Wednesday, 9 October 2019

The CJEU rules on consent to cookies under data protection law

Lorna Woods, Professor of Internet Law, University of Essex

Last week’s CJEU ruling in Planet49 is an important Grand Chamber decision concerning the use of cookies and the meaning of consent under the e-Privacy Directive in the light of the Data Protection Directive but also the General Data Protection Regulation (Regulation 2016/679)(GDPR). The judgment is therefore relevant for understanding the cookie obligations in the new regime as well as the old.


The case concerned an online lottery. To participate, users had to enter their name and address and were shown two checkboxes in relation to consent for data processing before they could participate in the lottery.  The first consent pertained to users being contacted by third parties for promotional offers. The second consent pertained to cookies being dropped on users’ browsers in connection with participation in the online lottery. While Planet49 sought consent for the third-party promotional offers through the use of an unticked box, box for the use of cookies was pre-ticked.  Two questions were referred: whether the use of pre-ticked boxes gave consent; and what information needed to be supplied to provide clear and comprehensive information to the user.

The e-Privacy Directive provides that users must consent to the use of cookies, and the meaning of consent has the same meaning as in the Data Protection Directive (Recital 17 and Article 2f e-Privacy Directive) and now the GDPR.  The Data Protection Directive required an ‘indication’ of the user’s consent which, as the Advocate General pointed out ([AG60], cited by the Court [para 52]) requires the user to do something active to signal consent rather than remain passive. Further, only active behaviour can satisfy the requirement that consent must be unambiguous [para 54].

The Court also referred to the ‘legislative origins’ of the cookie provision (Article 5(3) e-Privacy Directive), noting that before the provision’s amendment in 2009, the provision gave the user the right to refuse cookies [para 56]. The Court concluded that consent was not valid if pre-ticked boxes were used.  If that was the case under the Data Protection Directive, it remained so under the GDPR, given that its definition of consent is more stringent than that under the Data Protection Directive.  The Court noted that:

according to recital 32 [GDPR], giving consent could include ticking a box when visiting an internet website. On the other hand, that recital expressly precludes ‘silence, pre-ticked boxes or inactivity’ from constituting consent [para 62].

The Court noted that the referring court did not asked the question as to whether making consent to such processing a precondition for participation in the lottery satisfied the requirement for consent to be ‘freely given’ and therefore the ECJ did not answer that question.

Given that the e-Privacy Directive is not just about personal data, the referring court asked if the meaning of consent was the same should data other than personal data be in issue. While it was accepted that the data in issue constituted personal data, in line with the approach of the Advocate General and relying on Recital 24 of the e-Privacy Directive, the Court commented:

that Article 5(3) of Directive 2002/58 refers to ‘the storing of information’ and ‘the gaining of access to information already stored’, without characterising that information or specifying that it must be personal data [para 68].

In response to the questions of the referring court as to the nature of the information the use must be given as to the duration of the use of cookies and whether or not third parties may have access to those cookies, the Court referred to the general obligation that the use be given ‘clear and comprehensive information’ [para 73].  The Data Protection Directive and now the GDPR list certain information that must be given; this does not include duration. The Court noted that these lists were not exhaustive and that a long duration of operation for cookies would mean that a lot of data would be collected. In support of the argument that information on duration should be given the Court noted that the GDPR requires the controller to provide information about how long personal data will be stored.


The ruling will have significant implications for those who obtain data relying on cookies, as the Court has confirmed that ‘active consent’ is required. While this is clear on the face of the GDPR it was less so under the Data Protection Directive. Given that the Data Protection Directive has already been repealed and the GDPR is now in force the consequences – save for those already legally embroiled on this point – might be thought to be limited.  Nonetheless, this is a clear affirmation of the fact that the GDPR definition of consent applies in the e-Privacy Directive.

Given that the Court interpreted the meaning of consent through the lens of the GDPR as well as the Data Protection Directive, it is also the first ruling on consent under the GDPR.  Further, the ruling might be seen as part of a more general push-back against ‘surveillance capitalism’ techniques constituted by a number of investigations currently ongoing in various Member States (and note the recent guidance from the ICO on use of cookies). 

As an aside, it is also worth noting the broader scope of the e-Privacy Directive: it is not limited to personal data but the ‘private sphere of individuals’, that private sphere encompassing users’ ‘terminal equipment’. This means that national rules should not be less strict if no personal data is in issue.  The Court reminds us also that the protection in the e-Privacy Directive is not limited to to cookies but to ‘hidden identifiers and other similar devices’ [para 70].  Presumably then these techniques also require active consent.  Of course, this ruling relates to the e-Privacy Directive; it remains to be seen what the position will be should the proposed ePrivacy Regulation ever be agreed. 

The final point to note is the issue surrounding ‘freely given’. The German court did not raise the question of whether requiring consent as a pre-condition for accessing the service would be permissible and the Court did not answer it of its own volition. This presumably will come before the Court another day.

Photo credit: pcmag

Monday, 7 October 2019

Facebook’s liability for defamatory posts: the CJEU interprets the e-commerce Directive

Lorna Woods, Professor of Internet Law, University of Essex

The last couple of weeks have seen a number of judgments relating to the control of information on the internet by the subject of the information.  The cases of GC et al (Case C-136/17) and Google v CNIL (Case C-507/17) concern the interpretation of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), looking at the obligations of search engines. The most recent case, Glawischnig-Piesczek v Facebook (Case C-18/18) concerned the impact of the e-Commerce Directive (Directive 2000/31/EC), specifically the prohibition on general monitoring found in Article 15 of that Directive, on ‘stay down’ notices. The focus of this post is on Glawischnig-Piesczek, but there is a question that reaches beyond the impact of that case on the e-Commerce Direcitve: to what extent is there a coherent approach to issues arising from the Internet across the various legal measures that intersect with it. This may go beyond the e-Commerce Directive and the GDPR to include measures related to intellectual property (notably the recent controversial Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market (Directive 2019/790/EU) and the Enforcement Directive (Directive 2004/48/EC)) and the combating of child exploitation (Directive on combatting the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography (Directive 2011/93/EU)) and terrorism (Terrorism Directive (Directive 2017/541/EU)).

The Judgment

The facts giving rise to this reference are simple.  Glawischnig-Piesczek complained to Facebook about some defamatory posts. Facebook did not remove the posts so Glawischnig-Piesczek obtained a court order requiring Facebook to stop publishing the impugned content. The precise scope of the order gave rise to further litigation and the Austrian Supreme Court referred a number of questions to the CJEU, asking:

-          Are “stay down” notices in relation to identically worded content compatible with Article 15 of the e-commerce Directive?
-          Are there geographic limitations to the obligation?
-          Are such notices in relation to content with equivalent content to that which has been found unacceptable which does not use the same words but conveys the same meaning acceptable?
-          In relation to posts with equivalent meaning, does the obligation accrue when the intermediary becomes aware of the content?

