Monday 16 February 2015

Opinion 2/13 on EU accession to the ECHR: looking for the silver lining

Catherine Barnard, Trinity College, Cambridge


Opinion 2/13 is a judgment for lawyers, not politicians, albeit one with major political ramifications. It engages in a detailed legal analysis of the relevant provisions of the Draft Accession Agreement (DAA), as well as key principles of EU law. This does not always make it an easy read. Others have helpfully explained the Opinion (see the Editorial comments in (2015) 52 Common Market Law Review 1); a number have been have been highly critical of it (eg Douglas-Scott, Peers, Lock). I want to see whether it is possible to adopt a more positive reading of the Opinion. My remarks focus on three points:

·         Was there a failure to see the wood for the trees in the negotiations?

·         Was Opinion 2/13 really a case of judicial vanity?

·         What are the effects of Opinion 2/13 on relations between the CJEU and the European Court of Human Rights?

Was there a failure to see the wood for the trees in the negotiations?

The submissions of the Member States and the AG’s Opinion focused on the content of the Draft Accession Agreement: are the various clauses of the agreement compatible with EU law? But I think the Court felt that the focus on the nuts and bolts of the DAA meant that the negotiators failed to look at the bigger picture, namely (1) that the EU is not a state; and (2) that EU law has special characteristics (the language of Article 1 of Protocol 8[1]) which had not been sufficiently accommodated by the DAA.

In other words, the DAA focused on the state of the soft furnishings of the house – the carpets and curtains - rather than on the structural soundness of the entire edifice. But the Court was much more concerned with the edifice rather than the soft furnishings. This is why it devoted a substantial part of its Opinion (paragraphs 153-177) to identifying the ‘specific characteristics’ of EU law which it thought risked being undermined by accession to the ECHR. It identified these specific characteristics as supremacy, direct effect, conferral of powers, institutional structure[2], as well as the principle of mutual trust[3] and fundamental rights (why so far down the list?).[4] The Court also emphasised the importance of the autonomy of EU law - that is its autonomy from both the laws of the Member States and international law.[5] The Court said that the autonomy of EU law, together with its specific characteristics, were preserved by the judicial system intended to ensure consistency and uniformity in the interpretation of EU law.[6] And the key to this system is the Article 267 TFEU preliminary reference procedure.[7] It was against this backcloth, said the Court, that the DAA had to be considered.

Having set out its stall, the Court was, I think, trying to indicate that anything in – or about - the Accession agreement which jeopardised this core contravened EU law. Putting it another way, the discussion in paragraphs 153-177 was not put there simply to teach EU lawyers to suck EU eggs; these paragraphs are integral to the logic that followed. They provided the context for the Court to consider not just the points raised by the Member States in their submissions but also the bigger constitutional picture.

This broader constitutional context also helps to explain the focus on the three substantive issues: Article 53, mutual trust and Protocol No. 16 which had featured little in the submissions and the AG’s Opinion. At first sight, it is particularly surprising that Protocol No. 16 was considered at all. It allows national courts of last resort of states signed up to the Protocol to make ‘references’ to the European Court of Human Rights for an interpretation of the Convention.[8] It was concluded after the DAA had been agreed and it has not yet been brought into force. Yet the mere existence of Protocol 16 gave the Court the opportunity to express its views on the centrality of Article 267 TFEU to the EU system and how the reference procedure might be undermined.

In other words, for the Court, the EU’s team negotiating the DAA had failed to consider this important constitutional ‘wood’, focusing too much on the ‘trees’. Addressing the concerns about the potential infringement of Article 267 TFEU, together with the issues raised about Article 53 TFEU, the principle of mutual trust and Protocol No 16, was essential before accession could take place.

Was Opinion 2/13 a case of judicial vanity?

Critics of Opinion 2/13 argue that the Court of Justice was determined to protect its supremacy at all costs. Despite the fact that all intervening Member States, the AG (with reservations), and the Presidents’ joint communication indicated support for the DAA, the Court cussedly did the opposite. Even if this narrative is correct (which I doubt - see below), I actually think there would be some justification for the Court refusing to surrender itself so absolutely to the control of a ‘higher’ court. Compared to the US Supreme Court, it is still a teenager as a court. It continues to deal with threats to its supremacy from the Constitutional Courts of the Member States. It has, more or less, successfully held off those challenges. It certainly saw off a challenge to its supremacy from the power of the UN in Kadi I.[9] There, its identification of the autonomy of EU law was largely welcomed: David was seeing off Goliath. The situation is different now. The CJEU has now assumed Goliath-like proportions. Autonomy may now be mistaken for hubris, arrogance, disdain for its sister court. However, to the Court of Justice, subordination to a ‘higher’ court might suggest the Court is not invincible. It has always been very sensitive to this possibility.

However, I am not sure that the narrative of judicial vanity is correct. After all the Court does expressly concede that EU law - and the Court of Justice - are subjecting themselves to external review.[10] It points out that:

 It is admittedly inherent in the very concept of external control that, on the one hand, the interpretation of the ECHR provided by the ECtHR would, under international law, be binding on the EU and its institutions, including the Court of Justice, and that, on the other, the interpretation by the Court of Justice of a right recognised by the ECHR would not be binding on the control mechanisms provided for by the ECHR, particularly the ECtHR, as Article 3(6) of the draft agreement provides and as is stated in paragraph 68 of the draft explanatory report.

