Saturday 30 April 2022

The Jurisprudence of Constitutional Conflict in the European Union (OUP 2022)



Ana Bobić, Référendaire at the Court of Justice of the European Union


Photo credit: Antoine Montulé, via Wikicommons



It has been almost 60 years since the Court of Justice introduced the principle of primacy of EU law, but it still continually triggers debates on the nature of the EU’s constitutional order. The penetration of Union law and its peculiarities into national constitutional orders has originally created a relationship of unease between the Court of Justice and national courts with constitutional jurisdiction. The Court of Justice, convinced in the utmost value of effectiveness of Union law, is expecting all national courts to share its zeal. National courts performing constitutional review, however, tend to prioritise their respective constitutions. The main objective of my new book was thus to determine the actual application of the principle of primacy of EU law by constitutional adjudicators in the European Union, through a mutual feedback loop of contestation with the Court of Justice. The book enriches our knowledge of the incidences of, and reasons for, constitutional clashes between the European Court of Justice and national constitutional courts in the application and enforcement of EU law.


The conundrum faced by national courts performing constitutional review is multi-faceted and depends on the national constitutional setting in which they operate. I have thus created and used the judicial triangle as a visual representation of changes in power relations between courts over time. As I show, the judicial triangle is always unbalanced at individual points of conflict: at times in favour of the Court of Justice and its privileged relationship to ordinary national courts; at other times in favour of national constitutional courts and their authority over the national judiciary. In this context, heterarchy, as the guiding scheme of judicial interactions, becomes visible when all the imbalanced judicial triangles are regarded in aggregate. For this purpose, this book conducts an in-depth analysis of constitutional conflict across different areas of law and over time (Chapters 5 to 7). Such an approach then enables us to see the resulting judicial triangles from all case studies, which are analysed jointly in the conclusions (Chapters 8 and 9). This allowed me to paint a distinctly nuanced picture of power relations among the courts under analysis.


In so doing, I have relied upon the framework of constitutional pluralism, arguing it is both descriptively and normatively relevant for the web of relations in the European judicial space. Descriptively, it is characterised as a system in which we can observe a parallel operation of different constitutional sites claiming ultimate authority. These sites regularly engage in conflict, which is resolved incrementally through the auto-correct function, sustained in turn by the application of sincere cooperation and mutual respect. The actors in the system are in a relationship of heterarchy as they continually change their ranking over time. Normatively, constitutional pluralism is comprised of a shared core codified in Article 2 TEU, representing the minimum requirements for Union membership. The emergence of constitutional conflict in this constellation is a regular and desirable feature of the system that promotes a dynamic development of law and sets in place checks and balances between different sites of constitutional authority. However, when constitutional conflict reaches such extremes that the basic values from Article 2 TEU are no longer respected, even in their most minimalist interpretation, without any trace of sincere cooperation and mutual respect, we are speaking of destructive conflict that can only be resolved jointly by political and legal means. I have offered a broad-brush empirical illustration of the descriptive and normative propositions of the theory in Chapters 3 and 4.


Next, to corroborate these theoretical claims, I explore in great detail the three areas of constitutional conflict – ultra vires review, identity review, and fundamental rights review. The aim of this part of the book is to provide a detailed and nuanced analysis of the way the Court of Justice has expanded the self-referential system of the Treaties; the different limits that constitutional adjudicators have placed on the principle of primacy as a result; what possible solutions they envisage in the event of a constitutional conflict; and whether such solutions pertain to a constructive or destructive interpretation of the shared normative core codified in Article 2 TEU. In all three areas of review, it was possible conclusively to state that a heterarchical constellation is more conducive to cooperation, mutual respect and the will to avoid conflict. The role of national constitutional adjudicators is to keep the Court of Justice in check and control its jurisprudence in a constructive manner, and vice versa.  


In ultra vires review (Chapter 5), not only have Member States announced they will police the transfer of competences from the national to the EU level, but have also found individual decisions of the Court of Justice outside the Treaty mandate. Yet, in all those cases, the finding was based on previously established standards of competence control, the Court of Justice was first involved through the preliminary reference procedure, and ultra vires review was an option available only to courts performing constitutional review, rather than ordinary courts.