The Court started its analysis by making clear that the immunity from suit granted by Article 14 of the Directive is not a general immunity from every legal obligation. Specifically the national authorities remain competent to require a host to terminate access to or remove illegal information. The Court also noted that Article 18 of the e-Commerce Directive requires Member States to have in place appropriate court actions to deal with illegal content. It states:

Member States shall ensure that court actions available under national law concerning information society services’ activities allow for the rapid adoption of measures, including interim measures, designed to terminate any alleged infringement and to prevent any further impairment of the interests involved.

The Court held that no limitation on the scope of such national measures can be inferred from the text of the e-Commerce Directive [para 30]. 

It then turned to the impact of Article 15. It highlighted the fact that while Article 15 prohibited general monitoring as recital 47 in the preamble of the Directive makes clear, monitoring ‘in a specific case’ does not fall within that prohibition. It then held that

[s]uch a specific case may, in particular, be found, as in the main proceedings, in a particular piece of information stored by the host provider concerned at the request of a certain user of its social network ….. [35].

Given the nature of information flows there is a risk that any such information may be re-posted, so

‘.. in order to ensure that the host provider at issue prevents any further impairment of the interests involved, it is legitimate for the court having jurisdiction to be able to require that host provider to block access to the information stored, the content of which is identical to the content previously declared to be illegal, or to remove that information, irrespective of who requested the storage of that information. In particular, in view of the identical content of the information concerned, the injunction granted for that purpose cannot be regarded as imposing on the host provider an obligation to monitor generally the information which it stores, or a general obligation actively to seek facts or circumstances indicating illegal activity, as provided for in Article 15(1) of Directive 2000/31 [37].

The Court determined “equivalent meaning” to be about the message the information posted conveys and which was “essentially unchanged”. Given the focus on meaning not form, the Court held that an injunction could extend to non-identical posts as otherwise the effects of an injunction could easily be circumvented.  The Court then considered the balance between the competing interests. The Court commented that the “equivalent information” identified by court order should contain specific elements to identify the offending content and in particular must not require the host to carry out its own independent assessment. In terms of assessing the burden on the host, the court noted that the host would have recourse to “automated search tools and technologies” [para 46].

The court concluded that the injunctions would not constitute a general obligation to monitor all content and specifically no obligation to seek facts or circumstances indicating illegal activity.

The Court also noted that Article 18 of the Directive makes no provision for territorial limitations on what measures Member States may make available. In principle, world-wide effects would be permissible [para 50], but this is subject to the proviso that EU rules must be consistent with the international law framework.

The court felt it unnecessary to respond to the third question without elaborating further.


There are a number of comments that could be made about this judgment. This post comments on three: the approach of the Court to general monitoring; non-identical content; and the issue of territorial scope. It also discusses freedom of expression issues.

General Monitoring

In this judgment there is a clear confirmation that searching for specific pieces of information/types of content does not constitute general monitoring. The Court makes it clear, at para 35, that the searching for individual pieces of content constitutes a ‘specific case’ within recital 47.  The Court gives the searching for specific information as an example of a ‘specific case’; presumably the searching of a targeted user’s stored date could be another such.  This is the first time the approach has been adopted in regards to defamation.  Perhaps the fact that the case concerns defamation rather than, for example, intellectual property explains the dearth of previous case law cited in the court’s judgment.

The statement of the Court that searching for an individual item of content does not constitute general monitoring does not address the fact that such a search would presumably involve search all content held. Yet in McFadden (Case C-484/14), the Court described the scope of Article 15 thus:

As regards, first, monitoring all of the information transmitted, such a measure must be excluded from the outset as contrary to Article 15(1) of Directive 2000/31, which excludes the imposition of a general obligation on, inter alia, communication network access providers to monitor the information that they transmit. [McFadden, 87]

This is broadly similar to the approach in the early case of L’Oreal (Case C-324/09) which referred to Article 15 precluding ‘an active monitoring of all the data of each of its customers in order to prevent any future infringement ...’ [para 139].  The prevention of future infringements in the context of L’Oreal could be achieved – in the view of the Court – however by the suspension of the perpetrator.  Yet monitoring of the data of all customers seems to be what would be required to find the specific case of content. The matter remains unacknowledged in the Court’s analysis in Glawischnig-Piesczek.  Perhaps the assumption is (a) that the concern underpinning the prohibition in Article 15 derives from privacy; and (b) that when we look for one thing we do not really see the other things that we look at during our search – and that this might particularly be so when the searching is automated.  Of course, arguments that automated review of communications data does not constituted an invasion of privacy have not been accepted by the Court (e.g. Watson/Tele2).  In any event, further support for the distinction between searching for an identified piece of content and searching in a less targeted fashion is found in the context of the fight against child sexual abuse and exploitation and in the context of enforcement of intellectual property.

Non-identical content

The clarification that an injunction may also extend to non-identical content raises a number of issues.  While the Court states that a host should not be required to make its own judgment on these matters it is not clear how similar the content needs to be.  It is also unclear whether the Court is concerned here with the wording or the message conveyed. At [40] it refers to the ‘message conveyed’, which could refer to the idea in issue rather than its precise expression. The Court then referred to ‘information, the content of which, whilst essentially conveying the same message, is worded slightly differently …’ [41]. An approach based on wording (or presumably identifiable items of content such as images) has the benefit of being more easily described by order. It is probably easier to circumvent.  There seems to be an assumption in the judgment that technological means are available to implement this sort of requirement, though whether that is the case is another question.

Territorial Scope

The territorial scope of the order is also worth mentioning.  Like its Advocate General, Szpunar, the Court does not envisage any territorial limitation of the removal/blocking as a result of EU law.  It is important to note that the Court does not say that injunctions must have such extraterritorial effect. Rather the question is about the interplay between each national legal system’s own way of dealing with these issues (and area the Court noted gave Member States wide discretion) and the fact that Article 18 is silent as to any limitations. The silence of EU law allows Member States freedom to take action.  A further issue is that the Court noted the impact of international law without however elaborating what it meant – are we talking fundamental human rights (this seems unlikely given the existence of the EU Charter) or international comity, for example?. 

This is one of a number of cases in which the Court has had to consider the territorial scope of EU law in the context of the Internet – the most recent being the Right to be Forgotten case: Google v CNIL (Case C-507/17). There the Court held that

Where a search engine operator grants a request for de-referencing …, that operator is not required to carry out that de-referencing on all version of its search engine, but on the version of that search engine corresponding to all the Member States. [73]

It seems then that the opposite conclusion has been reached. This is overstating the point.  While the fact that EU law does not require extraterritoriality, the GDPR’s silence on the point gives space to a national court to make an order with extra-territorial effect, a point the Court makes express in para 72. A national could then, within the constraints of its own national rules, make such an order. In such a situation the position would seem similar to that under Article 18 e-Commerce Directive as understood in Glawischnig-Piesczek. A contrast to the silence of the EU legislature on extraterritoriality of blocking/de-listing can be seen in the Terrorism Directive. There Article 21 imposes an obligation on Member States to obtain the removal of terrorist content hosted outside their territory, but it also recognises that that may not be possible.

