Thursday 30 November 2017

The European Citizens’ Initiative & Greek debt: An unlikely combination

Anastasia Karatzia, Lecturer in Law, University of Essex


It is not every day that we see CJEU judgments on the European and Monetary Union (EMU). A simple search on Curia with the words ‘Economic and Monetary Policy’ results in relatively few cases including a couple of seminal judgments published in the past five years, such as Pringle and Gauweiler (discussed here), which relate to measures taken for the management of the Eurozone crisis. One of the results of this search is the case of Anagnostakis v Commission, which challenges the refusal of the Commission to register Mr. Anagnostakis’ proposed European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) ‘One million signatures for solidarity’.

Mr. Anagnostakis submitted his proposed Initiative to the Commission in July 2012. According to the text of the proposal, the objective of the Initiative was the establishment, in EU law, of a principle of ‘the state of necessity, in accordance with which, when the financial and political existence of a Member State is threatened by the servicing of abhorrent debt, the refusal to repay that debt is necessary and justifiable.’ The proposed ECI mentioned Articles 119 - 144 TFEU (the Treaty provisions on EMU) as the legal basis for its adoption. In September 2012, the Commission refused to register Mr. Anagnostakis’ proposal on the ground that the proposal did not fulfil the conditions of Article 4(2)(b) of the ECI Regulation, as it ‘fell manifestly outside the scope of the Commission’s powers to submit a proposal for the adoption of a legal act of the Union for the purpose of implementing the Treaty’.

The letter of refusal sent to the organiser stated that the Commission had examined the Treaty provisions referred to in the proposed ECI, in particular Article 136(1) TFEU ‘and all other possible legal bases’, before concluding that the proposed Initiative should be refused registration. On 11 October 2012, Mr. Anagnostakis challenged the refusal of his Initiative, claiming that the Commission could have registered the ECI on the basis of Article 122(1), Article 122(2), Article 136(1)(b) TFEU, and rules of international law. The General Court found that the Commission had not committed an error in law by refusing to register the proposal and thus dismissed the case. It also ruled that the Commission had complied with its obligation to state reasons, after examining this procedural ground on its own motion.

The applicant appealed the judgment of the General Court, and the European Court of Justice (ECJ) delivered its judgment on 12 September 2017. This commentary, which is the third in a line of posts in ‘EU Law Analysis’ on ECI-cases (see earlier comments on the TTIP/CETA and Minority Safepack cases), will focus on the ECJ’s judgment, which is the first and currently the only ECJ judgment relating to an ECI. Interestingly, the judgment was delivered by the Grand Chamber, possibly because of the novel nature of the subject matter, or (/and) because of the politically sensitive nature of the Initiative.

In addition to this first ECI judgment, the Commission’s Proposal for a new ECI Regulation, was recently published and was presented earlier this week (28 November) by the First Vice President Timmermans to the European Parliament. The commentary will conclude by briefly looking at a specific aspect of the Commission’s Proposal, namely the suggested formalisation of the partial registration of an ECI.

The judgment of the European Court of Justice in Anagnostakis

The appeal consisted of four grounds which were classified into two groups (as suggested by the Advocate-General’s opinion). The first group of arguments concerned the procedure in which the Commission made its Decision. The appellant challenged the finding of the General Court that the contested decision satisfied the Commission’s requirement to give reasons under Article 296 TFEU. The second group concerned the substance of the Decision: the appellant complained that the General Court misinterpreted Article 122 TFEU, Article 136(1) TFEU, and rules of international law in finding that the Commission’s assessment of Article 4(2)(b) of the ECI Regulation was correct.

The Commission’s obligation to give reasons

According to the appellant, the General Court’s assessment of the Commission’s duty to state reasons was faulty. The General Court wrongly held that the Commission’s mere reference to Article 4(2)(b) of the ECI Regulation in its Communication was a sufficient reason for the refusal of the proposed ECI. Simply stating that an ECI proposal was refused on the basis of Article 4(2)(b) of the ECI Regulation did not actually explain why the Commission manifestly lacked the competence to register the proposal.

The ECJ’s assessment of this ground of review is clear and consistent with the case law on Article 296 TFEU, specifically expressed in the context of the ECI in Article 4(3) of the ECI Regulation. The Court started by referring to Article 11(4) TEU (i.e. the legal basis of the ECI together with Article 24 TFEU), characterising the ECI as one of the instruments related to ‘the right of citizens to participate in the democratic life of the Union,’ (para 24) stipulated in Article 10(3) TFEU. The Court referred to well-established case law on Article 296 TFEU, according to which an EU institution’s statement of reasons must be assessed by reference to the circumstances of the specific case, taking into consideration the wording of the statement as well as the context and all the legal rules governing the matter in question (para 29). It stressed that the purpose of the duty to give reasons is to enable the person concerned to understand why the decision was taken, and to enable the competent Court to exercise its powers of review.