In identity review (Chapter 6), constitutional adjudicators on the national level are consistently re-emphasising their prerogative to protect the constitutional core (the Portuguese and Italian constitutional courts have both recently included the constitutional identity discourse into their jurisprudence, whereas the Belgian Cour Constitutionnelle introduced constitutional core limits to the operation of the principle of primacy). Identity review on the EU level showed that the Court of Justice defers to the national level to define the content of their specific constitutional values with wide discretion and confines its role to ensuring a common denominator for the protection of such values through the proportionality test. This area of review has further shown that without the application of sincere cooperation and mutual respect, constitutional courts that are under the control of the executive may stretch constitutional identity beyond recognition and descend into destructive conflict. The usefulness of the auto-correct function in accommodating constitutional conflict stops here: judicial interactions in destructive conflict only legitimise the captured courts' decisions, while allowing them free reign in malforming the rule of law according to the needs of authoritative tendencies of the executive. Destructive conflict thus demands joint political and legal action at both EU and national levels.


Finally, in fundamental rights review (Chapter 7), national constitutional adjudicators enforced substantive limits to the principle of primacy, grounded in a satisfactory level of fundamental rights protection. The Court of Justice has reacted by subscribing to the imperative of fundamental rights protection at the EU level. Through the incremental development of jurisprudence, the landscape of fundamental rights protection has improved considerably due to the jurisprudence of constitutional conflict (for example, the Court of Justice's decisions in Aranyosi and Căldăraru and C.K. as well as the annulment of the Data Retention Directive).


When we flip through the illustrations of all the judicial triangles presented and analysed in the book (Chapter 8), what emerges is an animation of power relations permanently shifting between the Court of Justice and national courts performing constitutional review. Such a system is complex and its operation regularly causes headaches, either for the Court of Justice or for national constitutional courts, but most commonly for legal academics trying to make sense of judicial interactions and the broader ramifications for the character of the EU’s constitutional space. It is clear that the courts under analysis often disagree. Yet, the way these disagreements have been playing out in practice tells us that they form a delicate equilibrium, built incrementally over a long period of time, which allowed them to remain predominantly constructive. Ultimately, constitutional conflict is here to stay. With many a procedural and substantive tool analysed in this book, the courts I analysed can, and predominantly do, keep it constructive, to the benefit of the EU’s constitutional order.



Friday 29 April 2022

“Daphne’s Law”: The European Commission introduces an anti-SLAPP initiative


Professor Justin Borg-Barthet, University of Aberdeen*

*Advisor to a coalition of press freedom NGOs on the introduction of SLAPPs, co-author of the CASE Model Law, lead author of a study commissioned by the European Parliament, and member of the Commission's Expert Group on SLAPPs and its legislative sub-group




When Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated in Malta on 16th October 2017, 48 defamation cases were pending against her in Maltese and other courts. Daphne was at the peak of her journalistic powers when she was killed, producing a seemingly endless exposé of criminality involving government and private sector actors. Naturally, those she was exposing did not take kindly to the intrusion on the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour. Courts which offered few meaningful safeguards against vexatious litigation presented a nominally legitimate forum in which they would seek to exhaust and punish Daphne and to ensure that others did not engage in similar investigations. Most of these cases were inherited by her sons, whose grief was interrupted constantly by a need to appear in court in defence of their mother’s work.


The scale of abusive litigation which Daphne endured prompted several NGOs to look more closely at the phenomenon of SLAPPs. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, a term coined in American academic circles, are lawsuits intended not to serve the legitimate purpose of pursuing a claim against a respondent, but instead to use court procedure to suppress scrutiny of matters of public interest. The direct costs, psychological strain, and opportunity costs of defending oneself in court are intended to coerce retraction of legitimate public interest activity, and to have a chilling effect on others who might show an interest. While most SLAPPs are framed as defamation claims, there is also a growing body of abusive litigation which suppresses public participation using the pretext of other rights such as privacy and intellectual property.


In response to the growing SLAPP phenomenon, several US States, Canadian provinces and Australian states and territories have introduced anti-SLAPP statutes. Typically, these statutes provide for the early dismissal of cases, and include cost-shifting measures to compensate SLAPP victims and to dissuade claimants. No EU Member State has yet adopted similar laws. Prompted by Daphne’s experience, European NGOs and MEPs became increasingly aware of the alarming incidence of SLAPPs throughout Europe. They then set out to identify and advocate for legal solutions in the European Union.


Initially, the European Commission resisted calls for the introduction of anti-SLAPP legislation, citing a lack of specific legal basis. As the legal and statistical research bases for NGO advocacy evolved further, and following a change in the Commission’s political leadership, the Commission’s assessment changed. This culminated in the introduction of a package of anti-SLAPP measures on 27th April 2022, including a proposed anti-SLAPP Directive which Vice-President Jourova dubbed “Daphne’s Law”.


