Saturday 12 November 2016

Human Rights and the European Arrest Warrant: Has the ECJ turned from poacher to gamekeeper?

Steve Peers*

From its panicked conception in the febrile months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) has been the flagship of EU criminal law. Replacing traditional extradition law with a fast-track system which scraps most of the traditional restrictions on extradition, it has alarmed critics concerned by miscarriages of justice, but thrilled supporters who welcomed the speedier return to justice of a greater number of fugitives.

Despite qualms by national constitutional courts, the ECJ has long been insouciant about the human rights critique of the EAW. It dismissed a challenge to the validity of the EAW law on human rights grounds, and (in effect) ridiculed a national court which asked if it was possible to refuse to execute an EAW due to human rights concerns, answering a ‘straw man’ argument the ECJ invented instead of the serious questions sent by the other court. In its Melloni judgment, the ECJ placed a ceiling on the application of national human rights protection to resist execution of an EAW; but it never enforced a corresponding floor for those rights. Again and again, the Court ruled that national courts could only refuse to execute EAWs on the limited grounds expressly mentioned in the EAW law, instead focussing exclusively on the need to make the EAW system as effective as possible.

However, since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, this staunch approach has been mitigated by the adoption of six new EU laws on various aspects of fair trial rights – five of which also confer procedural rights on fugitives challenging the application of an EAW. (On the implementation of the first two of these laws, see the report just adopted by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency). In the last year, the ECJ has begun to interpret these laws (see the judgments in Covaci, Balogh and Milev).

But even apart from these fair trials laws, the ECJ in the last eighteen months has begun to show a striking concern for ensuring at least some protection for human rights within the EAW system. Last year, in Lanigan (discussed here), the Court ruled that if a fugitive was kept in detention in the executing State while contesting an EAW there, the limits on the length of detention in extradition cases set out in the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) apply, by virtue of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

This spring, the ECJ turned its attention to detention conditions in the Member State which issued the EAW. Following soon after concerns expressed by the German constitutional court on these issues (discussed here), the ECJ ruled in Aranyosi and Caldaruru that the German authorities, when executing EAWs issued by Hungary and Romania, had to consider concerns raised by the fugitives about prison overcrowding in those countries, which had led to ECtHR rulings finding violations of Article 3 ECHR (freedom from torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment). The national court had to apply a two-step procedure in such cases, assessing whether there was a) a systemic failure to ensure decent prison conditions in those States, and b) a ‘real risk’ that the individual fugitive would be subject to such conditions if the EAW was executed.

What if these tests were satisfied? The ECJ was unwilling to backtrack from its position that the list of grounds to refuse to execute an EAW set out in the EAW law is exhaustive. Instead, it ruled that the executing State’s authorities had to postpone execution of the EAW until the situation in the issuing State had improved. (The EAW law is vague about grounds for postponing the execution of an EAW, and the ECJ had already ruled in Lanigan that the deadlines to execute an EAW set out in the law could, in effect, be ignored if necessary). If the fugitive was detained in the executing State in the meantime, the limits on detention set out in Lanigan applied, with the additional proviso that a fugitive could not be detained indefinitely pending execution of an EAW. (In the later case of JZ, the ECJ aligned the definition of ‘detention’ in the EAW with the ECtHR case law on this issue).

This was only the beginning of the ECJ’s scrutiny of issuing States’ laws and practice in the EAW context. In Bob-Dogi, the Court ruled that Hungary could not simply issue EAWs as a stand-alone measure, with no underlying national arrest warrant, inter alia because the purpose of requiring the prior issue of a national arrest warrant was to ensure the protection of the suspect’s fundamental rights. The previously paramount objective of efficiency of the EAW system – which would obviously have dictated the opposite conclusion – was mentioned only in passing. Moreover, the Court side-stepped its prior refusal to accept additional grounds for refusal to execute an EAW, concluding that the EAW had not been validly issued in the first place.

Next, in Dworzecki, the ECJ insisted that a Member State issuing an EAW following a trial held in absentia had to have made proper efforts to find the fugitive before the trial. In this case, the law expressly allows for non-execution of the EAW.

Finally, in a trilogy of cases decided last week, the Court ruled that issuing Member States don’t have full discretion to decide what a 'judicial authority' is, for the purpose of issuing EAWs. The concept extended beyond judges to include those administering the justice system, such as Hungarian prosecutors (Ozcelik). However, it does not extend to the Swedish police (Poltorak), or to officials in the Lithuanian justice ministry (Kovalkovas). (British readers may wish to compare these rulings to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Assange case).

Again, as in the Bob-Dogi judgment, the Court side-stepped the ‘exhaustive grounds for non-execution’ problem which it had previously created for itself, by ruling (in Poltorak and Kovalkovas) that the relevant EAWs had never been validly issued at all. Also, in an interesting use of ‘soft law’, the Court ruled that Sweden and Lithuania could not argue that those invalid EAWs should remain valid for a limited period until they changed their laws, since the Council had warned them back in 2007 in an evaluation report that these practices infringed the EAW law. Criminal defence lawyers – and justice ministry officials – may want to look at the Council evaluations of all Member States in detail in this light, since they contain many other criticisms of national implementation of the EAW.


Has the Court turned from poacher to gamekeeper of human rights in the EAW context? Certainly there are still many concerns about miscarriages of justice as regards the EAW (see the Fair Trials website, for instance). But the rulings suggest a significant change of direction, which addresses some concerns and may have opened up the door to addressing others. What might explain this turn-around?

