Age discrimination is not in fashion: AG Bobek’s Opinion in Abercrombie & Fitch v Bordonaro

Dr Jule Mulder, University of Bristol

The Facts

The case is concerned with the conformity of Italian law on on-call contracts with the EU principle of non-discrimination on grounds of age. Antonino Bordonaro was employed under an on-call contract (similar to a zero-hour contract) by Abercrombie & Fitch Italia Srl on a permanent basis. Upon his 25th birthday Mr Bordonaro was dismissed due to the fact that he no longer complied with the conditions for the intermittent contract, as laid down by Article 34(2) Legislative Decree No 276/2003 applicable at the time he was hired. The (now repealed) Italian law in question provided special arrangements regarding access to and dismissal from on-call contracts for some workers. While on-call contracts under Italian law are usually subject to objective reasons and certain conditions, the provision allowed for such contract to be offered ‘in any event’ to workers under the age of 25 or above the age of 45. At the time of Mr Bordonaro’s dismissal, Article 34(2) had been modified. The older age bracket was lifted from 45 to 55 years of age. Moreover it was specified that an on-call contract can ‘in any event’ be concluded ‘with a person under 24 years of age, on the understanding […] that the contractual service must be performed before the age of 25 is reached’. The modified provision thus allowed automatic termination of permanent on-call contracts with younger workers once they reached the age of 25, in addition to allowing more flexibility regarding younger and older workers’ exposure to on-call contracts. Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court of Cassation (Corte Suprema di Cassazione) identified the direct and clear reference to age in Article 34 as potentially problematic and asked the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to rule on its compatibility with the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of age in Directive 2000/78 and Article 21 of the EU Charter.

The Legal Analysis

Advocate General (AG) Bobek delivered his Opinion on 23 March 2017. In his preliminary observations, he raises interesting questions regarding first, the relationship between Directive 2000/78 and Article 21 EU Charter, and second, in relation to the Charter’s function as an interpretive tool within the context of private law. The question whether the national legislation, the contract and the dismissal of Mr Bordonaro constitute age discrimination is however only discussed with reference to Directive 2000/78. This case comment will focus on the latter, namely the potential direct age discrimination and its justification.

Under Article 2(2)(a) Directive 2000/78 direct age discrimination occurs where one person is treated less favourably than another is, has been or would be treated in a comparable situation because of their age. Regarding the comparability of situations, AG Bobek emphasises that comparable does not mean identical. It rather requires an examination of whether ‘in relation to a given quality (that is, tertium comparationis, which may be a value, aim, action, situation, and so on), the elements of comparison (such as persons, undertakings, products) demonstrate more similarities or more differences’ (para. 40). Such comparison needs to be carried out considering the broader context and in the light of the subject matter and purpose of the act. As Directive 2000/78 focuses on employment and occupation, he then assesses whether workers in different age groups are in a comparable situation in terms of access to employment and dismissal. In particular, he emphasises that ‘the comparability of such different groups of persons would only be precluded if there were an element, such as a personal feature or a factual or legal circumstance, which makes the situations so different that the comparison becomes illogical or unreasonable’ (para. 45). He also rejects that structural and high youth unemployment means that younger workers are in a different situation because their comparability is only assessed considering a ‘number of factors that are relevant for the given quality’ (para. 47). Since all age groups are competent to do the job and apply for the same positions, there is no reason why they should not be offered the same working conditions.

To assess the (un)favourability of the treatment, AG Bobek then refers to the need to conduct a global assessment ‘balancing different elements of the contractual relationship, conditions and considerations’ (para. 64) including the impact of the contract in terms of pay and annual leave as well as access to the employment market. With reference to Mangold (C-144/04, EU:C:2005:709) and Georgiev (C‑250/09, EU:C:2010:699), he considers that the case law indicates that the ‘less favourable character is ascertained through a global assessment of the conditions emanating from the contractual regimes applicable to specific age categories, taking as a point of reference the ordinary employment relations’ (para 66). In these cases the CJEU identified a less favourable treatment because less stable (e.g. fixed-term) contractual relationships with older workers were authorised with no restrictions.

AG Bobek then points at a number of issues that will have to be considered. First, the on-call contracts allow maximum flexibility for the employer while the worker does not have an agreed working time or guaranteed income. Younger and older workers are exposed to this flexibility without the presence of objective reasons justifying the contractual arrangement as required for workers in the intermediate age group. Secondly, while the availability of on-call contracts may offer broader access to the job market, the existence of such contracts without imposing any additional requirements may also make it more difficult for these workers to find regular employment. Finally, the legislative history – the increased upper age limit from 45 to 55 years – and the general character of the provision as a derogation of the general rule indicate that access to these contracts is not always seen as favourable. All of these factors are to be taken into account when the national court makes its global assessment. The assessment should thus neither focus on specific rules alone nor should some negative or positive elements be considered in isolation.

