Wednesday 26 November 2014

So long, and thanks for all the fish: the CJEU clarifies international law and institutional issues applying to fisheries


Steve Peers

The EU’s fisheries policy is controversial both within the EU and outside it, due to its impact on both fish stocks and the livelihoods of fishing communities. Until the Treaty of Lisbon, its application was essentially the sole preserve of the Council. The European Parliament (EP) tried to obtain joint control of some of the external aspects of the policy by claiming that its consent was needed for international fisheries treaties that impacted the EU budget significantly, but the CJEU rejected this challenge.

Following the Treaty of Lisbon, however, the EP has joint decision-making power internally over agriculture and fisheries policies, since Article 43(2) TFEU states that the ordinary legislative procedure now applies to the adoption of legislation in this field. However, certain aspects are still reserved to the Council, with the European Parliament only consulted, namely ‘measures on fixing prices, levies, aid and quantitative limitations and on the fixing and allocation of fishing opportunities’ (Article 43(3)).

As regards fishing, this provision is used each year just before Christmas, to determine the annual allocation of fish between Member States. It’s safe to say that the tone of these usually bitter negotiations never induces fisheries ministers to kiss each other under the mistletoe.  

What exactly is the dividing line between the areas where the EP shares power with the Council, and where fisheries ministers are left to hold acrimonious discussions among themselves? There are pending cases on the dividing line as regards internal EU measures. But today the CJEU ruled on the division of powers externally, in a case which also raised interesting issues of international law.

The judgment

Today’s judgment concerned a Council Decision which awarded Venezuelan fishermen the possibility to fish in the waters of French Guiana (which is a constituent part of French territory). This confirmed what those fishermen had been doing for some time before. The EU had felt it was necessary to put this practice on a more formal footing, but the rather left-wing Venezuelan government did not want to sign a treaty with such dastardly agents of global capitalism.

So the EU adopted an apparently unilateral Decision on this issue. The Council believed that it fell within the scope of Article 43(3), so the EP only had to be consulted, while the EP and the Commission argued that it fell within the scope of Article 43(2), so that the EP had the power of consent. The rules on the EP’s role in the approval of international treaties to which the EU becomes a party are set out in Article 218 TFEU. Basically the EP has the power of consent whenever a treaty concerns an issue regulated by the ordinary legislative procedure (ie fisheries law generally), but is only consulted when a treaty falls within the scope of other decision-making rules internally (ie the non-legislative procedure that applies when the EU fixes and allocates fishing opportunities). (In fact, the rules on the EP’s role in approving international treaties are slightly more complicated, but only this basic distinction is relevant to today’s judgment).

But was the Council Decision an international agreement in the first place? The Advocate-General’s opinion argued that it was not. Rather, it was a unilaterally binding declaration, an interesting form of international law. In fact such legal creatures are so rare that international law had not yet clarified whether international organisations like the EU could adopt them. In the Advocate-General’s view, they could. But that left the awkward question of how exactly the EU could adopt one as a matter of its internal law, since Article 218 clearly only refers to agreements concluded by the EU (or on behalf of the EU by its Member States). She considered various options, but ultimately argued that the relevant provisions of Article 218, including the powers of the EP to give its consent and receive information on negotiations, as well as the special jurisdiction of the CJEU, applied by analogy.

In the Court’s view, however, the Decision did constitute an international agreement. It based itself on the relevant rules of the UN Convention on the law of the sea, to which the EU and its Member States (but not Venezuela) are parties, and confirmed its position in the recent ruling on the Hague Convention on child abduction (discussed here), that treaties could be concluded in two steps. In this case, the EU had extended an offer, which Venezuela was free to accept, reject or suggest changes to. It had chosen to accept.  

As for the internal division of powers, both the Advocate-General and the Court reached the same conclusion: the Parliament’s argument was correct. In the Court’s view, the main powers relating to agriculture and fisheries set out in Article 43(2) concerned ‘policy decision[s] that must be reserved to the EU legislature’. In contrast, Article 43(3) provided for ‘measures of a primarily technical nature’ to implement the legislation adopted in the field. Applying that distinction to this case, the ‘treaty’ with Venezuela set out only a general framework, which had then been implemented by further measures based on Article 43(3). So that ‘treaty’ could not itself be based on Article 43(3); rather it was subject to the consent of the European Parliament, as it was based on Article 43(2).


On the international law issue, the Advocate-General’s analysis is more convincing than the Court’s, given the clear unwillingness of Venezuela to engage in any formal negotiations along its failure to ratify the UN Convention on the law of the sea, which the CJEU relied on so heavily. Nor is the Court’s use of the language of contract law very convincing. True, Venezuela’s application for fisheries authorisations might be described as the acceptance of an offer, but what is the consideration? Why should Venezuela’s actions be characterised in light of a treaty it had not ratified? Possibly the relevant rules reflect customary international law on the law of the sea which apply to Venezuela, but the Court does not make that argument.

Nor is its analysis of the text of the Law of the Sea Convention very convincing. The relevant clause refers to making ‘agreements or other arrangements’ regarding surplus fish. Could not a unilateral binding declaration constitute a form of ‘other arrangement’? Possibly that interpretation has been rejected by the Law of the Sea tribunal or by experts in that field of law (I confess that I’m not one), in accordance with the sources of international law as defined in the UN Charter. But if that is the case, the Court needs to bolster its interpretation by citing such evidence.

The distinction between the forms of international obligation matters mainly as regards the EU’s internal law. If the Decision was a unilateral binding declaration, the CJEU would have the awkward job of deciding whether the EU can adopt such measures, and if so how. Since the Court didn’t have to address these issues today, they must be considered open. But if it is every necessary to consider them in future, there is much to recommend the Advocate-General’s very thorough analysis of both of these points.

As for the internal decision-making rules, the judgment is more convincing, particularly in light of the Advocate-General’s arguments that Article 43(3) cannot apply to everything concerning fishing opportunities, since that would render the main legislative powers set out in Article 43(2) superfluous.

The broader implications of this judgment remain to be seen. But it’s an early indication that the Court is inclined to tilt in favour of a broad interpretation of the scope of the EP’s legislative and treaty approval powers over agriculture and fisheries following the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 5

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