Brexit, the Referendum and the UK Parliament: Some Questions about Sovereignty

Sionaidh Douglas-Scott

So, we have the result of the Referendum, and a majority of voters have voted to leave the EU. A mantra of Leave campaigners seems to have been the desire to ‘take back control’. There has been much talk of sovereignty, although less clarity on what it actually means. However, at its most basic, there are at least three notions of sovereignty that are relevant in the context of Brexit, and they are often confused. The first is parliamentary sovereignty, which is said to have particular resonance in the UK because, due to the vagaries of the uncodified UK Constitution, the Westminster Parliament has been recognised as a body with unlimited legislative power. Yet the parliamentary sovereignty of a representative democracy may seem to be at odds with popular sovereignty as exercised in a referendum. Popular sovereignty also has other implications, such as in Scotland, where an indigenous Scottish tradition claims that sovereignty resides in the Scottish people, in spite of the alternative claims of Diceyan parliamentary sovereignty. Thirdly, there is external sovereignty: whereby a country may be sovereign and recognised as independent by the international community. But states recognise that international agreements such NATO, or EU treaties, curb sovereignty in practice. However, these constraints are willingly accepted by states because of the benefits that pooling or ceding some sovereignty can bring – indeed it can even enhance sovereignty in another sense of a state’s power or ability to deal with certain issues.

These are three different concepts of sovereignty, but they have become very confused in the context of Brexit and the UK’s relations with the EU. Now we have the results of the Referendum vote, what are the implications of ‘taking back control’ for sovereignty? This blog examines three specific issues arising in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote which reveal the extent of confusion over sovereignty.

  1. The Referendum

The referendum result is not binding

The Referendum vote is an expression of popular sovereignty. But referenda have not been a highly significant feature of UK Constitutional law in the past and there is still uncertainty as to their place in our Constitution. Labour MP David Lammy has called on Parliament to ‘stop this madness’ and to vote in Parliament against the referendum decision to leave the EU. A large majority of MPs are in favour of remaining within the EU, so Parliament would not pass legislation to leave the EU unless it felt compelled to do so by popular demand expressed through a referendum. Could Parliament actually vote against Brexit? According to classic, Diceyan notions of sovereignty, if Parliament is actually sovereign it can legislate to do anything, including to ignore a non-binding referendum. The EU in-out Referendum is a creature of the European Union Referendum Act 2015. There is no requirement in the Act that the UK Government implement its results, nor does the statute set any time limit for implementing a vote to leave the EU. It is a pre-legislative, or consultative, referendum, enabling the electorate to express its opinion before any legislation is introduced. The 1975 referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EEC was also an example of this type. In contrast, the legislation setting up the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum held in May 2011 (Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011)  would have introduced a new system of voting without further legislation, although this did not happen because there was a large majority against change.

So whether a referendum is legally binding depends on the structure of the legislation which enables it. Parliament decides that. The UK does not have a codified constitution with provisions requiring referendum results to be implemented, unlike, for example, Ireland, where the circumstances in which a binding referendum is held are set out in its Article 47 of its Constitution. Indeed, even those UK referenda that appear to dictate consequences, such as the AV referendum, are not completely binding, in the sense that Parliament (due to parliamentary sovereignty) could in any case repeal the legislation creating the obligation.

However, although there may be no legal obligation to abide by the result of the referendum that is not the same as saying there is no political commitment to do so, and MPs may feel a strong obligation to act on the results of the vote, especially if they fear reprisals from their electorate in the form of being voted out of office at a future election. So popular sovereignty and parliamentary sovereignty appear to be at odds. Which, if either, ought to predominate? Continue reading

The Quest for EU Reform after Brexit: Changes to the Role and Doctrines of the European Court of Justice

juropean-justiceProf. Peter Lindseth

“What if…?” These kinds of questions may now seem pointless in the aftermath of the victory of Leave in the EU Referendum. Instead we hear ‘What’s done is done’, ‘Leave means Leave’, ‘out is out’, etc., etc., etc.