The Court also recognises that there is an obligation on the EU to accede to the Convention. However, I think the structure of paragraphs 160-162 is telling. The emphasis is not on the obligation to accede under Article 6(2) TEU, first sentence. Rather, the Court emphasises that accession is subject to limitations: accession must ‘not affect the Union’s competences as defined in the Treaties’ (Article 6(2) TEU, second sentence), nor must it interfere with the specific characteristics of the EU (Protocol 8, protocols being of equal value to the Treaties). As the Court put it at paragraph 164:

 For the purposes of that review, it must be noted that, as is apparent from paragraphs 160 to 162 above, the conditions to which accession is subject under the Treaties are intended, particularly, to ensure that accession does not affect the specific characteristics of the EU and EU law.

This is a subtle change in emphasis but an important one. Yes, Article 6(2), first sentence, suggests an absolute obligation to accede. However, when viewed through the lens of Protocol 8 and the second sentence of Article 6(2) TEU, the Treaty provided not an absolute obligation to accede but a conditional one.[11] I think this is the line the Court took.

What are the effects of the Opinion on relations with the ECtHR?

For proponents of the thesis of CJEU vanity, the effect of the Opinion on relations with the ECtHR is disastrous. The fact that the Opinion came out just before Christmas – not a bad time to bury bad news – might support the idea that the Court of Justice had something to hide.

Again, a closer look at the judgment might refute, at least in part, this allegation. First, at no point did the Court criticise the European Court of Human Rights or its case law; its ire seems to have been directed at the EU’s negotiating team.

Second, as Peers has helpfully digested, the Court has clearly identified areas for improvement. It has thus provided a drafting ‘shopping list’ for the EU’s (new?) negotiating team. Some of these items are relatively straightforward to address. Some, especially those concerning the CFSP, mutual trust,[12] Article 53 and Protocol 16, may not be. And the logistics of renegotiating the DAA in the face of a number of intransigent states both in the EU and outside, gives considerable pause for thought.

But the fact is that the Court of Justice did not close the door on EU accession to the ECHR. Leaving it ajar, yes, but not slamming the door shut completely. And the Court of Human Rights is a sensitive institution. While its first reaction might be disappointment (see the President’s remarks on the opening of the judicial year), judicial comity will lead the judiciary in both Courts to engage – probably privately – with each other.


A number of commentators have been tremendously critical of the Court’s decision. Their disappointment is understandable. There was so much hope associated with accession. The effect of Opinion 2/13 is to stymie these hopes. One reading of the Opinion is that the Court did this to deliver a body blow to the ECtHR and to (re)assert the CJEU’s own supremacy. In this case the judgment is very much a political one dressed up in lawyers’ clothing. Another reading is that the Court was focused on (re)asserting the specific features of EU law, which it felt had not been adequately recognised in the negotiation process. In this case the judgment is very much a legal one.

But there may be a silver-lining. The Court of Justice has put down a marker that it thinks that it can ‘do’ human rights. It may now have to prove this. There may be more decisions like Abdida,[13] delivered by the Grand Chamber on the same day as Opinion 2/13 (discussed by Peers), where the Court adopts a pro-human rights line (sweetened by numerous references to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights). Politically this may be very important, not only to start the process of bridge building with the Court of Human Rights, but also to send out a message to its own (troublesome) constitutional courts. For what is sauce to the (CJEU) goose is also sauce for the gander of the national constitutional courts.


These remarks were first delivered to a seminar organised by CELS, Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge, 4 February 2015.
Barnard & Peers: chapter 9

[1]The agreement relating to the accession of the Union to the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (hereinafter referred to as the "European Convention") provided for in Article 6(2) of the Treaty on European Union shall make provision for preserving the specific characteristics of the Union and Union law, in particular with regard to: (a) the specific arrangements for the Union's possible participation in the control bodies of the European Convention;(b) the mechanisms necessary to ensure that proceedings by non-Member States and individual applications are correctly addressed to Member States and/or the Union as appropriate.’
[2] Paras. 165-6.
[3] Para. 168. See also K. Lenaerts, ‘The Principle of Mutual Recognition in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice’, The Fourth Annual Sir Jeremy Lever Lecture, All Souls College Oxford, 30 Jan. 2015.
[4] Para. 169.
[5] Para. 170.
[6] Para. 174.
[7] Para. 176. See also Opinion 1/09, ECLI:EU:C:2011:123.
[8] Art. 1 says ‘Highest courts and tribunals of a High Contracting Party, as specified in accordance with Article 10, may request the Court to give advisory opinions on questions of principle relating to the interpretation or application of the rights and freedoms defined in the Convention or the protocols thereto.’
[9] Kadi and Al Barakaat International Foundation v Council and Commission, C‑402/05 P and C‑415/05 P, EU:C:2008:461.
[10] Para. 182-5.
[11] For hints of that view, see Discussion document of the Court of Justice of the European Union on certain aspects of the accession of the European Union to the European Convention for the protection of Human Rights and Fundamental freedoms, May 2010, paras. 4-5
[12] See further A. Kornezow, ‘The Area of Freedom, Security and Justice in the Light of the EU Accession to the ECHR—Is the Break-up Inevitable?’ (2012-13) 12 CYELS 227.
[13] Case C-562/13 ECLI:EU:C:2014:2453.


  1. A different way to obtain the same result: ((