In Google v CNIL, while the Court recognised the possibility for national courts to make orders for de-referencing with extra-territorial effect, it expressly noted that in doing so they must weigh up the competing interests of the data subjects  and the right of others to freedom of information [para 72]. It is noticeable that in Glawischnig-Piesczek the balancing is different. The Court notes the interest of the subject of the information and also the need not to impose an excessive burden on the host provider [para 45, para 46]. The existence of other rights: the right of the host to carry on a business and the rights of those posting the material and those wishing to receive it – both aspects of freedom of expression - are not expressly mentioned. To some extent the issue of rights will be covered through the national courts, which will be the bodies to carry out that balancing within their own national frameworks and within the limits of EU law. By contrast to Google v CNIL, however, there is no instruction from the Court that these are matters to be considered, nor any express recognition that the balance between the right to private life (including the protection of reputation) and freedom of expression differs between territories. What might be seen as the legitimate protection of private life in one place is an infringement of speech in another.  So, while the matter was not directly the Court’s concern in this case, it is somewhat surprising that the issues were not directly considered.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 9
Photo credit: Department of Defense, via Wikicommons

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Accessing the EU’s Financial Services Market in the Event of a No-deal Brexit

Bartlomiej Kulpa, LLM (Twitter: @KulpaBart)


Since Boris Johnson took the helm as British Prime Minister, a no-deal Brexit has become the most likely scenario. The UK-based financial services firms are waiting to hear if they will be able to serve clients in the EU 27, and if so, on what basis. Currently, the UK-based financial services firms rely on the so-called passporting rights. According to The Economist, 5,476 financial services firms based in Britain used 336,421 European passports to sell their products in the EU in 2016. By comparison, approximately 8,000 financial services firms based in the EEA used 23,535 European passports to sell their products in the UK. This proves that the removal of passporting rights as well as uncertainty over what will replace them amount to an existential threat.

The Concept of a European Passport             

A European passport is a right granted under the Single Financial Market Directives, such as MiFID II (The Markets in Financial Instruments Directive 2014/65/EU), to an EEA institution licenced in an EEA Member State. The European passport enables financial services firms to act on a cross-border basis within the EEA. If Britain leaves the EU without a Brexit deal, the UK-based financial services firms will lose the passporting rights and consequently full access to the single market. In other words, they will be treated as third country financial services firms.  
Articles 34 and 35 of MiFID II form the legal basis for the passporting rights. Article 34 provides for freedom to provide investment services and activities in another Member State if such investment services and activities are authorised by the competent authorities of a home Member State. As regards Article 35, that allows financial services firms to provide services in another Member State through the right of establishment of a branch provided that such services are authorised by the competent authorities of the home Member State. Pursuant to Articles 34 and 35, a financial services firm must notify the competent authorities of the home Member State of its intention to provide services in another Member State. In other words, the financial services firm must apply for a licence. Subsequently, the competent authorities of the home Member State inform the competent authorities of a host Member State of the financial services firm’s intention to serve clients in the latter.    
There is no doubt that the advantages of the concept of a European passport easily outweigh the disadvantages. Firstly, one licence enables financial services firms to obtain access to 31 countries which have a population of over 500 million consumers (this will be reduced after a Brexit). From a legal point of view, this means that a financial services firm that has been granted a European passport is not required to obtain a domestic licence in every Member State. Secondly, the concept of a European passport helps to keep business costs down. Thirdly, the concept of a European passport is free from political influence. Fourthly, the range of clients and investors is not limited in scope. In other words, the concept of a European passport does not only apply to professional investors but also to retail investors. Lastly, a home Member State regulator cannot revoke the European passport and the European passport is granted for a period of time with no fixed limit.

Further, it should be noted that the concept of a European passport does not have the qualities to be described as a single European passport. If it qualified as the single European passport, then financial services firms would be allowed to undertake cross-border activities throughout the EEA without taking any further actions. A good example of a single administrative act with EEA-wide effect is a European trademark granted by the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO).

The Equivalence Regimes       

The EU has operated the equivalence regimes (also known as the third country regime or TCR) in relation to financial services firms based outside of the single market under the relevant Single Financial Market Directives and Regulations, the USA being the prime example, for some years. In accordance with Articles 46-49 of MiFIR (The Markets in Financial Instruments Regulation (EU) No 600/2014), the equivalence regime is based on an equivalence decision made by the European Commission (EC) and the register of third country financial services firms kept by the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA). As regards the former, the EC’s equivalence decision states whether, firstly, the prudential and business conduct requirements that are legally binding in a third country have equivalent effect under EU law and whether, secondly, the legal and supervisory arrangements of the third country ensure that financial services firms authorised by the competent authorities of that third country comply with the legally binding prudential and business conduct requirements. Once the EC has made the equivalence decision in favour of a particular third country, financial services firms based in that third country need to register, within a transitional period of three years under Article 54 of MiFIR, with the ESMA. As a result, third country financial services firms are able to operate as a European hub. It should be noted that Member States shall not impose any additional requirements on such firms and shall not treat them more favourably than firms based in the EU.       

Moreover, it should be emphasised that the equivalence regime enables third country financial services firms to provide investment services and activities only to eligible counterparties and professional clients. This means that, unlike the concept of a European passport, the equivalence regime does not apply to retail clients. What is more, the EC can revoke an equivalence decision at any time if divergences between a regulatory framework of a third country and the regulatory framework of the EU appear.

One could argue that in the event of a no-deal Brexit the equivalence regime would be more attractive for smaller financial services firms. As practice proves, multinational financial services behemoths, which have used Britain as the gateway to the single market, have already relocated to the EU 27 or are in the process of setting up offices there as part of their Brexit strategy.

As far as the resolution of disputes is concerned, third country financial services firms shall, before providing any services or activities to the EU-based clients, offer to submit any disputes relating to the aforementioned services or activities to the jurisdiction of a court or arbitral tribunal in one of the Member States (Article 46(6) of MiFIR). In other words, such firms shall offer a forum in the EU where their right to conduct litigation could be exercised. If Britain were to access the single market via the equivalence regime in the event of a no-deal Brexit, then the English courts would not have any jurisdiction over disputes relating to such services or activities. In practice, this would result in London facing a struggle to retain its position as a global centre for securities litigation.         