The Court then went on to consider the General Court’s finding that the Commission had complied with its obligation to state reasons (paras 31-43).The main message of the Court here was that a more detailed statement of reasons by the Commission would only be required if the ECI proposal itself was more detailed. The brevity of the proposed ECI, as well as the general reference made to Articles 119-144 TFEU and the lack of an explanation of the link between those Articles and the content of the proposal, justified the brevity of the contested Decision.

In light of the format of the proposed Initiative, the Commission was entitled to assess the proposal predominantly on the basis of Article 136(1) TFEU (a general power to adopt legislation relating to EMU), which was the least irrelevant Article on which the proposed ECI could have relied. Moreover, there is no obligation on the Commission to justify its assessment of all 26 proposed legal bases or to explain why any other provision of the TFEU was irrelevant. In its assessment, the Court took into account the fact that the General Court was eventually able to review the substance of the Commission’s decision, which, as mentioned above, is one of the underlying objectives of imposing on the EU Institutions a duty to give reasons in the first place (para 40).

In line with the General Court ruling in Minority Safepack, the ECJ in Anagnostakis supported the view that that the Commission would have to publish a more detailed statement of reasons only if the organisers had given more detailed information on the connection between the recommended legal bases and the content of the proposed ECI (para 37). Future ECI organisers should therefore be mindful of the fact that the format of a proposed ECI itself – including the details in the text of the proposal and the Annexes attached to it – is a determining factor of the extent of the Commission’s obligation to give reasons for rejecting a proposed Initiative. This approach might refuel concerns regarding the ability of grassroots organisers to put together detailed explanations of the suitable legal bases for their proposals, not least when these proposals have to do with matters that are as complicated as the EMU.

On the substance of the case

With regard to the substance of the case, the appellant argued that the Commission should have registered the proposed Initiative on the basis of Articles 122, 136(1) TFEU, and rules of international law. The latter argument, which was examined last, was the one most swiftly rejected by the Court: a principle of international law cannot be a legal basis for an initiative by the Commission. According to Article 5(1) and 5(2) TEU, the Commission can only act within the limits of the competences conferred upon it by the Treaties, and the existence of a principle of international law ‘would not suffice as a basis for a legislative initiative’ (see paras 95-103).

Interestingly, before delving into the substance of the matter, the Court considered the scope of judicial review that it could carry out in the case at hand. It clarified that a review of the merits of the General Court’s decision can only be made on the basis of the information provided at the time of the request for the Initiative’s registration. As such, the Court would not take into account any clarifications made by the appellant in the appeal at hand. After this preliminary observation, the ECJ examined the appellant’s arguments concerning Articles 122 and 136(1) TFEU.

The Court first examined whether Article 122 TFEU could have been an appropriate legal basis for the proposed ECI. It reiterated that Article 122(1) TFEU allows the Council to decide, ‘in a spirit of solidarity between Member States’, upon measures appropriate to the economic situation, especially if the Member State is facing severe difficulties in the supply of certain products in the area of energy. It confirmed the finding of the General Court in first instance, which had cited Pringle, that Article 122(1) TFEU ‘does not constitute an appropriate legal basis for possible financial assistance from the Union to Member States who are experiencing, or are threatened by severe financing issues’ (para 69). According to the Court, it did not matter that Pringle concerned the European Stability Mechanism, which was not the focus of the proposed ECI; the point remained that Article 122(1) TFEU does not apply to measures aiming to ease a Member State of its financial difficulties (para 70).

Subsequently, the ECJ also dismissed the appellant’s argument that, contrary to the General Court’s decision, Article 122(2) TFEU could be an appropriate legal basis for the ECI. The provision allows the Council to authorise financial assistance from the EU to a Member State which is experiencing severe difficulties or a serious threat of severe difficulties caused by natural disasters or exceptional circumstances beyond its control. Once again, the ECJ referred to the case of Pringle where it had ruled that Article 122(2) TFEU cannot be used as the basis for the establishment of a general and permanent mechanism of non-repayment of debt (para 75). Since the ECI proposal suggested the deletion of debts owed by the Member States to both the EU and to public and private, natural or legal persons, it could not fall within the meaning of Article 122(2) TFEU, which concerns only financial assistance provided by the EU and not by the other involved persons (paras 76 and 77).