Finally, AG Bobek assesses any possible justification under Article 6(1) Directive 2000/78. The primary aims of Article 34(2) identified by the Italian Government were (1) the flexibilization of the labour market to increase employment, (2) helping young people to access the labour market, and (3) ensuring that young people have opportunities to gain work experience, albeit not in stable employment. All of these aims fall within the remit of Article 6(1)(a) on employment policies, labour market and vocational training. AG Bobek then continues to assess the possible appropriateness and necessity of the measures considering each of the aims. Throughout the analysis, he particularly raises questions regarding the consistency of the measure. For example, the provision only increases flexibility for old and young workers and not for all workers, the provision on automatic termination may cancel out the advantage of labour market access facilitated by the creation of on-call contracts, and the personal scope is not limited to those young workers who require additional experience, education or apprenticeship. The need to consider less intrusive alternative measures is also highlighted.

In conclusion, AG Bobek suggests that the Italian law is only compatible with Article 2(2)(a) and 6(1) Directive 2000/78 if the national court determines that it can be justified under and pursues a legitimate aim linked to employment and labour market policy, and achieves that aim by means which are both appropriate and necessary. Continue reading

Achbita and Bougnaoui: raising more questions than answers

Case Comment: Case C157/15 Samira Achbita and Centrum voor gelijkheid van kansen en voor racismebestrijding v G4S Secure Solutions NV and C-188/15 Asma Bougnaoui Association de défense des droits de l’homme (ADDH) v Micropole SA

Samira Achbita and Asma Bougnaoui were both fired for wearing an Islamic headscarf in the workplace. In its Grand Chamber ruling of March 14th the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that internal company rules banning the wearing of visible religious, political or philosophical symbols do not constitute direct discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. It also developed some criteria according to which indirect discrimination can be legitimate and objective.

The case Achbita has already attracted critical attention (see HERE, HERE and HERE). Indeed, it is of great significance. Advocate General Kokott sets out the core question in her Opinion:

“Is a private employer permitted to prohibit a female employee of Muslim faith from wearing a headscarf in the workplace? And is that employer permitted to dismiss her if she refuses to remove the headscarf at work? These are, in essence, the questions which the Court must answer, for the first time in the present case, from the point of view of EU law, and, more specifically, in the light of the prohibition on discrimination based on religion or belief.”(para 1)

Developments with regard to the wearing of religious symbols and clothing are being closely watched across Europe and remain subject to ongoing discussions and political debate. The key question is whether and how this ruling of the CJEU provides a judicial space for employers to ban the wearing of religious symbols in the workplace.

The cases concerned Belgian and French women employees who were fired for wearing an Islamic headscarf. In the case of Achbita the preliminary question referred asked how Article 2(2)(a) 1 and 2 of Employment Framework Directive 2000/78 on equal treatment in employment and occupation must be interpreted. The core question was whether the prohibition on wearing an Islamic headscarf, set out in the general internal rules of a private company, is direct discrimination.

In its assessment, the CJEU found that the internal rules at issue banned all visible religious, political or philosophical symbols and that they applied in the same way to all employers so as to secure a neutral company image. The internal rules were applied without distinction, explicitly prohibiting the wearing of any visible sign of political or philosophical beliefs not just visible signs of religious beliefs. Therefore, the court concluded that the ban at issue could not be regarded as direct discrimination in the sense of Directive 2000/78.

The CJEU however recognised the possibility that such an internal rule could lead to indirect discrimination. This would be the case if the rules were capable of putting individuals of certain religions or beliefs at a particular disadvantage in comparison with other employees. Nonetheless, it held an indirect difference of treatment may be objectively justified by a legitimate aim, provided that the measure at issue is appropriate and necessary for achieving that aim.

In its ruling the CJEU thus concludes that the aim of an employer to present a neutral image towards its clients is legitimate, as long as these rules refer only to employees in direct contact with clients. The CJEU concludes that the national court is to determine if and to what extent the company rules comply with these requirements in practice.

Comment

This ruling is interesting from many points of view.

First of all, the considerable weight given to a company’s desire to promote a neutral appearance seems somewhat curious. It appears to contradict the ECtHR judgment in the case of Eweida and Others v. the United Kingdom where the Strasbourg Court ruled that there had been a violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief when Ms Eweida was not permitted to wear a crucifix at work. The ECtHR in Eweida considered that on one side was Ms Eweida’s desire to manifest her religious belief and on the other was the employer’s wish to project a certain corporate image, and that a fair balance had not been struck. Although the human rights court recognized that the employer’s wish to project a certain corporate image could be regarded as a legitimate aim, it found that the national court accorded it too much weight.