The legislative proposal is based, in part, on a Model Law which was commissioned by the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE), a grouping of NGOs established to further the research basis and advocacy for anti-SLAPP laws in Europe. That Model Law is itself inspired by anti-SLAPP statutes adopted in the United States, Canada and Australia, but accounts for divergent continental legal traditions, and benefits from extensive consultation with experts and practitioners in Europe and elsewhere.


Legal Basis and Scope

As noted above, the key barrier for NGOs and MEPs to persuade the Commission to initiate anti-SLAPP legislation was disagreement about whether the EU had competence to act in this area. Subsequently, however, the Commission recognised the internal market relevance of SLAPPs, as well as adopting a more strident approach to the rule of law and human rights implications of SLAPPs. Arguments concerning a legal basis included an approach based on numerous treaty articles (as in the Whistleblowers’ Directive), reliance on the internal market effects of SLAPPs (Article 114 TFEU) as in the Model Law, and the potential use of treaty provisions on cross-border judicial cooperation. Ultimately, in view of Member States’ expected resistance to intervention in domestic procedural law, the Commission’s draft proceeds on the basis that Article 81 TFEU confers competence in respect of judicial cooperation in civil matters.


The orthodox view of Article 81 TFEU presupposes an international element to matters falling within its scope. It was therefore incumbent on the drafters to constrain the scope of the proposed directive to cases having a cross-border dimension. The Commission’s proposal begins with a classic private international law formulation which refers to the domicile of the parties. A case lacks cross-border implications if the parties are both domiciled in the Member State of the court seised. This, however, is subject to a far-reaching caveat in Article 4(2):


Where both parties to the proceedings are domiciled in the same Member State as the court seised, the matter shall also be considered to have cross-border implications if:

a)      the act of public participation concerning a matter of public interest against which court proceedings are initiated is relevant to more than one Member State, or

b)      the claimant or associated entities have initiated concurrent or previous court proceedings against the same or associated defendants in another Member State.


The Commission’s proposal adopts an innovative formulation, the breadth of which is commensurate to the internal market and EU governance implications of SLAPPs. Given the EU’s interconnectedness, it is paramount that the law account for the fact that cross-border implications do not flow only from the circumstances of the parties but also from transnational public interest in the underlying dispute.


The broad scope could be extended further if and when Member States come to transpose the proposed directive in national law. It is hoped, and indeed recommended as good practice, that Member States will take the view that national transposition measures will not be restricted to matters falling within the scope of the Directive but would apply also to purely domestic cases. This would avoid the prospect of reverse discrimination against SLAPP victims in domestic disputes. It would also minimise opportunistic litigation concerning the precise meaning of ‘[relevance] to more than one Member State’ in Article 4(2)(a).


Defining SLAPPs

Other than in the title and preamble, the proposed directive does not deploy the term ‘SLAPPs’. Discussions preceding the drafting process noted a number of difficulties associated with the term, not least (i) its unfamiliarity to a European legal audience, and (ii) the potential confusion resulting from the word ‘strategic’, which could be understood to require evidence of said strategy. In keeping with the Model Law, the Commission’s draft Directive deploys familiar language and focuses on the abusive nature of the proceedings. Rather than referring to SLAPPs, therefore, the text of the draft directive uses the term ‘abusive court proceedings against public participation’.


In identifying matters falling within the scope of the draft directive, it is first necessary to establish that a matter concerns ‘public participation’ on a matter of ‘public interest’. The Commission’s draft accounts for the fact that SLAPPs do not only target journalistic activity, but also seek to constrain legitimate action of civil society, NGOs, academics, and others. Public participation and public interest are therefore defined broadly as follows in Article 3:


‘public participation’ means any statement or activity by a natural or legal person expressed or carried out in the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and information on a matter of public interest, and preparatory, supporting or assisting action directly linked thereto. This includes complaints, petitions, administrative or judicial claims and participation in public hearings;

‘matter of public interest’ means any matter which affects the public to such an extent that the public may legitimately take an interest in it, in areas such as:

a)      public health, safety, the environment, climate or enjoyment of fundamental rights;

b)      activities of a person or entity in the public eye or of public interest;

c)       matters under public consideration or review by a legislative, executive, or judicial body, or any other public official proceedings;

d)      allegations of corruption, fraud or criminality;

e)      activities aimed to fight disinformation;