Although the equivalence regime would allow the UK-based financial services firms to access, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the single market, the equivalence regime suffers from a few drawbacks. Firstly, the equivalence regime is a unilateral mechanism. To put it simply, it only depends on the EU whether it recognises as equivalent the regulatory standards of a third country. Secondly, since an equivalence decision is made by a political body, namely the EC, various political factors can impact the equivalence assessment. Thirdly, the EC’s equivalence decision cannot be reviewed by a court.
The European Passport Light

The next issue that merits attention is the so-called ‘European passport light’ as set out in Article 47(3) of MiFIR. A third country financial services firm can rely on the European passport light if the following conditions have been met: (i) the EC has made an equivalence decision in favour of a particular third country; and (ii) the third country financial services firm has been granted the authorisation to establish a branch in one of the Member States pursuant to Article 39 of MiFID II. As a result, the third country financial services firm will be able to provide services and activities to eligible counterparties and professional clients in other Member States without the requirement to establish a new branch for each additional Member State. In the same way as the equivalence regime, the European passport light does not apply to retail clients. However, unlike the equivalence regime, the European passport light is not based on the requirement to register with the ESMA.         
The MiFID II Own Initiative Principle

Article 42 of MiFID II creates an exception to a Member State’s imposition of an authorisation requirement, which is enshrined in Article 39 of MiFID II, for a third country financial services firm where that firm provides investment services or activities at the exclusive initiative of a retail or professional client. The MiFID II Own Initiative Principle is coterminous with the reverse solicitation test. Compared to the equivalence regime, the MiFID II Own Initiative Principle applies to retail as well as professional clients. However, from a practical point of view, the MiFID II Own Initiative Principle does not seem to be useful for big financial services firms that intend to actively gain a market share. Furthermore, any marketing to EU-based clients triggers the EU rules for providing financial services and consequently the need for obtaining an EU licence.    

It seems that the equivalence regime is the only workable arrangement that could replace the concept of a European passport in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Unless the UK government creates ‘Singapore upon Thames’, the process of making a decision whether post-Brexit Britain’s regulatory regime is deemed to be equivalent should be relatively straightforward. However, one should remember that the equivalence regime does not apply to retail clients and the EC can revoke an equivalence decision at any time. Therefore, the equivalence regime would not fill the gaps created after the cessation of the application of a European passport to the UK-based financial services firms.

Further reading:

M Lehmann and D A Zetzsche, Brexit and the Consequences for Commercial and Financial Relations between the EU and the UK, 20 September 2016. Available at:;
H Nemeczek and S Pitz, The Impact of Brexit on Cross-Border Business of UK Credit Institutions and Investment Firms with German Clients, 1 February 2017. Available at:;
The Economist, London’s reign as the world’s capital of capital is at risk, 29 June 2019. Available at:              

Barnard & Peers: chapter 14, chapter 27
Photo credit: via Wikicommons, photo taken by Andy F

Sunday, 29 September 2019

The Justices of the UK Supreme Court: The Enemies of Anti-democratic Demagogues

Alan S. Reid, Senior Lecturer in Law, Sheffield Hallam University. The author welcomes comments on the blog at

The Cherry/Miller case ([2019] UKSC 41) reached its zenith on Tuesday morning, with a most newsworthy outcome; a unanimous decision that Prime Minister Johnson's Prorogation of Parliament was unlawful, thus a legal nullity and of no legal effect (at para. 69 of the judgment). The UK Parliament, having been put illegally to sleep, awoke on Wednesday morning with collective amnesia, and emerged refreshed from a dreich shower like Bobby Ewing, to get back to work and to normality.

The timing of the judgment couldn’t have been more fortuitous for purveyors of constitutional law idioms, anecdotes and folklore - thousands of law freshers at dozens of university law schools across the four nations of the UK will be treated to a plethora of twitter feeds, bad puns and embarrassing GIFs of politicians by law lecturers trying to make sense of it all, all of them feeling a bit smug and secretly delighted that constitutional law is at last hip, happening and dare say, even sexy.

As I have discussed previously, (here, here and here) the Scottish courts and the English High Court received applications from aggrieved members of the public, legal experts and politicians, extremely worried about Prime Minister Johnson's received wisdom to prorogue Parliament for 5 weeks through September and October 2019, at a time of immense constitutional upheaval and crisis, given the impending deadline of Halloween and the horror of a No-Deal Brexit. At first instance in Scotland, the petitioners in Cherry lost, Lord Doherty in the Outer House of the Court of Session deferring to the Prime Minister and the UK government's lawyer in Scotland view that the matter of prorogation was a matter of high politics, not law and thus beyond the purview of the courts. Similar sentiments furth of the Forth, led the English High Court, unanimously, to hold that Gina Miller's Judicial Review application was also asking an impertinent, essentially non-justiciable question.

Legal orthodoxy seemed to point to these claims being closed down on this well-established maxim of non-justiciability. Case(s) closed.

On appeal in Scotland to the Inner House of the Court of Session, the triumvirate of Lord Carloway, Brodie and Drummond-Young, (now colloquially known in legal circles as the Inner House 3) unanimously overturned the opinion of Lord Doherty in the lower Outer House. The egregious nature of the Prime Minister's decision meant that the matter was justiciable. It was a legal question: The questioning of an improper use of the royal prerogative.

The Supreme Court has largely vindicated the view of the Inner House 3, albeit with some differences of opinion (see Professor Mark Elliot's blog here). The Supreme Court, in a very rare show of absolute solidarity, made all the more amazing by the fact that the decision was made by an 11-strong bench, decided unanimously that the Prime Minister had acted unlawfully in advising the monarch to prorogue Parliament.

It is fair to say that the judgment, like Brexit itself (although the case is only indirectly concerned with Brexit), has divided the legal community, the general population and the politicians. It has polarised opinion like no other case before it.

At any level, the judgment is a remarkable one. However, its remarkableness is difficult to define and pin down, however the main reasons the opinion is remarkable are as follows.

First, as mentioned already, the judgment was a unanimous decision by 11 of the most eminent justices this country has produced. In the only other 11-strong bench case, the related case of Miller 1 ([2017] UKSC 5), the best the judges could agree on was an 8-3 split, with the dissenters even divided on their reasons for dissenting. In the Torture Evidence case (A (FC) v Secretary of State for the Home Department ([2005] UKHL 71), a seven strong bench of the House of Lords came close to being unanimous on all aspects of that case. The ability of Lady Hale to get another 10 strong willed, independent jurists to coalesce around a particular view of the facts and of the law is indeed remarkable.

Second, the judgment is a document of elegance, clarity and brevity, with a distinctly narrative feel. For such a constitutionally significant case, the text is remarkably light in size and in deployment of weighty legal justifications. The judgment is only 24 pages long and constitutional law academics, if marking this legal script, would berate the authors for only using the bare bones of the vast corpus of judicial precedent that was available. The Inner House 3 and the advocates before that house (and when in the Supreme Court), conversely, drew on a vast well of legal authorities to justify their stance. That judgment extended to 68 pages and was replete with judicial and historical precedents. The Supreme Court was content to produce a narrative judgment, drawing on grand constitutional principles and expectations.

The question beget by this brief, elegant and decidedly law-free judgment is why is it structured so?