It could be argued that in contrast to Eweida, the ruling of CJEU provides more space for employers to ban the wearing of religious symbols in the workspace without violating the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief. The ruling could be understood as confirming that the mere wish of a company to present itself in a neutral way is an objective justification for a different treatment of employees .

Second, it is remarkable that the CJEU extensively studies whether the objective is legitimate and the requirement is proportionate but at the same time fails to examine the proper balance between the desire of the employee to manifest her religious belief and the employer’s wish of a neutral workplace environment. On this issue Advocate General Kokott delivered the following opinion in para 127

it is for the referring court to strike a fair balance between the conflicting interests, taking into account all the relevant circumstances of the case, in particular the size and conspicuousness of the religious symbol, the nature of the employee’s activity and the context in which she must perform her activity, as well as the national identity of Belgium“.

The question is whether the omission of the CJEU to examine the said fair balance provides enough guidance to enable national judges to determine whether a company ban on wearing visible religious, political or philosophical symbols, can be regarded as indirect discrimination. Or does it simply push this hot potato onto the plate of the national judges?

Third, it seems curious that in its assessment on whether or not the company’s internal rules can be considered a legitimate aim, the court primarily (maybe even solely?) focuses on the fundamental right of freedom to conduct a business (Article 16 CFR). Why, for example, idoes it not mention the right to work in Article 31(1): Every worker has the right to working conditions which respect his or her … dignity?. It seems that the reasoning of the Grand Chamber, and the way in which it weighs the various relevant elements, remains implicit at best – but perhaps is simply incomplete. This is problematic in such an important case.

In Bougnaoui, the core of the preliminary question was whether Article 4 (2) of Directive 2000/78 must be interpreted as meaning that the preference of a customer to receive services from a company employee who does not wear an Islamic headscarf can be considered a genuine and determining occupational requirement.

The ruling of the CJEU on this question is clear. It concluded that in the absence of any company rule, the mere desire of an employer to take into account the wishes of a customer to ban religious symbols is direct discrimination. Such a ban cannot be regarded as a genuine and determining occupational requirement within the meaning of the Framework Directive.

Various NGO’s have already claimed that the ruling of the CJEU legitimizes discrimination, in particular towards Muslim women. As for now it will depend on the national courts and law-makers to set out the conditions under which an internal company rule can ban religious clothing from the workplace.

Monique Steijns

Monique works within the Dutch Ministry of the Interior as an adviser on constitutional law and human rights. Monique studied law at the University of Amsterdam. She is part of the Netherlands Committee of Jurists for Human Rights and chairperson of the working group Constitutional and Administrative law.

Monique contributes in a personal capacity; the opinions expressed cannot in any way be attributed to the Dutch government.

Law and Politics in the Supreme Court

Phil Syrpis, University of Bristol Law Schoolsyrpis

By a majority of 8 to 3, the Supreme Court held that in light of the terms and effect of the European Communities Act 1972, ‘the prerogative could not be invoked by ministers to justify giving Notice under Article 50… Ministers require the authority of primary legislation before they can take that course’ (para. 101). Within hours, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, authorising the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50, was published. It passed through the House of Commons unscathed yesterday. A White Paper, setting out the Government’s plan for Brexit, such as it is, has also been published.

The purpose of this post is very specific. My aim is not to analyse the judgment, the Bill or the White Paper. That has been done elsewhere. Instead, my aim is to begin to explore the relationship between law and politics, and between Parliament, the executive and the judiciary, taking as a starting point the judgments in the Supreme Court. The judges are, at times, careful not to trespass into the political realm. Nevertheless, their findings are informed and influenced, in a number of ways, by the political context. There are, moreover, important differences between the approaches adopted by the majority and the minority, including differences relating to the judges’ understanding of the legal process of Brexit. It is hoped that inconsistencies between and within the judgments will provoke further academic consideration of the extent to which Courts should intrude into, or take cognisance of, the political realm; and of the extent to which constitutional safeguards are matters of substance or form. But, at this febrile political time, the clearest conclusion is that by failing to answer key questions of law, the Court has done a disservice to Parliament, thereby contributing, not towards the provision of a clear framework within which politicians are able to address the realities of Brexit, but to the pervasive sense of confusion.