Finally, the ECJ confirmed the finding of the General Court that Article 136(1) TFEU cannot be used as a legal basis for the establishment of the principle of the state of necessity in EU law. According to the Court, the adoption of a measure such as the one suggested by the proposed Initiative cannot be seen as ‘economic policy guidance’ as envisaged by Article 136(1)(b) TFEU. To the contrary, the mechanism proposed by the ECI would replace the free will of contracting parties by allowing for the unilateral writing-off of sovereign debt (paras 90-91).

Overall, it is notable that the ECJ dismissed a number of the applicant’s arguments under each ground of appeal because of the limited scope of review in the context of the case at hand. On appeal, the ECJ can only review the findings of law on the case put forward by the parties in the case before the General Court. As such, a number of the arguments put forward by the appellant were not assessed on their merits, leaving a number of questions unanswered by the Court in this occasion. The first question is whether a Member State facing severe financing difficulties can invoke the so-called ‘state of necessity’ to receive debt relief not unilaterally, but subject to conditionality laid down by the Commission (paras 71-73). The second question is whether the Initiative could be adopted on the basis of Article 136(3) TFEU in conjunction with Article 352 TFEU (the ‘residual powers’ clause). Besides the procedural point concerning the inability of the ECJ to rule on the above two questions on appeal, one might also wonder whether the ECI-case of Anagnostakis would have been an appropriate occasion for the ECJ to make any bold declarations on the issue of a Member State’s debt relief.

The third question left open was whether the Commission should have partially registered the proposed Initiative only to the extent that the proposal suggested the relief of the debt owed by a Member State to the Union. The ECJ did not examine whether the Commission should have registered this interpretation of the proposal. As a more general observation, we should note that the procedural question of whether partial registration by the Commission is possible has now become redundant. Earlier this year, the Commission partially registered the Minority SafePack ECI while, as we will see below, the Commission’s Proposal for a New ECI Regulation specifically refers to the possibility for the Commission to allow partial registration of a proposed Initiative.

Partial Registration of an ECI under the Commission’s Proposal for a New ECI Regulation

Five days after the ECJ’s decision in Anagnostakis, the Commission published its ‘Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the European Citizens’ Initiative’, which suggests the adoption of a New ECI Regulation to replace Regulation 211/2011. In the proposed ‘New ECI Regulation’, the legal admissibility test has been moved from Article 4 to Article 6. The newly suggested provision retains the essence of the current procedure: organisers may only start collecting signatures supporting their ECI after they have submitted their request through the register (Article 6(2)), and the Commission has checked that the proposal satisfies certain legal and procedural criteria (Article 6(3) and (4)) and has registered the proposal (Article 6(1)).

Under the New ECI Regulation, Articles 6(3)(d) and (e) maintain the two legal criteria of the current ECI Regulation: a proposed Initiative will not be registered if it is manifestly abusive, frivolous or vexatious, or if it is manifestly contrary to the values of the EU (see Article 4(2)(c) and (d) of the current ECI Regulation). Perhaps the most notable changes are included in Articles 6(3)(c) and Article 6(4) of the New ECI Regulation compared with the current Article 4(2)(b) of the ECI Regulation. Article 6(3)(c) states that the Commission shall register a proposed initiative if ‘none of the parts of the initiative manifestly falls outside the framework of the Commission’s powers to submit a proposal for a legal act of the Union for the purpose of implementing the Treaties’. This Article should be read in conjunction with Article 6(4), which allows for the partial registration of an ECI by the Commission.

To put it simply (or, at least, as simply as possible), if the Commission considers that only parts of a proposal fall within its competence to propose a legal act, it has to send the proposal back to the organisers within one month, together with the reasons behind its assessment. The organisers then have the possibility – and the responsibility – to change and resubmit, to maintain, or to withdraw their initial proposal. It is not very clear why organisers might want to maintain a rejected proposal, which in all likelihood will simply be rejected again by the Commission. In case the organisers decide to change their proposal, however, they would have the responsibility of submitting the necessary amendments to the Commission. After receiving the amendments, the Commission would have one month to assess the new information and to either register, partially register, or reject the ECI (Article 6(4)).

Partial registration of an ECI would thus be formalised in the sense that the Commission would have to check if ‘a substantial part of the initiative including its main objectives’ does not manifestly fall outside the framework of the Commission’s powers to submit a proposal for a legal act. The proposed Regulation does not define what is to be considered ‘a substantial part’ of a proposed Initiative. Not only that, but the proposal shifts the burden on the organisers to re-consider their initiative and re-submit to the Commission, instead of obliging the Commission to specify which parts of the initial ECI proposal it can maintain for the purposes of registration. It will be interesting to see how the European Parliament will react to this, and the rest of the changes to the ECI legal framework proposed by the Commission in the New ECI Regulation, especially since MEPs have been advocating for a more user-friendly ECI in their contributions to the review of the current ECI Regulation.   

Photo credit: CNBC

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