The answers are not hard to discern and determinedly lie in the political sphere.

The Supreme Court, almost contemporaneously with the Cherry/Miller case, will celebrate its 10th anniversary in the next few weeks. It began life on the 1st of October 2009. It is fitting that the Supreme Court made such a historic judgment on the eve of its 10 year anniversary, for the judgment is a fine example of the court flexing its constitutional muscles. The Supreme Court is transforming itself into a Constitutional Court and with the Cherry/Miller case, the court has burnished its constitutional court credentials.

A defining feature of any constitutional court is that it decides decidedly political cases that deal with high politics and the inner workings of the constitution of that state. To that extent, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, absolutely performed a constitutional court function on Tuesday morning.

The judgment had to have the look and feel that it did for a number of important political reasons.

The judgment had to be unanimous because in this febrile environment, any dissent in the Supreme Court would be seized upon by Brexiteers and detractors that the decision was legally uncertain, incorrect and the will of arch Remainers. Thus, the justices were determined to present a united front that sent a powerful message that the highest members of the judiciary were at one on this matter, irrespective of their political views, of their particular areas of legal expertise and their longevity on the highest court of the land. The judges chose to put forward a coherent, decisive legal view to try and provide legal certainty for the whole country.

Further, these two cases that were sent to the Supreme Court posed an existential threat to the United Kingdom. The Scottish Court had unanimously held that the matter was justiciable and that on forensic investigation, the Prime Minister had acted unlawfully. Diametrically opposed to that, the English High Court refused to adjudicate on the matter, citing classic cases on non-justiciability. Scotland overwhelmingly voted to Remain in the 2016 referendum and England narrowly voted to Leave. These facts would have played heavily on the minds of the 11 justices. To simply dismiss the Inner House unanimous decision, expressly overrule that decision and affirm the English High Court view would be to imperil the unity of the United Kingdom. In such a situation, Scottish politicians, jurists and the general Scots populace writ large would arguably be more empowered and more likely to question their place in the United Kingdom. Remarkably, the Supreme Court drew heavily on the original view of the Inner House 3, simply stating that the advice of Boris Johnson to the Queen to prorogue Parliament…' was unlawful, null and of no effect and should be quashed.' (para. 69 of the judgment). Implicitly, the UK Supreme Court was simply endorsing the view of the Inner House and adopting the extensive legal declaratory power and jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Scotland. The judgment, in so doing, managed to cleverly bring the UK jurisdictions closer together, neatly avoiding legally complex and technical questions on the nature of remedies north and south of the border.

The narrative nature of the judgment was also remarkable but entirely reasonable given the unique background to the case. The three day legal hearing from last week was eagerly watched by people across the globe and the judgment has been downloaded thousands of times and it made global news headlines. It was obvious that people were immensely interested in the case, and as such the justices would have been keen to make the law as accessible as possible, and the most obvious way to do so would be to demystify the law and use everyday, ordinary language. Alongside this imperative, the immense pressure to resolve the case quickly meant that the justices were under great time constraints, resulting in a pared down judgment that merely discussed the nub of the arguments. Further, the fact that the judgment would be desired to be read way beyond Westminster, Whitehall and the Windsor family, necessitated the rejection of excessive legalese and obscure references to historical events and laws.  The judgment is a masterful, accessible constitutional lecture on the grand overarching themes, laws, rules and conventions that constitute the living UK constitution.

The judgment has its detractors from all sides. It is too simplistic. It is too political. It is too lite on the law. It is too glib. It is interfering in politics. All of these criticisms can be legitimately levelled at the judgment. The strongest criticism is that of interference in politics. However, the judgment can be defended exactly on that basis. Parliamentary sovereignty was placed at the apex of the judgment. Alongside parliamentary sovereignty, the court was concerned to place parliamentary accountability at its side, an equal partner in the UK constitutional framework. In so doing, the court thus justified its interference in questions of politics. The current political impasse has illustrated the ineffectiveness of the parliamentary accountability process in holding the Prime Minister and the wider executive to account. Therefore, for the court to simply defer to parliamentary accountability would be a dereliction of duty, particularly in a situation where it is clear that these political mechanisms, both currently and in the near future, would manifestly fail to produce a satisfactory resolution. The court was thereby forced to act to restore equilibrium to the tripartite separation of powers, the central tenet of the UK constitution. In so doing, the court also gave powerful effect to a central tenet of the Leave campaign from 2016: the Supreme Court of the UK took back control and gave Parliament back its sovereignty.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 27
Photo credit: Pamela Ewing

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Private Schools and the Politicization of Treaty Obligations

Dr Kasey McCall-Smith, Senior Lecturer in Public International Law, University of Edinburgh

The 2019 Labour Party Annual Conference has received more than usual attention this year, notably its resolution to end private schools in the UK. Not for the first time this year, the fervour of politicians must be checked against the realities of the law, specifically international and human rights law. In March, Theresa May offered a unilateral statement to the EU on the UK interpretation of the then-Withdrawal Agreement Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in relation to the backstop set out therein. A few days later, Geoffrey Cox MP incorrectly argued that article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) offered an easy way out of the then-Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop. As exhausted with Brexit as every other academic at the time, I painstakingly set out why the UK government and Parliament would do well to stop relying on concepts in international treaty law to cure all that is disagreeable with the Brexit process.

The 22 September vote by the Labour Party to include in its manifesto a ‘commitment to integrate all private schools into the state sector’ equally demonstrates why politicians should proceed with caution when threatening rights protected by international agreements.

Whether for or against private education, there was very little tangible change from existing policy proposals to cut tax relief to the independent schools that educate approximately 6-7% of children in the UK. More notable are the questions raised by Labour’s approach to protected rights. This Labour party policy raises questions about the understanding of the limits of any UK government to restrict international human rights obligations to which it has long been bound and also incorporated into national law. One such example raised by this policy proposal is the right to education set out in article 2 of the first Protocol (P1) to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In essence, the proposed measure eliminates the option to send children to fee-paying schools in the UK, an option that in some, though not all, cases enables parents to exercise ‘their own religious and philosophical convictions’ (P1 article 2). Clearly, it is a matter of debate whether such ‘convictions’ extend to private (cf. State-funded) education and whether eliminating private schools alone would constitute a breach of the right. Aside from removing decision-making capabilities from parents, the long-running debates about private versus public education or margin of appreciation debates, there are other legal questions to consider when parties politicize international legal obligations.

Can this or a future UK government nullify a single article of the first Protocol to the ECHR or multiple articles spanning the Convention? Continuing with the right to education example and assuming that the proposed policy is argued to breach that right, the following traces the relevant analysis under international law to determine if the UK can, effectively, change its mind about applying it treaty obligations.