Continue reading

Miller Judgment breaches UKSC duties under EU law in disservice of UK Parliament

ASG smallDr Albert Sanchez-Graells

The UK Supreme Court (UKSC) has today handed down its Judgment. It has done so in a way that both infringes its duties under EU law and does a disservice to the UK Parliament.

Breach of UKSC’s duties under EU law

One of the difficult legal issues on which the Brexit litigation hinged concerned the interpretation of Art 50 TEU and, in particular, the revocability of a notice given under Art 50(2) TEU. The interpretation of this point of law falls within the exclusive competence of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) under Art 263 TFEU. Interestingly, the UKSC stressed this monopoly of interpretation as a key element of EU law at para [64]. However, the UKSC has violated the ECJ’s monopoly of interpretation of the EU Treaties by accepting the parties’ commonly agreed position on the irrevocability of an Art 50(2) TEU notice at [26] of the Miller Judgment.

In doing so, the UKSC has infringed its obligation under Art 267(3) TFEU to engage in a preliminary reference to the ECJ concerning the interpretation of Art 50 TEU (for legal background see here and here). This cannot be saved by an argument that, under domestic procedural rules (or conventions), the UKSC had the possibility of taking this approach–and effectively dodging one of the most complex and unpredictable legal issues on which the litigation rested.

There are several reasons for this, but the primary one is that, as matter of EU law, a preliminary reference by the highest court of an EU Member State is unavoidable where the interpretation of EU law is necessary to enable it to give judgement–or, in other words, where the judgment relies on a given interpretation of EU law. In my view, it is beyond doubt that the UKSC Miller Judgment is based on the interpretation that an Art 50(2) TEU notice is irrevocable, and that this represents the legally binding view of the majority judgment, regardless of the attempt to save the UKSC’s view on this point in para [26] — or, in other words, it is not (logically, legally) true that the UKSC’s Miller Judgment operates ‘without expressing any view of our own on either point‘ (ie regarding the revocability or not of the Art 50(2) TEU notice). There are explicit indications of this interpretation in paras [59], [81] and [92] (see here for more detailed analysis of the latter).

In view of the relevance of the points of irrevocability of the Art 50(2) TEU notice, it is clear to me that the UKSC had an obligation to seek the interpretation of this provision by the ECJ and that, in not doing so, it has breached EU law. Moreover, beyond what some may consider a highly technical or academic point, by not seeking this clarification the UKSC has also done a disservice to the UK Parliament. Continue reading

Miller – A Decision in Defence of the UK Constitution

Prof Iyiola SolankeBlogPhoto

The UKSC has spoken. And as many had expected (perhaps in their more sanguine moments even the Government legal team) it has upheld the decision of the High Court that legislation is required prior to the triggering of Article 50 TEU. The judgement should become compulsory reading in Constitutional Law, especially because it sets out clearly the separation of powers between the government and parliament, in particular the law making powers of each and most significantly the reach of those laws made using institution specific law-making powers.

The UKSC remind that the basis of the prerogative power asserted by the government is in the principle of dualism – that international law and domestic law operate in independent spheres [55]. Thus although treaties signed under international  law are binding on the UK in international law, such treaties are not part of UK law and give rise to no legal rights or obligations in domestic law. Therefore just as treaties made by Ministers are not governed by domestic law, domestic law made to give national effect to those treaties cannot be governed by Ministers. As put in JH Rayner by Lord Oliver of Aylmerton:

“As a matter of the constitutional law of the United Kingdom, the Royal Prerogative, whilst it embraces the making of treaties, does not extend to altering the law or conferring rights upon individuals or depriving individuals of rights which they enjoy in domestic law without the intervention of Parliament. Treaties, as it is sometimes expressed, are not self-executing. Quite simply, a treaty is not part of English law unless and until it has been incorporated into the law by legislation…” [56].

Hence, as put by the UKSC ‘…the dualist system is a necessary corollary of Parliamentary sovereignty, or, to put the point another way, it exists to protect Parliament not ministers’ [57]. In coming to this conclusion the UKSC should be seen not as ‘enemies of the people’ but on the contrary their friends: by protecting parliament, they also protect the people, ensuring that governments do not undermine the citizenry by imposing decisions upon them which have not been put before them or their representatives (ie Parliament). This may be of especial resonance to the 28% who did not use their vote in the EU referendum.

The ECA 1972, passed by Parliament to incorporate the Treaty of Rome into domestic law, is uncontroversially described as more than an ordinary statute. This assertion of the constitutional character of the 1972 Act is not new – it was set out in Thoburn and R (Buckinghamshire County Council) v Secretary of State for Transport. Importantly, the Court highlights the crucial distinction in relation to its dual impact – first it provided that ‘rights, duties and rules derived from EU law should apply in the United Kingdom as part of its domestic law’ and secondly created a ‘new constitutional process for making law in the United Kingdom.’ The former is described as ‘exclusively a question of EU law’; the latter ‘exclusively a question of domestic law’ [62].

