Yet another chapter of the European citizenship saga sought clarification by AG Sharpston in the Prinz and Seeberger Opinion delivered last week on February 21, 2013. Concerning one of the most prevalent categories of citizens claiming rights under Arts 20 and 21 TFEU – students – Prinz and Seeberger discusses a classic situation that has pervaded the over 20 years of Union citizenship development. Effectively, AG Sharpston aims to explicate the notion of proportionality in citizenship, which has for years escaped valid clarification. She discusses the different strands of objectives of integration, with more substantial meaning than it would appear at first.
In Prinz, a German moved from Germany to Tunisia with her family for her father’s job, then returned years later for secondary school, subsequently deciding to attend university in Holland. She was granted funding from German authorities for her first year, but was rejected for the second as she failed to satisfy the ‘three-year rule’ residency requirement, which stated that a citizen had to be resident in Germany for three years prior to the start of their course.
In Seeberger, a German who attended school in Germany, then moved to Spain with his family for his father’s work in the middle of secondary school, completed his secondary education in Spain and after some time qualifying to university in Spain, sought a grant to fund his studies in Spain from the German authorities. This was denied again on the ‘three-year rule’.
Both argued that Art 20 and 21 TFEU were contravened for impeding free movement, and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) was asked to clarify whether this ‘three-year rule’ was contrary to EU law.
In her Opinion, AG Sharpston sought to explicate her perspectives on the meaning and justification behind integration and proportionality, particularly referring to the justification behind residency requirements often being the protection of national resources. It is questioned by AG Sharpston whether the consistent invocation of the unreasonable burden reasoning requires reconsideration. Beginning by eliminating the provisions inapplicable in order to conclusively consider the effect of suitable criteria, she then delivers her insightful comments regarding justifications, proportionality and interpretation of the ‘three-year rule’.
Evidently, the three-year rule is a restriction. Germany thus submits two justification objectives, one under the economic rationale, the other socially related. She separates the two and considers the legitimacy and appropriateness of both restrictions in a detailed analysis of each objective’s interpretation.
It is evident that AG Sharpston is unconvinced that Member States should simply lay out economic objectives based on avoiding unreasonable burdens on the financial resources of Member States. This was discussed in Bidar and Morgan and Bucher. She believes it is apt for the CJEU to perhaps guide Member States as to what may constitute reasonable or unreasonable burdens, as this highly variable concept is subject to an element of potential exploitation on the part of the protectionist Member States. Suggested is a thorough analysis of whether the burden truly risks interfering with the balance of Member State resources to avoid invoking protectionism behind a veil of valid justification. She then continues to distinguish an economic objective from an integration objective, which brings into play the political elements of a proportionality assessment.
The interplay between integration and economics as objectives of justifications becomes a sticky situation, but ultimately AG Sharpston aims to clarify whether it suffices to consider integration an objective on its own. There is an inconsistency if integration objectives are cited to justify rendering an economic objective proportionate. This is because choosing to require a degree of integration simply to meet budgetary concerns actually ignores the notion of being integrated.
She goes onto state the ‘three-year rule’ is far too restrictive given it requires uninterrupted periods of residence immediately prior to education, and whilst there is no direct mention of nationality, the inherent connection a national has renders it a difficult factor to ignore when considering proportionality. This is particularly relevant here, as both claimants are German. She opines there are certainly less restrictive measures possible, though interestingly does not suggest any outwardly. Though the ‘three-year rule’ is transparent, efficient and legally certain – the rationales behind Germany’s choice of restriction – this does not translate to it being necessarily proportionate.
Under the social objective put forward by the Germans, solidarity is a feature. Ultimately, AG Sharpston considers that the ‘three-year rule’ has little to achieve by means of social objectives given that the link between requiring citizens to reside three years prior to education and them remaining after their studies is tenuous at best. Again legal certainty, transparency and efficiency did not outweigh proportionality.
AG Sharpston answers the CJEU’s question in the positive: Art 20 and 21 TFEU would preclude the ‘three-year rule’ from preventing the claimants from being granted the funding needed for education outside their own home States. Whilst a simple question in effect, AG Sharpston has managed to delve deeper into the meaning and notion of proportionality in terms of what Member States use as justifications, deconstructing their generic excuses of integrationist and economic objectives to uncover what their argument really insinuates and striking them down by use of the famous tool, proportionality.