Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Applying the EU Charter of Rights to Member States' internal market derogations



By Steve Peers

Today’s judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Pfleger confirmed an important issue as regards the scope of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights – but also raised some implicit questions about its added value in such cases.

The case concerned Austrian restrictions on gambling machines. In fact, the CJEU has decided very many cases relating to national restrictions on gambling, an issue which is not regulated by detailed EU legislation but which is nonetheless in principle subject to EU internal market law. Here, the parties challenging the enforcement of the Austrian law raised questions concerning the compliance of that law with the EU Charter, in particular as regards Articles 15 to 17 of the Charter (concerning freedom to conduct an occupation, to run a  business and the right to property) and Article 50 (the prohibition on double jeopardy).

Does the Charter apply?

Article 51 of the Charter limits the scope of its application to EU bodies, and to the Member States ‘only’ when they are ‘implementing’ EU law. At first sight, this rule narrows the established scope of the previous CJEU case law on the scope of human rights protection, which (going back to the 1991 judgment of ERT) had always held that any national derogations from EU free movement rights had to comply with human rights obligations as general principles of EU law. On a strict interpretation, such national derogations could not easily be seen as measures ‘implementing’ EU law, and many academics therefore wondered whether the Charter was narrower in scope than the general principles.

However, last year’s judgment in Fransson confirmed that the scope of the Charter was exactly the same as the scope of the general principles. Logically, it followed that national derogations from free movement rules are within the scope of the Charter, but the Pfleger case was the first opportunity that the Court has had to confirm this.

Comparing internal market rules and the Charter

Despite the importance of this case from a human rights perspective, the main issue in the Pfleger judgment is the compliance of the national rules with EU internal market law. The CJEU, no doubt exhausted with the amount of litigation on this issue, simply reiterates its prior case law, and asks the national court to apply it to the facts. Also, the CJEU does state that if the national restrictions on gambling do not have any real link to combating crime or social problems, but are simply a means of increasing tax revenue, then this cannot be justified – but it relies on the national court’s findings in this regard.

What does the Charter add to this? On the facts of this case, not very much. According to the CJEU, if the national law restricted internal market freedoms, then it also restricted the economic rights in Articles 15-17 of the Charter. Equally, if it could not be justified under the internal market rules, then it could not be justified as a limitation on Charter rights pursuant to Article 52 of the Charter either.

It should be noted that the Court did not rule that an analysis of the internal market rules in the Treaty would always lead to the same result as the Charter analysis. The ruling expressly concerned ‘circumstances such as those at issue in the main proceedings’. So it is possible to imagine, for instance, that as regards a different aspect of the free movement of services more directly connected to human rights than gambling – broadcasting, for instance – a national restriction might be proportionate from the point of view of the internal market but a questionable restriction of freedom of expression. At the very least, a separate application of the internal market and human rights rules would surely be called for where (for instance) the content of communications is being restricted.

The Court did not touch on the separate question of whether the enforcement (as distinct from the substance) of the national rules needed to be judged from a human rights perspective, noting only that if the national rules breached the Treaty rules on internal market freedoms, they could not be enforced anyway. The Advocate-General’s opinion, in contrast, assumed that if the national rules were substantively in compliance with internal market law and the Charter, the details of their enforcement could still be tested for compliance with the Charter.

Implications of the judgment

While this judgment only concerned national derogations from internal market Treaty freedoms, there is no reason to think that its impact is limited to such cases. There is a lot of EU legislation on different issues which allows Member States to derogate in various ways from its rules, and there is no reason to think that the internal market Treaty provisions are in some way special as regards the scope of application of the Charter.

In particular, as discussed already on this blog, the national derogations from the e-privacy Directive, as regards data retention and other forms of interception of telecommunications, are subject to the Charter, even following the annulment of the data retention Directive. The Court has already examined such national derogations in the context of civil proceedings, and logically should do so as regards criminal proceedings too.


Barnard & Peers: chapter 9, chapter 16

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