The first step requires a determination of the status of the first Protocol to the ECHR once ratified and in force, which it has been for the UK since 1952. P1 article 5 dictates that ‘the provisions of Articles 1, 2, 3 and 4 … shall be regarded as additional Articles to the Convention and all the provisions of the Convention shall apply accordingly.’ In short, the articles are amalgamated into the ECHR and carry the same weight as those in the original Convention. This is reinforced in the UK Human Rights Act 1998 s1(1) (notably excluding P1 article 4).

But could the UK government cease to observe an article of the ECHR or one of its Protocols? Because the first Protocol is integrated into the umbrella of the ECHR the rules of the original Convention are applicable. By asserting that the state will no longer apply a treaty provision in full, the permissibility of such an assertion must be examined. Under the VCLT treaty rules and customary international law, the only way to exclude a treaty obligation in part or in full is by reservation. However, under both ECHR article 57 and VCLT article 19, reservations may only be made when signing or ratifying a treaty. Therefore, reservations are not an option for the UK decades after ratifying the Convention. The only possible caveat being denunciation (more below) and re-ratification with a new reservation in line with that which was done by Trinidad and Tobago in relation to Optional Protocol 1 to the ICCPR. Still, this procedure is not currently recognized in ECHR practice or under customary treaty law and would no doubt set a dangerous precedent.

Some have also queried the possibility of ‘denouncing’ a single article. ECHR article 58 governs denunciation of the Convention but only gives guidance on denunciation of the Convention as a whole. It is silent on denunciation of an individual article. When a treaty is silent on issues of procedure, the default rules of the VCLT are used to fill any gaps. VCLT article 44 outlines a preference against the separability of individual treaty provisions by denunciation, withdrawal or suspension unless expressly provided for by the relevant treaty. Furthermore, article 44 must be read in conjunction with Articles 56 or 60 VCLT. Article 56 VCLT addresses denunciation when a treaty is silent on the issue – but the ECHR is not silent on this.  Article 60 VCLT deals with termination or suspension of a treaty as a consequence of its breach. The breach must be by another state, thus the UK cannot invoke article 60 if it breaches the ECHR. It is safe to say that denunciation of a single article or even multiple articles is not a possibility.

The only remaining option for abrogating an individual article would be derogation. ECHR article 15 clarifies that though some fundamental rights may never be subject to derogation, ‘[i]n time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation any High Contracting Party may take measures derogating from its obligations under this Convention to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation’. While the right to education, and indeed most rights, could be subject to derogation, it is difficult – if not logically impossible – to see how such a public emergency could justify a policy of prohibiting private education per se.

What the last few months have taught us is that politicians would do well to recognise the legal implications of their policy strategies and ambitions before straining too far into rhetoric. And for those wishing to insulate the UK against global interference, this is a timely reminder that regardless of any future status in the EU, the UK will continue to have international and regional obligations.

Photo credit: Tatler

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Self-employed new mothers and EU free movement law: the CJEU delivers the obvious conclusion

Professor Steve Peers, University of Essex

* For more on EU free movement law issues, see the forthcoming second edition of the commentary on the EU Citizenship Directive, by Elspeth Guild, Steve Peers and Jonathan Tomkin – published soon

What happens when an EU citizen moves to another Member State, and has a baby? New parents likely face some sleepless nights in any event; but should new mothers in particular lose further sleep at the prospect of losing their status under EU free movement law? The CJEU, having ruled on this issues as regards employed new mothers in 2014 (the Saint-Prix judgment, discussed here), has now extended its case law to cover self-employed women who take a maternity break, in its recent judgment in Dakneviciute.


The main EU law on EU citizens’ right to move and reside in another country – often known as the ‘citizens’ Directive’, does not provide for unlimited rights for EU citizens to go and live in another Member States. To exercise free movement rights, EU citizens must be employed, self-employed, students, have sufficient resources, or be a family member of someone in one of those categories (as further defined by the Directive, the EU Treaties, and relevant case law). After five years’ residence in accordance with this EU law, they obtain the right to permanent residence, at which point such conditions no longer apply.

Mothers-to-be who are in paid work as as the baby’s birth approaches often simply take maternity leave from their current employer, and then return to work for that employer some time after the baby is born. This is underpinned by a separate EU law on pregnant workers, which prohibits dismissal of women who are pregnant or on maternity leave save for ‘exceptional cases’ (on these exceptions, see the CJEU judgment in Porras Guisado). Equally, the same law guarantees continuation of an employment contract (except for a possible one-year waiting period to qualify for maternity pay).  In principle this should mean that the women concerned remain workers under free movement law, so they should be at no risk of losing status under that law.

The difficulty is for women who were employed but who gave up their current work before the birth (as in Saint Prix) or who are self-employed (as in Dakneviciute). Do they retain status as workers or self-employed persons under free movement law despite this? The citizens’ Directive says that status is retained in the event of: temporary inability to work ‘as the result of an illness or accident’; involuntary unemployment after being employed more than one year, if registered as a job-seeker; involuntary unemployment after being employed for less than one year, or if a fixed-term contract period of less than a year has ended, if registered as a job-seeker, although retention of status might in these cases only last for six months; or taking up vocational training, which must be linked to the prior employment unless the EU citizen is involuntarily unemployed.

In the Saint Prix case, the EU citizen dropped her teacher training course when she became pregnant, did some short-term work, and then gave up looking for work as the due date for her baby became closer. So she did not qualify under the citizens’ Directive’s rules for retaining worker status. However, the CJEU ruled that those rules were not exhaustive. In the Court’s view, the notion of ‘worker’ came first and foremost from the primary law of the EU Treaties, and covered someone who had previously worked in that State, given up work due to the physical impact of late pregnancy, and returned to work within a ‘reasonable period’ afterward. That period was to be defined taking account of the ‘specific circumstances of the case’, as well as national law on maternity leave, which must be at least 14 weeks in order to comply with the EU law on pregnant workers, although Member States can set longer periods. In fact a later judgment in the UK applied a one-year period in principle to such cases.

Subsequently, in its 2017 judgment in Gusa (which did not concern pregnancy), the CJEU ruled that self-employed EU citizens who became involuntarily no longer self-employed after one year should be treated the same as having retained their self-employed status, on the same basis that workers retain it under the citizens’ Directive in the event of involuntary unemployment.

Facts and judgment

Ms Dakneviciute was employed in the UK, then became a self-employed beauty therapist when she became pregnant. After her baby was born, she briefly returned to self-employment, then briefly claimed benefits, then became employed again. This dispute concerned her eligibility for child benefit: the UK authorities claimed that she did not qualify for it, because she did not have a sufficient right to reside. Uncertain as to whether the Saint Prix judgment applied to the self-employed, even despite the Gusa judgment in the meantime, a UK tribunal asked the CJEU to clarify whether previously self-employed new mothers retained status under free movement by analogy with previously employed new mothers.