But one question has always nagged at me ever since David Cameron brought his renegotiation deal back to the UK in February: What if it included a serious commitment to alter the role and doctrines of the European Court of Justice? Would that have tipped the balance toward the Remain side? Would we have been talking instead about a 52-48 victory for Remain? Would serious ECJ reform, both institutionally and doctrinally, have been enough to peel off the likes of Boris Johnson from the Leave camp, harnessing his energies for Remain and reform?

We will never know. But the question is still of interest, if for no other reason than the remaining Member States must now seriously consider a range of EU reforms in order to prevent further contagion of the Brexit virus. As former German Constitutional Court Judge Gertrude Lübbe-Wolff said in an interview on Verfassungsblog, ‘the shock over what has happened, and the fear of further disintegration, might produce an awakening effect. So I try to remain optimistic’. This post is in that spirit.

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Spring EU law events

We’ll be back after the break, but in the meanwhile the following events might be of interest to readers:

Opinion 2/13 on accession by the European Union to the ECHR: Is it convincing? Is there a way forward? Are there wider constitutional implications?

UKAEL Seminar, 23 April 2015, 18.30 – 20.00

Council Room, Strand Campus, King’s College London

£25 current UKAEL members / £40 general public

Featuring Professor Sir Alan Dashwood QC, Dr Tobias Lock, Professor Michael Dougan and Professor Philippa Watson. You can book places here.

The Academy of European Law summer courses at the European University Institute, Florence

The Academy of European Law summer courses in Human Rights Law and European Union law, given by leading authorities from the worlds of practice and academia, provide high-level programmes for researchers and legal practitioners.

This year’s Human Rights Law Course will be held on 15 – 26 June. It comprises a General Course on ‘The Future of Human Rights Fact-finding’ by Philip Alston (New York University Law School) and a series of specialized courses on the topic of ‘The Futures of Human Rights’ by leading scholars.

The Law of the European Union Course will be held on 29 June – 10 July. It features a General Course on ‘What’s Left of the Law of Integration?’ by Julio Baquero Cruz (Member of the Legal Service of the European Commission) and a series of specialized courses on the topic of  ‘Harmonization in a Changing Legal Context’ by leading scholars and practitioners in the Law of the European Union.

The two-week courses are held at the European University Institute in Florence. Applications close on 8 April. For further information see the Academy’s website at www.ael.eu/AEL

Event: BIICL Annual Grotius Lecture 2015

On Thursday 26 March 2015 Eleanor Sharpston QC, Advocate General at the CJEU, will deliver the 2015 Annual Grotius Lecture on the subject ‘Squaring the Circle? Fighting Terrorism whilst Respecting Fundamental Rights’. This event looks to be of great interest to barristers, solicitors, judges, arbitrators, government officials, intergovernmental officials, academics, students and all with an interest in European law. More details are available here.

Sanneh and Others – access to welfare for Zambrano carers

 

Dr Iyiola Solanke

If citizenship is the fundamental status for EU citizens, what is its substance for child citizens who are too young to enjoy the rights set out in Articles 21-23 TEU to work, travel, vote or petition the EP? What does the principle in EU law of ‘genuine enjoyment of the substance of citizenship’ mean if you are a child? And what are the implications for your parent or parents? These are central questions for a specific group of children now growing up across the EU – those who themselves hold EU citizenship but their parents do not. As stated in the Zambrano case,  the parents of such ‘Zambrano Minors’ derive a right of residence in the EU so that the child is not deprived of the genuine substance of Union citizenship. Although the Court of Justice has subsequently considered when this genuine enjoyment is impinged (Macarthy, Dereci, O & O) it has not made any remarks on the substance of citizenship rights for the children. It may be necessary for it to do so to prevent these children from being consigned to lives of poverty by national interpretation of its principle.

The Court of Appeal has delivered a decision concerning access by the parents of Zambrano Minors to social assistance. The parents challenged the Regulations adopted by the Coalition Government to incorporate the Zambrano principle into national law. Three Regulations were designed to specifically exclude these parents from rights to social assistance that they would otherwise have as lawfully resident persons. In line with its policy to make Britain hostile to immigrants, the Government decided that these parents should be in the same position as those who do not have a lawful right to reside. The ‘Amendment Regulations’ therefore exclude all ‘Zambrano Parents – those in work and those out of work – from income-related benefits including income support, jobseekers allowance, employment allowance, pension credit, housing benefit, council tax benefit, child benefit and child tax credit. The Home Office justifies this policy as a measure to prevent and deter ‘benefit tourism’ but the parents argued that this policy was a faulty application of the Zambrano principle and discriminatory under EU law. It was argued that a proper application of the principle called for them to be in the same position as other EU nationals.

