitly discussed article 51(1) and 52(5) of the Charter on Fundamental Rights, which distinguishes between (individual) rights and (programmatic) principles.

In Glatzel, the CJEU issued a preliminary ruling on the request of a German court about the compatibility with the Charter of Annex III to Directive 2006/126/EC (amended by Directive 2009/113/EC) laying down minimum standards relating to the physical fitness to drive a motor vehicle as regards visual acuity. The German court asked whether those physical conditions for drivers constitute discrimination on the grounds of disability and, hence, violate the principle of equal treatment (Article 20 of the Charter), and more specifically, the principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of discrimination (Article 21(1)) as well as the principle of integrating of integrating persons with disabilities (Article 26). The CJEU eventually concluded that it did not have sufficient information to conclude that the Annex is invalid.

There are several interesting points which could be looked at more closely, such as the way in which the CJEU used the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (para. 45, 68-72) as well as the way in which the CJEU carefully examined whether there is an objective justification of different treatment (see below). These two issues –the application of the CRPD and the elaborate justification test- have been the focus of previous judgments of the CJEU (see for example for the former, Z (Case C-363/12 [2014]).

I. The distinction between rights and principles: a background and earlier cases of the CJEU

This post will, however, scrutinise the novel feature of this judgment: the fact that the CJEU has expressed itself for the first time on Article 51(1) and Article 52(5) of the Charter. These provisions make a distinction between rights and principles in the Charter. Article 51(1) provides:

The provisions of this Charter are addressed to the institutions, bodies, offices and agencies of the Union with due regard for the principle of subsidiarity and to the Member States only when they are implementing Union law. They shall therefore respect the rights, observe the principles and promote the application thereof in accordance with their respective powers and respecting the limits of the powers of the Union as conferred on it in the Treaties.

Article 52(5) stipulates:

The provisions of this Charter which contain principles may be implemented by legislative and executive acts taken by institutions, bodies, offices and agencies of the Union, and by acts of Member States when they are implementing Union law, in the exercise of their respective powers. They shall be judicially cognisable only in the interpretation of such acts and in the ruling on their legality.

The inclusion of these provisions and this distinction between rights and principles was primarily the result of the opposition of UK, and also some other countries like the Denmark and the Netherlands, to the inclusion in the Charter of ‘social rights’ as legally enforceable claims. The UK eventually agreed with the inclusion of the Charter into the draft Constitution on the condition that the distinction between rights and principles was further clarified. The distinction was thus the result of a hard won battle and formed a crucial element in the Charter’s adoption. Continue reading