The Court ruled that Ms Dakneviciute did retain her status, which meant that she was eligible for child benefit. Previously case law had treated employed and self-employed EU citizens in a unified way; the Saint Prix case applied by analogy; applying Gusa (which had referred to the vulnerability of unemployed EU citizens), pregnant women are vulnerable, whether they are employed or self-employed; and the EU had adopted a law on self-employed pregnant women, which refers to maternity leave on a similar basis as the EU law on pregnant workers.

Furthermore, the Court rejected the UK government’s argument that self-employed women could easily send someone to replace them during a maternity break. This was apparently an interpretation of the Gusa judgment (see paras 21 and 38 of the Dakneviciute judgment), although the Gusa judgment made no point about replacing individual self-employed persons. Finally, as in the Saint Prix judgment, the Court referred to the rules in the citizens’ Directive on obtaining permanent residence, which provide that a single absence of up to one year for pregnancy or childbirth (or other ‘important’ reasons) does not stop the clock as regards obtaining the five years’ residence necessary to qualify for permanent residence.

It followed that a previously self-employed EU citizen new mother retains her status of being self-employed, provided that she returns ‘to the same or another self-employed activity or employment within a reasonable period after the birth of her child’.


In light of the Saint Prix and Gusa judgments, the Court’s ruling that previously self-employed EU citizen new mothers retain their status is unsurprising.  A non-lawyer might even describe it as a statement of the bleeding obvious. It is striking that the UK government continued to fight the case, including by an interpretation of the Gusa judgment that has no basis in that judgment. Nor does that argument have any basis in the Advocate-General’s opinion in Gusa, which actually conversely said (in paras 72 and 73) that Saint Prix applied by analogy to self-employed persons. With great respect, the UK tribunal should not have given the government's argument the time of day.  

The most pressing practical question for previously self-employed EU citizen new mothers is how to determine the ‘reasonable length of time’ which they have to take up employment or self-employment in order to retain their status. The Court makes no suggestion about how long that might be, perhaps because it was conceded in the national courts that if Ms Dakneviciute retained her free movement status, she had obtained new work within a reasonable period of time (see para 19 of the judgment: perhaps this concession was in light of national case law referred to above). In practice, the EU law on self-employed pregnant women, like the EU law on pregnant workers, refers to a minimum period of 14 weeks, with Member States free to exceed that minimum (as the UK has done). Unlike in Saint Prix the Court does not refer again to also taking account of specific circumstances of the new mother’s case; but since the Court was applying that earlier judgment by analogy, this omission may well be accidental.

What is the impact of Brexit? In the event that the withdrawal agreement is ratified, the citizens’ rights provisions (discussed here) retain existing law (including case law) for UK citizens who move to the EU27, and EU27 citizens who move to the UK, before the end of the transitional period in the agreement (which is end 2020, with a possible extension of one or two years). In the event of leaving the EU without an agreement, the UK could chip away at these rights for EU27 citizens, even if they were already resident before Brexit Day – and EU27 States could do likewise for UK citizens. However, although both of these cases came from the UK courts, they will still be relevant to the remaining Member States (ie Irish citizens moving to Germany) in any event.

Finally, there’s a broader social and historical context to this judgment. The Court expressly mentions the vulnerability of pregnant workers. But new mums in Ms Dakneviciute’s position are also vulnerable as people who are migrant EU citizens, unemployed, and previously lower paid.  The Court’s judgment cuts through this intersectionality of sex, nationality and social class to guarantee access to child benefit regardless. Yet there’s a fin de siècle feeling to this ruling: in six weeks’ time, the UK might be able to disapply it to EU citizens in future. Benefits and unemployed people are obvious targets of the xenophobia that cynical politicians stoke.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 13; chapter 20
Photo credit: Coraims

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Third Time Lucky? The new law on extension of UK membership of the EU

Professor Steve Peers, University of Essex


One of the many recent controversies about the Brexit process has been about the ‘Benn-Burt bill’, a new Act of Parliament that was fast-tracked through the legislative process earlier in September against the government’s wishes. It requires the Prime Minister to request a further extension of the UK’s EU membership; he has said that he will not do so. Some believe (wrongly) that the new law bans a ‘no deal’ exit from the EU.

To explain and analyse the new law, given the broad public interest, this blog post takes a question and answer format. At the end, there’s a longer discussion of the linked question of whether the UK would have to nominate a new European Commissioner in the event of an extension of EU membership.  

Q             Does the bill ban a no-deal outcome?

A             No. Its main purpose is to provide for the possibility of a further extension of EU membership. However, to avoid a no deal outcome it is necessary at some point – whether before Oct 31 or at a later date if membership is extended – to either ratify a withdrawal agreement or revoke the notification to leave the EU. The new law makes no mention of revoking that notification, and although it refers expressly to the possibility of parliament voting again on whether to accept a withdrawal agreement, it does not require Parliament to accept an agreement (or even to vote on whether to accept one).  It also provides for the possibility of parliament voting to accept no deal – although this seems unlikely given that Parliament passed this Act with the express intention of avoiding an imminent no deal outcome.  

Q             Does the new law block Brexit?

A             No.  As noted already, it provides expressly for the possibility of Parliament voting again on whether to accept a withdrawal agreement, or Parliament voting to accept no deal. Both of them are forms of Brexit. Also as noted already, it does not refer in any way to the revocation of the notification to leave. Nor does it refer to another referendum on whether to leave. Although some supporters of the bill support another referendum, the bill itself is silent on this. Extending EU membership to another date still leaves intact the possibility of leaving on that date with no deal (as the default position), or leaving at that date or earlier if a withdrawal agreement is ratified.

Q             Does Boris Johnson have to request an extension of EU membership?

A             In principle, yes (if he’s still the Prime Minister). He must request an extension to January 31 2020. However, there are exceptions. If Parliament votes for a withdrawal agreement or for a no deal no later than 19 October, then the obligation to request extension is never triggered. If Parliament votes for either before 30 October, then the obligation to request extension ceases to apply: the Prime Minister in that case ‘may modify or withdraw the request’.

It seems unlikely that Parliament would vote for no deal (given that the new law was backed by opponents of this outcome), but what about a withdrawal agreement? Here’s there’s an apparent loophole, as pointed out by Jolyon Maugham: it’s possible that Parliament could vote in principle to approve a withdrawal agreement, thus disabling the obligation to request an extension, but then not pass further measures in time for the agreement to be fully ratified by October 31. (See further Maugham’s analysis of the limited time available to pass the further measures).

According to the ‘Kinnock amendment’ added to the Act, the request has to be for the purpose of passing a bill to implement the withdrawal agreement, including provisions giving effect to inter-party talks, particularly possible amendments to the political declaration on the EU/UK future relationship (discussed here).  However, this is not reflected in the letter of request which the Prime Minister must send (the letter is a Schedule to the new law), and does not impact upon the separate obligation to accept (subject to an unrelated exception) an extension decision if the EU adopts one. There’s no explicit obligation to hold a vote on a withdrawal agreement, or to publish and/or vote on a bill to implement that agreement.