One factor may be the ruling of the German constitutional court on detention conditions in the EAW context, although it’s notable that the ECJ was never previously receptive to constitutional courts’ concerns about the EAW. Another factor may be a willingness to compromise after the ECJ’s controversial ruling on EU accession to the ECHR, in which it lambasted the draft accession treaty for (among other things) not taking sufficient account of the ECJ’s case law on mutual recognition in Justice and Home Affairs matters, which only allowed for human rights to trump mutual recognition in ‘exceptional’ cases. It’s possible that having marked its territory in that judgment, the ECJ felt it could relax and adopt a more flexible approach of its own volition (and under its own control), which might facilitate discussions on renegotiation of the accession agreement.

Another aspect of the background to this case law may be concerns about the adequate protection of human rights and the rule of law in a number of Member States. The formal process for sanctioning or warning Member States about such concerns is set out in Article 7 TEU, but the EU is unwilling to use it at the moment. The preamble to the EAW law says that the EAW system can only be fully suspended as regards an entire Member State if Article 7 is invoked. The ECJ clocked that provision in Aranyosi and Caldaruru, but then concocted the compromise position of postponing execution of EAWs in individual cases until concerns about detention conditions could be addressed: a measured, individualised solution for these particular human rights problems with the EAW.

Furthermore, the guarantee of judicial control of the issue of EAWs in recent judgments is expressly justified by reference to ‘the separation of powers which characterises the operation of the rule of law’. Despite the reluctance of the EU to chastise Member States for systematic concerns about the rule of law, the CJEU’s rulings at least ensure that any general human rights concerns are addressed at the level of application of EU legislation.

Indeed, these recent judgments might not be the end of the story: they can fuel arguments for the postponement or invalidity or EAWs due to other human rights concerns too. In particular, fugitives could argue that the prospect of long pre-trial detention in another Member State is also a reason to postpone execution of an EAW – although this argument is only coherent if the fugitive is not being detained in the executing State in the meantime. Already the Aranyosi and Caldaruru judgment raises awkward questions about how to judge what happens in another Member State’s prisons – so much so that the German courts have referred the Aranyosi case back to the CJEU with further questions.  Postponing the execution of an EAW does not, by itself, tackle the underlying problem of prison overcrowding, and it leads to the risk that those who have committed crimes may consider moving to another Member State to increase their odds of enjoying de facto impunity for them.

This strengthens the case for EU legislative intervention as regards prison conditions and length of pre-trial detention in the EAW context. The Commission issued a Green Paper on this issue back in 2011, and Member States were not enthusiastic. But the Commission has indicated in light of the recent rulings that it may make a proposal in future. (See also the new report of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency on these issues). This would be a good opportunity to make further reforms to the EAW system, to require a proportionality check before issuing EAWs in the first place – so that no one is subject to an EAW for the theft of a piglet, or someone else’s beer at a house party – and to build in more frequent use of European Supervision Orders (a form of ‘Euro-bail’), the EU laws on transfer of prisoners and sentences, and the use of modern technology to conduct more criminal proceedings with the virtual (but not the physical) presence of the suspect (see generally the Ludford report on possible reforms of the EAW system). There is a better balance between effective prosecutions and human rights concerns waiting to be struck.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 9, chapter 25
JHA4: chapter II:3, chapter II:4
Photo credit: picture – alliance/Horst Galuch

* This post is based on a keynote speech I gave on 10th November 2016, at a conference on criminal justice and human rights organised by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in Bratislava


  1. I have written a case note this year on Aranyosi and Caldararu (;jsessionid=2nLMPcETP4BuxxolQIov9H0J.x-brill-live-03). I think in this specific case the importance of the right not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment played a crucial role in why the CJEU seems to have backtracked from its previous approach to HR and the EAW. I think something that needs further discussion is how Melloni can be reconciled with Aranyosi. One argument can be that Aranyosi is different because the Article 3 ECHR right is absolute, therefore it requires extra safeguards. Another could be that in Aranyosi the national and EU levels of protection of the fundamental right coincided, while in Melloni they didn't.

    1. Thanks for your comment. In my view Melloni was always subject to being interpreted narrowly, because the specifics of the case turned on in absentia trials where the EU had gone for full harmonisation of the law. Other aspects relating to the EAW have not been so fully harmonised.

  2. Hi! I'm writing my thesis on the protection against degrading conditions of detention within the European system of surrender. I noticed that in your blog you speak of the Aranyosi case as requiring that a) a systemic failure to ensure decent prison conditions in the issuing state exists, and b) a ‘real risk’ that the individual fugitive would be subject to such conditions if the EAW was executed before the surrender can be denied be denied by the executing state. I do not completely agree though. I was under the impression that because different kinds of deficiencies (systemic, general, or which may affect certain groups of people or certain places of detention) can be used to show that detainees in the issuing member state run a real risk of being exposed to degrading conditions of detention, not only a risk emanating from the failure of a system is good enough to rebut the principle of mutual trust.

    What are your thoughts on this? Because it does make a great difference in the protection offered by the executing Member State. If also a risk stemming from other (less widespread) deficiencies can be protected, the protection offered in the European system of surrender seems less problematic in light of the jurisprudence of the ECtHR.

    1. That interpretation would be more consistent with what the CJEU and ECtHR have said about detention conditions/deficiencies and asylum cases. However, it is easier to have a different country consider an asylum application than it is to have a different country bring a criminal proceeding.