The Justices agreed with the Home Office. Drawing upon the ‘effective citizenship principle’, they held that

  1. Rights derived from an EU citizen [3] are not EU rights [95]. Thus although ‘their status is derived from the EU citizenship rights of the child as interpreted by the CJEU’ ‘EU law has no competence in the level of social assistance to be paid to the carer’. This is ‘exclusively governed by national law’ [27];
  2. ‘Zambrano carers’ derive their right to reside from Article 20 TFEU and therefore fall outside the EU cross-border social benefits legislative scheme (the ‘EU CBSBL scheme’) set out in the Citizenship Directive, the Long Term residence Directive and the Family reunion Directive [42];
  3. ‘Genuine enjoyment’ does not ‘require the State to guarantee any particular quality of life’ [32 & 171] – a ‘Zambrano carer’ is protected from compulsion to leave but this does not provide as a corollary a right for parent and child to live free from want and poverty. Zambrano carers are not to be left ‘destitute’ but member states remain free to determine access to benefits where individual situations fall outside of the scope of EU Directives [83];
  4. The proportionality principle is irrelevant because the question is beyond the scope of EU law;
  5. The EU principle of non-discrimination in EU law and the ECHR is inapplicable.

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Vacancy: Judge at the General Court of the European Union

This week a vacancy was announced at the General Court which readers of this blog may be interested in. A selection exercise is to be run to identify the next UK representative of the General Court of the European Union on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The intent to apply deadline is Monday 2 February; more information is available via the link.

Dr Iyiola Solanke joins the editorial team

We’re delighted to announce that regular contributor Dr Iyiola Solanke has joined the blog as a full editor. In addition to writing articles on discrimination law ranging from the recent CJEU decision in Kaltoft on weight discrimination to equality of treatment in free movement to spousal reunion, Dr Solanke is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Leeds and is widely published. Her biography is available on the Editors page.

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.

Event: The EU Air Passenger Rights Regulation 261/2004: Ten Years On

College of Europe, Bruges, 26-27 September 2014.

Organised jointly with the IECL, Oxford, with the kind support of the Söderberg Foundation.

This workshop will be the second in a recently established EU Law in the Member States series (Hart Publishing), dedicated to exploring the impact of landmark CJEU judgments and secondary legislation in legal systems across the European Union.  J Malenovský of the Court of Justice will give a keynote address, and the meeting will bring together generalist EU lawyers and experts in the field, combining perspectives from a wide range of different member states in order to compare and analyse the effect of EU law on domestic legal systems and practice.

A programme is already online; to register, please go here.

For further information, please contact jeremias.prassl@law.ox.ac.uk or michal.bobek@coleurope.be.

Taxing Times: the UK’s Challenge to the Financial Transaction Tax

KAProf Kenneth Armstrong, University of Cambridge

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Samuel Beckett

Just over a year since the United Kingdom (UK) commenced legal proceedings against the Council of the EU challenging its decision to authorise the use of enhanced cooperation for the adoption of the proposed Financial Transaction Tax (FTT), the Court of Justice has, as anticipated, dismissed the UK’s application (Case C-209/13, United Kingdom v Council). This is another defeat for the UK following on from its unsuccessful challenge to the powers of the European Securities and Markets Authority to control ‘short-selling’. Whether the UK will have more success in the third of its triptych of legal challenges to measures adopted in the wake of the financial crisis – the cap of ‘bankers’ bonuses’ – is yet to be determined. However, in the lead up to the European Parliament elections, with the United Kingdom Independence Party riding high in the polls and the UK prime minister declaring that he will not act as prime minister following the 2015 general election unless there will be a referendum on the UK’s continuing membership of the EU, it is clear that these defeats before the Luxembourg court have both political and legal saliency.

 

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