From here it requires only reiteration of traditional reasoning to conclude that oversight over the domestic constitutional process remains with Parliament not government. As such, Parliament can legislate to alter the domestic constitutional process, the status of EU institutions or even the status EU law. This is not constrained by the primacy of EU law, or any rule of EU law because this is a question of the domestic constitution for Parliament. Parliamentary sovereignty is in 2017 as it was in 1972 and ‘…EU law can only enjoy a status in domestic law which that principle allows. It will therefore have that status only for as long as the 1972 Act continues to apply, and that, of course, can only be a matter for Parliament’ [67].

Thus just as Parliament decided in the 20th century when the Treaty of Rome should have domestic impact, it is for Parliament to decide in the 21st century when that ceases to apply; then as now this remains a question for Parliament, not the Government. The Court rejects the argument asserting that the 1972 Act foresees use of prerogative powers – without prior Parliamentary authorisation – to break the constitutional legal tie made by Parliament between EU law and the UK. On the contrary, it concludes that,

“… by the 1972 Act, Parliament endorsed and gave effect to the United Kingdom’s membership of what is now the European Union under the EU Treaties in a way which is inconsistent with the future exercise by ministers of any prerogative power to withdraw from such Treaties.”

Given the long-standing principle of parliamentary sovereignty, one may again wonder why the EU referendum was necessary. The judgment can be read as adding weight to assertions that the EU referendum was a response to party political and not national interests.

Case Comment: C-203/15 Tele2 Sverige AB v Post-och telestyrelsen and C-698/15 SSHD v Tom Watson & Others

Dr Gunnar Beck

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights precludes the “general and indiscriminate retention of traffic data and location data” and “the Member States may not impose a general obligation to retain data on providers of electronic communications services.” This is clear following the Court of Justice of the European Union’s judgment of 22 December 2016 inTele2 Sverige [1]  which affirms that Court’s previous judgment in Digital Rights Ireland[2], from 2014. In that judgment the CJEU held that the EU’s Data Retention Directive[3] was invalid. Some EU member states, such as Sweden and the U.K., then continued to oblige telecommunications providers to generally retain data under their national laws. In Tele2 Sverige the EU held that such national laws must similarly comply with the Charter’s data protection rules and may thus be similarly invalid.

The Tele2 Sverige judgment is of great significance for a number of reasons. First, the CJEU made clear that the data retention laws of member states must comply with EU data protection rules. Some member states thought that the derogations provided by EU Directive 2002/58 allowed them to introduce national laws governing the general retention of personal date by private companies outside the scope of EU data protection law and the judgment of the CJEU in Digital Rights Ireland in particular.

Second, the CJEU reiterated its judgment, in Digital Rights Ireland and Schrems, that generalised and indiscriminate surveillance is not permissible under EU law. Every phone call, text or internet connection that is made generates data about the location, time and duration of that communication. As the CJEU held, this “retained data, taken as a whole, is liable to allow very precise conclusions to be drawn concerning the private lives of the persons whose data has been retained.”

Third, the CJEU accepted that it may be necessary to retain data in some circumstances, such as in respect of “a public whose data is likely to reveal a link, at least an indirect one, with serious criminal offenses, and to contribute in one way or another to fighting serious crime or to preventing a serious risk to public security.” Data retention might be lawful if limited on the basis of geography, such as a city centre, where there exists a high risk of preparation for or commission of such offences.

Fourth, the CJEU outlined the criteria a national data retention law needs to contain in order to comply with EU data protection law. Such a law must lay down clear and precise rules and impose minimum safeguards; it must indicate the circumstances and conditions under which data retention may be adopted as a preventative measure. This is to limit such retention to what the ECJ underlines as “strictly necessary.” Where data is retained, such retention must “meet objective criteria, that establish a connection between the data to be retained and the objective pursued.” These objective criteria must be assessed against objective evidence. While the CJEU does allow that member states may require that data may be retained, such requirements will not be easily or lightly imposed.

Fourth, the CJEU stated unequivocally that “the data concerned should be retained within the European Union.” This statement appears to preclude, or imply the need for further legislation authorising, the transfer of personal data outside the EU including the EEA.