If a case concerns public participation in matters of public interest, it is then necessary to establish that the proceedings are abusive in accordance with the definition in Article 3:

‘abusive court proceedings against public participation’ mean court proceedings brought in relation to public participation that are fully or partially unfounded and have as their main purpose to prevent, restrict or penalize public participation. Indications of such a purpose can be:

a)      the disproportionate, excessive or unreasonable nature of the claim or part thereof;

b)      the existence of multiple proceedings initiated by the claimant or associated parties in relation to similar matters;

c)       intimidation, harassment or threats on the part of the claimant or his or her representatives.


There are therefore two key elements to the notion of abuse: (i) claims may be abusive because they are fully or partly unfounded, or (ii) they may be abusive because of vexatious tactics deployed by claimants. The implications of a finding of abusiveness will vary depending on the type of abuse identified in the proceedings, with more robust remedies available where the claim is manifestly unfounded in whole or in part.


Main legal mechanisms to combat SLAPPs

Once a court has established that proceedings constitute SLAPPs falling within the directive’s scope, three key remedies will be available to the respondent in the main proceedings: (i) the provision of security for costs and damages while proceedings are ongoing, (ii) the early dismissal of proceedings, and (iii) payment of costs and damages.


Speedy dismissal of claims is considered the cornerstone of anti-SLAPP legislation. Accelerated dismissal deprives the SLAPP claimant of the ability to extend the financial and psychological costs of proceedings to the detriment of the respondent. Early dismissal of cases must, of course, be granted only with great caution given it is arguable that this restricts the claimant’s fundamental right to access to courts. The solution provided in the draft directive is to restrict the availability of this remedy to claims which are manifestly unfounded in whole or in part. It is for the claimant in the main proceedings to show that their claim is not manifestly unfounded (Art 12).


Early dismissal is not available where the claim is not found to be manifestly unfounded, even if the its main purpose is ‘to prevent, restrict or penalize public participation’ (as evidenced by ‘(i) the disproportionate, excessive or unreasonable nature of the claim…the existence of multiple proceedings [or] intimidation, harassment or threats on the part of the claimant’). This differs from the Model Law which envisages early dismissal in cases which are not manifestly unfounded but which bear the hallmarks of abuse. The Model Law’s authors reasoned that a court should be empowered to dismiss a claim which is designed to abuse rather than vindicate rights. This would not, in our view, constitute a denial of the right to legitimate access to courts but would dissuade behaviour which is characterised as abusive in the Commission’s own draft instrument. While the Commission’s reasoning and caution are understandable, the high bar set by the requirement of manifest unfoundedness allows for significant continued abuse of process.


This shortcoming is mitigated somewhat by the other remedies, namely the provision of security pendente lite (Article 8) and liability for costs, penalties, and compensatory damages (Articles 14-16), which are available regardless of whether the SLAPP is manifestly unfounded or merely characterised by abuse of rights. These financial remedies are especially useful insofar as they give the respondent some comfort that they will be compensated for the loss endured through litigation. They are also expected to have a dissuasive effect on SLAPP claimants who would be especially loathe to the notion of rewarding the respondent whose legitimate exercise of freedom of expression they had sought to dissuade or punish. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that in all cases these remedies, designed to compensate harm, should supplement the principal remedy of early dismissal which is intended to prevent harm.


In addition to these main devices to dissuade the initiation of abusive proceedings against public participation, the draft directive includes a number of further procedural safeguards. These include restrictions on the ability to alter claims with a view to avoiding the award of costs (see Recital 24 and Article 6), as well as the right to third party intervention (Article 7) which will enable NGOs to submit amicus briefs in proceedings concerning public participation. While this may appear to be a minor innovation at first blush, it could have substantial positive implications insofar as it would equip more vulnerable respondents (and less expert courts) with valuable expertise and oversight.


London Calling: Private International Law Innovation

While the provisions discussed above would limit the attractiveness of SLAPPs in EU courts, there would remain a significant gap if EU law did not provide protection against the institution of SLAPPs in third countries. London, with its high litigation costs and somewhat claimant friendly defamation laws, is an especially attractive forum for claimants who wish to suppress public scrutiny. Equally, other States could be attractive to claimants who wish to circumvent EU anti-SLAPP law, whether simply as a function of the burden of transnational litigation, or because of the specific content of their substantive and/or procedural laws. The draft directive therefore proposes to introduce harmonised rules on the treatment of SLAPP litigation in third countries.


