In its recent Opinion 2/13 the Luxembourg Court found that plans for the EU to accede to the ECHR are not compatible with Union law as it currently stands. This ruling has been critically received, including on this blog (see here (Lock), here (Besselink), here (Michl), here (Douglas-Scott), here (Peers) and here (O’Neill)). The immediate focus has been on how the Opinion should be evaluated as a matter of Union law and followed up inside the EU. To that effect it has been suggested that the draft accession treaty would need renegotiation, or that a text with Treaty status (a Protocol) should be added to the existing EU Treaty texts which would themselves be left intact. Are other options available too in Brussels, for example freezing accession ambitions for a while or changing existing Treaty texts?
Clearly, no matter what solution is eventually found, it will (once again) take years. This raises another important prior question: what is the Strasbourg Court likely to do until an EU accession solution 2.0, or any EU-internal alternative is in place? In particular, will Opinion 2/13, and its revealing reasoning for how the Luxembourg Court currently views the place of human rights protection in Union law and the leeway that Member States have in diverting from Union law if their ECHR obligations so require, have implications for the Strasbourg Court’s “EU approach” (see here and here for its own factsheets regarding its general approach and that in Dublin cases)? This contribution offers some first reflections on moving on in Strasbourg and Brussels.
The Opinion: first a step back
It is quite understandable that the Luxembourg Court’s ruling has met with considerable disappointment. It has been suggested that it has prioritised the protection of its own position over EU human rights protection. But, taking a step back, perhaps this time there was actually (also) a veritable case for “blaming Brussels” too. For were the instructions laid out in the Treaty and the Protocols sufficiently clear to begin with? Is it at heart at all possible to establish independent external judicial review, apparently for reason that human rights protection was felt not to be properly safeguarded in the existing set-up (article 6 TEU), without redistributing competences to the disadvantage of the Luxembourg Court (Protocol 8)? In other words, if the whole point of accession actually was to change something in the institutional design of the EU, the make-up of legal remedies and even the way in which Union law had been interpreted so far by the Luxembourg Court, why not state that more clearly from the outset? From that perspective the Opinion by the Court may be a reflection of the convoluted drafting of the EU accession instructions by the Herren der Verträge.
Looking at the state of affairs from another perspective, perhaps the fact that it is now “back to the drawing board” is also a unique second (or third) chance to ask the basic prior question of the Lisbon Treaty text: quite how can the application of an EU internal human rights document (the Charter) that the Luxembourg Court is under an obligation to apply, be combined with external judicial review by the Strasbourg Court of the EU’s (including the Luxembourg Court’s) performance with regard to the ECHR, if that ECHR and the way in which it is interpreted are themselves part (but only part) of the normative content of the Charter? This is not an easy one. A binding Charter and EU accession, it should be remembered in this context, were initially alternative solutions to “fill the EU human rights gap”. Only later did they become cumulative elements in the EU treaties, as a “solution” without a prior problem analysis justifying this double-headed approach. Yet, curiously, given the great stress accorded to EU accession so far their development has somehow remained unconnected. Additional instructions on how to dovetail their two separate logics may be unavoidable.
Then Opinion 2/13 itself. In fact, by the standards of any Court ruling, it offers a surprisingly candid, concise and (mostly) clear analysis. Some of us may not like what we read, and some cross-translation from Union law to human rights law expertise may be required to clarify its full significance, but it is extremely helpful for considering future directions in Strasbourg and Brussels. In particular the reasoning under the headings “preliminary considerations” (par. 153-177) and “the specific characteristics and the autonomy of EU law” (par. 179-200) is revealing in a number of different respects, including with regard to
- the Court’s extension of its Melloni-reasoning to ECHR Member States’ freedom to go beyond what is required by ECHR minimum norms, as well as further (unstated) implications of this reasoning with regard to interpreting the Charter and the ECHR side-by-side, and
- the Full Court’s approach to mutual trust in the EU in the light of EU Member States’ parallel ECHR commitments, and its reference to the 2011 Luxembourg Grand Chamber ruling in NS.
These two elements will be briefly highlighted below. I agree with Scheinin that in thinking about responses to the Court’s Opinion it seems more fruitful to consider these (and many other relevant) elements of the analysis rationally, in the light of the broader questions of post-Lisbon Union human rights protection architecture, rather than being stuck in disappointment for too long. Continue reading