Q             Does the EU have to extend membership?

A             No. That’s up to the political discretion of the EU. It must act to adopt an extension decision with the unanimous vote of the 27 Member States’ heads of State and government (not including the UK). (I commented earlier on the legal issues of the first extension decision and the second extension decision.) It remains to be seen what the EU will do; remember that rumours about Member States vetoing extension proved to be unfounded in spring.  The European Commission and European Parliament have no formal role in the extension decision, although they can express a point of view that might influence national leaders.

Q             Does Boris Johnson have to accept an extension of EU membership, if the EU adopts one?

A             Yes, subject to a veto by Parliament. If the extension is to the date of January 31, the Prime Minister must accept it. Otherwise it’s possible for Parliament to veto it. It’s therefore false to claim, as some did, that the UK will be obliged to accept any extension decision, no matter what (see further my Prospect article on this point).

Some have argued that Johnson could veto the extension decision as a member of the European Council. This is false: Article 50(4) says that only the remaining Member States vote on this issue. The UK’s role comes at the stage of accepting that decision or not; and the new law specifically regulates that issue.

What if the EU sets conditions for extension? The CJEU has established in its Wightman judgment that the current status of a Member State cannot change during any extension; demanding that a Member State gives up its opt outs, etc would violate that principle.

There is a complicated question of the UK appointing a European Commissioner, which would conversely arguably be simply a matter of complying with its existing obligations as a Member State. I discuss this further below.

In the event that a modest extension goes ahead before the next election, this would shoot the fox of those arguing that the new law could mean the ‘imposition’ of a potentially indefinite or very lengthy extension, since it would be obvious that this had not taken place in practice.

Q             Would national law have to be changed to give effect to the extension of EU membership?

A             Yes.  The new law obliges this to take place automatically. The recent ‘commencement order’ setting the date of Brexit of October 31 would equally be delayed coming into force, as Professor Mark Elliott has explained.

Q             What else happens if an extension decision is adopted?

A             The UK will leave the EU on the new date without a deal, unless a further extension is granted, or it ratifies a withdrawal agreement, or it revokes the notification to leave the EU. It could also leave the EU beforehand if it ratifies a withdrawal agreement. Furthermore, some believe that the departure date can or must be brought forward to an earlier date if the UK requests it, but this interpretation is disputed. Note that, according to the Wightman judgment, the UK can revoke its notification to leave unilaterally, so cannot be subject to conditions like giving up opt-outs in return for staying.

The new law is silent on any of these further developments, including any further extension request. However, it does state that if an extension (presumably of any length) is granted, then the government must publish a report by 30 November 2019 on the progress of negotiations on the UK’s relationship with the EU. It must also table a motion in the Commons and the Lords about the report. If that motion is amended or rejected, the government must publish a further report by 10 January 2020 with a plan for further such negotiations. In any event, the government must make a further report on the progress of negotiations every 28 days starting on 7 February 2020 unless an agreement with the EU is reached or the House of Commons passes a resolution otherwise.

Politically, of course, developments in the period after an extension might be affected by a general election and/or a possible change of government.

Q             What if Boris Johnson refuses to comply with the law?

A             Politically, there might be challenges in Parliament. However, attempting to change the government in a short space of time might be legally and politically difficult. So might a further attempt by Parliament to pass another law circumventing the Prime Minister’s refusal to act. If the Supreme Court accepts that there are no judicial limits on the prorogation of Parliament, the government might advise the Queen to prorogue it again, which would cut off any attempts at legislation or confidence votes.

Legally, the possibility of non-compliance has already been brought before the Scottish courts, in a pending case.  It remains to be seen what remedies courts might be willing to order in order to enforce the law. Interim measures might be made in the event that the clock runs out before any appeals can be heard and/or decided.

Some have argued that the new law is illegal, because it infringes too much upon the executive’s power over international relations. If such an argument is raised in litigation, it would remain to be seen if a court accepts it; but the advocates of this view have not pointed to any precedents in which a court struck down an Act of Parliament on such grounds.

Q             Does the Act violate EU law?

A             No. This is an incredibly weak legal argument. Article 50 says nothing about a request for an extension, and therefore nothing about how a request must be made. It does refer to the withdrawing Member State accepting a request, but says nothing about how that process of acceptance takes place. It refers to national constitutional requirements determining whether a notification of leaving the EU is sent, but does not define what those requirements are. In the Shindler case (discussed here), the EU courts have said that it’s up to the UK’s legal and political system to define what these requirements are, and whether they have been met.

However, it’s possible that the EU might have legal or political doubts about considering a request for extension that is not from the Prime Minister in person. This remains to be seen.

Q             Does the UK have to appoint a European Commissioner?

A             It’s complicated. Article 17 TEU says that there shall be Commissioners equal to 2/3 of the number of Member States, but the European Council can change this number. It did so in 2013, with a decision that says that the number of Commissioners is equal to the number of Member States. The preamble refers to the Commission having ‘one national of each Member State’. Article 17 says that Commissioners must be appointed ‘on the basis of the suggestions made by Member States’.
At the time of the second extension, it was debated whether the UK would have to hold elections to the European Parliament. It was decided that it would, since the usual obligations of membership continued to apply. Logically the same applies to another extension of membership as regards the Commission.

There are several legal issues and possibilities though. EU law does not expressly state that a Member State must nominate a Commissioner, although arguably that is an implicit obligation. This could be enforced by legal proceedings, which could in principle be fast-tracked. The EU might be willing to approve an extension without a nomination (although that might be legally challenged), or to overlook the absence of a nomination if the extension is short. On previous occasions, the appointment of a new Commission has been delayed for a few months or weeks for various reasons. It is not clear whether or not the actions of a Commissioner lacking in numbers would be legal or not; but the new Commission could hold off from making proposals until the status of the UK was clearer. Most obviously, the European Council could amend the law so that only 27 Commissioners need to be appointed (that requires a unanimous vote, including the UK, although there can be extensions).

The notion of appointing a Commission with two Commissioners from another Member State might be challenged in light of the preamble to the decision on the number of Commissioners, which (as noted above) refers to one national of each Member State. Another notion of appointing a British Commissioner whom the government did not suggest might be legally problematic, due to the reference in the Treaty to making appointments based on ‘suggestions’ from Member States. Politically, either of those two outcomes might backfire politically on Remain advocates, for obvious reasons.

Analogies with non-replacement of retiring Commissioners on previous occasions don’t work, because the Treaties have an explicit procedure for non-replacement in those cases, and this is distinct from appointment of a new Commission.

It would remain to be seen how the EU might try to address these issues in the event that it wishes to adopt an extension decision and the UK is unwilling to suggest a nominee for the new Commission. Politically, the refusal to nominate a Commissioner might be intended to deter the EU from offering an extension decision in the first place. Time will tell whether it becomes an issue in practice.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 27
Photo credit: Anadoku agency