In contrast to many of the CJEU’s recent judgments in the areas of monetary policy and EU citizenship law, the Tele2 Sverige judgment is commendable by the standards of traditional judicial reasoning. Articles 7 and 8 EU Charter guarantee the right to private life and to the protection of personal data in broad terms and so warrant a generous interpretation of the individual rights under both provisions. Moreover, there is no restrictive directly effective provision of equal or indeterminate normative status in the EU Treaties which mandates a restrictive interpretation of the scope of either right in relation to the field of electronic communications data retention. The CJEU in Tele2 Sverige further rightly notes that exceptions and derogations to fundamental rights guaranteed by EU law must be interpreted narrowly and not go beyond what is strictly necessary to achieve countervailing public policy objectives, although it should not be forgotten that the principle of the narrow construction of all derogations from treaty provisions was itself established by the CJEU in the absence of a clear basis in the Treaties. Finally, the CJEU’s approach in Tele2 Sverige closely follows the reasoning in the earlier Digital Rights Ireland case in which the CJEU had declared the Data Retention Directive invalid on the grounds that the EU legislature has exceeded the limits imposed by compliance with the principle of proportionality in the light of Articles 7, 8 and 52(1) EU Charter.

The Tele2 Sverige decision further merits the following observations. First, the respondent Member States argued that the national legislation in question concerned the ‘retention’ and not the ‘processing’ of personal data. At first sight, this argument might appeal on literal grounds. However, as the ‘processing’ of such data requires their prior ‘retention’, the Court’s ruling may be defended on the grounds that if ‘data processing’ is covered by EU legislation which is subject to judicial review by the CJEU, so must national legislation governing the prior ‘retention’ of such data as there can be no ‘processing’ without ‘retention’ and the risk of unlawful processing is inevitably magnified if the prior indiscriminate detention were exempted from the need for compliance with the EU Charter. Article 3 of Directive 2002/58 further makes clear that the Directive applies to all “processing of personal data in connection with the provision of publicly available electronic communications services in public communications.” It is not unconvincing to conclude, as the CJEU does, that the term  ‘data processing … in connection with‘ provisons of electronic communications also covers the intermediate retention of such data of the relevant communications. Second, the Court’s Judgment may also be defended against criticisms that Article 1(3)  of Directive 2002/58 expressly excludes state “activities concerning public security, defence, State security.” The offending national legislation in Tele2 Sverige governs the retention of data by commercial electronic communication providers, not state activities. Third, the Court’s  emerging and so far expansive interpretation of data protection guarantees under EU law follows on from the Court’s strict adherence to established procedural rights guarantees in the area of EU sanctions law. In both areas the CJEU has not shirked away from questioning EU as well as implementing national legislation on the grounds of their non-compliance with applicable rights guarantees under EU law notwithstanding the obvious political dimension of its rulings and despite the overt contrary political preferences of many member states and their willingness to intervene alongside the respondent EU institution or member state in key proceedings. Continue reading

Skating on Thin Ice: The European Commission challenges the governance rules of an international sports association as being incompatible with European antitrust rules

By Peter Alexiadis and Pablo Figueroa[1]

The recent announcement by the European Commission (“the Commission”) that it is actively looking into the compatibility of the disciplinary measures exacted by the International Skating Union (“ISU”) with competition rules reminds us yet again of that there are few elements of modern life that are exempt from the scope of EU competition rules.  The approach being undertaken by the Commission in the ISU case constitutes a logical extension of the recent interest shown by National Competition Authorities within the EU on the compatibility of governance rules of sports organisations with national and EU competition law.[2]

I.                        The Facts

Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, the ISU is the only body recognised by the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) with the responsibility of administering the sports of ice figure skating and speed skating. In turn, its members are the various national ice-skating associations.

The Commission had initiated proceedings in relation to ISU’s eligibility rules in October 2015 following a complaint by two Dutch professional speed skaters, Mark Tuitert (gold medal winner at the 2010 Winter Olympics) and Niels Kerstholt.[3]

After an extremely short formal investigation of less than a year, the Commission has announced that the rules imposed by the ISU might be in contravention of the EU prohibition on anti-competitive agreements under Article 101 TFEU.[4]

More precisely, the Commission has informed the ISU of its preliminary view that its rules, under which athletes face severe penalties if they participate in speed skating events which have not been authorised by ISU, might infringe EU competition rules. Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager has indicated that the Commission’s concerns stem from the belief “that the penalties the ISU imposes on skaters through its eligibility rules are not aimed at preserving high standards in sport but rather serve to maintain the ISU’s control over speed skating. The ISU now has the opportunity to reply to our concerns”.

These accusations are outlined in a Statement of Objections addressed to the ISU, a document which informs the parties concerned of the competition allegations raised against them and which foresees that investigated entities can reply in writing and also request an Oral Hearing.  While the issuance of a Statement of Objections does not prejudge the outcome of the investigation, it is relatively rare that the Commission backs away from its claims.

According to a blog post by the Complainants’ counsel, which includes a twitter exchange between a skate complainant and Commissioner Vestager,[5] the complaint is based on the ISU’s intention to declare skaters as “persona non grata” where they participate in events organised by Icederby International, a private entity.  Moreover, the Complainants contended that the ISU Eligibility Rules rendered ineligible a person skating or officiating in an event not endorsed by ISU and/or its Members (i.e., the individual national associations) from participating in ISU activities and competitions.[6]  According to the Complainant’s counsel, this sanction apparently applies not only to the skaters, but also extends to coaches, trainers, doctors, team attendants, team officials, judges, referees and even volunteers.

By way of rebuttal, the ISU noted in a recent press release that independent organisers can establish international tournaments on the ISU calendar, and that Icederby, an organisation which initiated the complaint that triggered the Commission’s investigation via the two speed skaters in question, recently received ISU authorisation to co-run an event.[7]

The facts of the ISU case are not entirely dissimilar to those of Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) in the late 1990s.  In that case, the Commission closed its investigation, apparently after the FIA agreed to refrain from using its regulatory powers in relation to international motor racing in a manner that would mean that competing events were forced out of the market.[8] Continue reading

The Miller judgment: Why the Government should argue that Article 50 is reversible

Prof Phil Syrpissyrpis

Last week’s judgment in the High Court is a ringing endorsement of the sovereignty of Parliament. It asserts that ‘Parliament can, by enactment of primary legislation, change the law of the land in any way it chooses’ (at [20]). It explains why the ‘subordination of the Crown (ie executive government) to law is the foundation of the rule of law in the United Kingdom’ (at [26]), including references to the bedrock of the UK’s Constitution, the Glorious Revolution, the Bill of Rights, and constitutional jurist AV Dicey’s An Introduction to the Law of the Constitution. The Crown has broad powers on the international plane, for example to make and unmake treaties, but as a matter of English law, these powers reach their limits where domestic law rights are affected. EU law, by virtue of the European Communities Act 1972 (described again as a constitutional statute), does indeed have direct effect in domestic law. As a result of the fact that the decision to withdraw from the European Union would have a direct bearing on various categories of rights outlined in the judgment (at [57]-[61]), the Crown cannot, without the approval of Parliament, give notice under Article 50.

This strong statement of the rights of Parliament ought, in a rational world, to appeal to the instincts of leave supporters. At least part of the point of voting to leave the European Union was to ‘take back control’ from unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, and to return that power to the UK. In the same way as ‘we’ want to have control over the decision-making process in the EU, ‘we’ might also want to have some control over the actions of our (at least arguably, in this instance, also unelected) Government. The High Court’s judgment amounts to the simple assertion that, according to our Constitution, ‘we’ exercise this control via Parliament (and not, for example, via a ‘mandate’ given to the Crown by the result of the referendum (see [105]-[106])). The reaction of many on the leave side – and the Daily Mail deserves a particular mention for Friday’s front page – is a sad indictment of the state of debate in this country.

Unless the Government changes its argument when the decision is appealed (and the hearing is due in early December), the Supreme Court, too, is likely to decide that, according to the UK’s own constitutional requirements, the decision to trigger Article 50 is for Parliament, not the Government. Already, there is fevered speculation surrounding the likely reactions in Government, in the Commons and the Lords, and the devolved assemblies.

And yet, the judgment proceeds on the basis of ‘common ground’ between the parties that ‘a notice under Article 50(2) cannot be withdrawn, once it is given’ [10]. This, it turns out, is significant for the High Court. The reason why the Crown cannot give notice under Article 50, is that domestic law rights will, inexorably, be affected by the decision. In various parts of the judgment, the decision to give notice under Article 50 is treated as equivalent to the decision to withdraw from the EU.

Continue reading

High Court Brexit judgment: do all roads lead to Luxembourg?

Albert Sanchez Graellsbalanced-scale

This is a lightly edited version of a post that first appeared on the How to Crack a Nut blog. 

The High Court has now issued its Judgment in the dispute about the UK Parliament’s necessary approval of a Brexit notification–see R (Miller) -V- Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [2016] EWHC 2768 (Admin). It has ruled that such Parliamentary approval is indeed required as a matter of UK constitutional and public law. The Government has already announced that it will appeal this decision to the UK Supreme Court (UKSC). The implications of such an appeal are important and need to be carefully considered. One such possible consequence is that the appeal (indirectly) brings the case to the docket of the  Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

In my view, an appeal of the High Court’s Judgment before the UKSC will indeed trigger a legal requirement under EU law for the UKSC to send a reference for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU. I have rehearsed most of my arguments on twitter earlier (see here and here) and this posts brings them together.

Continue reading

The remarkable Government case in the Art 50 litigation

Prof. Piet Eeckhoutpiet-eeckhout

[This piece was originally posted on the London-Brussels One-Way or Return blog and is re-posted here with kind permission.]

It is now about a week since the hearings concluded in the litigation, before the High Court, on whether the UK Government can trigger Art 50 TEU, or whether instead an Act of Parliament is required. The transcript of the hearing makes for fascinating reading. We will have to see what the judges decide, but I cannot refrain from making the point that the Government’s case is weak. Government lawyers are of course confined in what they can argue, and what not, by what their client, i.e. politics, wants. It seems like the client has not dealt them a good hand. For the Government’s case is built around a set of propositions which are in huge tension with one another. They are:

  • The 2015 Referendum Act, which organised the referendum, did not confer on the Government the power to trigger Art 50. At most, it did not disturb a pre-existing power (the Royal Prerogative).
  • The Art 50 notification cannot be revoked. In the words of Lord Pannick QC, once the bullet has left the gun it will definitely hit the target: exit after 2 years, or at such time as the withdrawal agreement enters into force.
  • The Government can make treaties and withdraw from them. But for there to be effect in domestic law of either the making a treaty, or withdrawing from it, Parliament must be involved. This last proposition is confirmed in the following, fascinating exchange.

“THE LORD CHIEF JUSTICE: I think, sorry, if I understood my Lord’s question, you accept that if the government wanted to amend the treaties or withdraw from them so that effect was given to withdrawal in domestic law, there would have to be an Act of Parliament.

THE ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes.

THE LORD CHIEF JUSTICE: Whether it is amending or withdrawing, it doesn’t make any difference.

         THE ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes.

THE LORD CHIEF JUSTICE: I think that was the point. It is the effectiveness in domestic law. There is no difference between amending and withdrawing, you have to have a statute?

THE ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes, in order for there to be an effect in domestic law we accept that Parliament’s involvement would be necessary.”

At the end of this exchange the Attorney-General confirms that Parliament’s involvement would be necessary to give domestic effect to Brexit. In other words, the Government could negotiate a withdrawal agreement, but such an agreement could take effect in UK law (much like the conclusion of a new treaty) only if Parliament legislated to such effect. But this is contradicted by proposition (2). That proposition accepts that, once the trigger has been pulled, withdrawal is outside the Government’s control. It will happen, whether the Parliament legislates or not. Crucially, this includes the effect in domestic law. The UK cannot, in its domestic law, keep all extinguished EU membership rights and obligations alive. That is so, quite simply, because at least some of those rights and obligations require membership, and the cooperation of the EU institutions and other Member States. Just one example: UK citizens will no longer be able to vote for the European Parliament, after withdrawal, and it is wholly irrelevant whether the UK Parliament leaves such a right on its statute book or not.

In the Government’s case withdrawal is therefore completely different from the law and practice of negotiating and approving new EU Treaties (or amendments to them) – contrary to what it claims. That law and practice is such that a new Treaty cannot enter into force unless it has been ratified by each member State in accordance with its constitutional requirements (i.e. approved by its parliament): see Art 48 TEU (there is a simplified revision procedure, but even that allows national parliaments to block). The logic is that the EU does not finally agree new rights and obligations until all national parliaments have approved them, and incorporated them into domestic law. So the logic of the prerogative not interfering with domestic legislation is fully respected for the negotiation of new treaties. But for withdrawal the Attorney General effectively argues the reverse: the UK Government can decide on withdrawal, including its inescapable domestic effect, and it doesn’t need Parliament’s approval.

Proposition (1) is relevant because it means that the Government is not arguing that the 2015 Referendum Act conferred a power on it to give effect to a negative referendum result, by triggering Art 50. So Parliament never authorised the triggering, and it cannot, once the bullet has left, undo withdrawal, either at the international plane or at the domestic level.

I cannot see how these three propositions could be reconciled. The most remarkable one, from the perspective of the Government’s case, is the second. If the Government argued that the Brexit bullet can be pulled back to the gun – in other words that the UK Government could always revoke the notification – there would be a much stronger case for the exercise of the prerogative, as many have noted. Parliament could then, at any stage of the negotiations, force the Government to withdraw from withdrawal. But for political reasons the Government doesn’t argue this. The big question looming over the litigation is whether the courts can simply assume that the Art 50 notification is irrevocable, when that point is so critical.