Article 17 provides that the recognition and enforcement of judgments from the courts of third countries should be refused on grounds of public policy if the proceedings bear the hallmarks of SLAPPs. While Member States were already empowered to refuse recognition and enforcement in such cases, the inclusion of this article ensures that protection against enforcement of judgments derived from vexatious proceedings is available in all Member States.


Article 18 provides a further innovation by establishing a new harmonised jurisdictional rule and substantive rights to damages in respect of SLAPPs in third countries. The provision confers jurisdiction on the courts of the Member State in which a SLAPP victim is domiciled regardless of the domicile of the claimant in the SLAPP proceedings. This would provide an especially robust defence against the misuse of third country courts and reduce the attractiveness of London and the United States as venues from which to spook journalists into silence.


While the limitation of forum shopping in respect of third countries is, of course, welcome, there does remain a significant flaw insofar as EU law and the Lugano Convention facilitate forum shopping within the European judicial area. The cumulative effect of EU private international law of defamation is to provide mischievous litigants with ample opportunity to deploy transnational litigation as a weapon to suppress freedom of expression. NGOs have therefore requested amendment of two EU private international law instruments:


In the first instance, and as a matter of urgency, the Brussels I Regulation (recast) requires amendment with a view to grounding jurisdiction in the domicile of the defendant in matters relating to defamation. This would remove the facility for pursuers to abuse their ability to choose a court or courts which have little connection to the dispute;

The omission of defamation from the scope of the Rome II Regulation requires journalists to apply the lowest standard of press freedom available in the laws which might be applied to a potential dispute. We recommend the inclusion of a new rule which would require the application of the law of the place to which a publication is directed;


These changes have not yet been forthcoming. It is hoped that ongoing reviews of these instruments will yield further good news for public participation in the EU.


Concluding remarks

Daphne’s Law will now have to be approved by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. The legislative process may see a Parliament seeking more robust measures pitted against Member States who may be inclined to protect their procedural autonomy. The Commission has considered these competing demands in its draft and sought to propose legislation which strikes a balance between divergent institutional stances. Nevertheless, it must be expected that the draft will be refined as it makes its way through the approval process. As noted above, the draft would be improved if those refinements were to include the extension of early dismissal to cases beyond the narrow confines of manifest unfoundedness. Equally, the draft directive should be viewed as a first welcome step in the pushback against SLAPPs in Europe and that reviews of private international law instruments will follow soon after.


Photo credit: ContinentalEurope, on Wikicommons

Monday 4 April 2022

Can a Member State be expelled or suspended from the EU? Updated overview of Article 7 TEU


Professor Steve Peers, University of Essex

With the re-election of the Orban government in Hungary, some of its critics are calling for Hungary to be expelled from the EU. But is that even possible? And if not, what other sanctions can be imposed against a Member State by the EU?

Back in 2019, I wrote two blog posts on this theme: first, on the ‘Article 7’ process for sanctioning Member States for breach of the rule of law or other EU values; second, on the alternative processes (ie other than Article 7) for sanctioning Member States. This is an update of the first of those blog posts; I hope to update the second one at some point too.

The legal framework for sanctions

Although many people refer to Article 7 TEU, there are other Treaty provisions which are inextricably linked: Article 2 TEU sets out the values which Article 7 is used to enforce; Article 354 TFEU describes voting rules for the EU institutions; and Article 269 TFEU provides for limited jurisdiction for the CJEU over the sanctions procedure.  All of this must be distinguished from the normal rules of EU law, discussed in the second blog post.

First of all then, what are the values of the EU, legally speaking? Article 2 TEU states:

The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.

Article 7 then sets out the process of enforcing those values. It begins with Article 7(1), which provides for a kind of ‘yellow card’ – a warning if there is there is ‘a clear risk of a serious breach’ of those EU values:  

1. On a reasoned proposal by one third of the Member States, by the European Parliament or by the European Commission, the Council, acting by a majority of four fifths of its members after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2. Before making such a determination, the Council shall hear the Member State in question and may address recommendations to it, acting in accordance with the same procedure.

The Council shall regularly verify that the grounds on which such a determination was made continue to apply.

Notice that the ‘yellow card’ process can be triggered by the European Parliament, or a group of Member States, or the Commission. There is no requirement of unanimity of Member States to approve a Council decision to issue a ‘yellow card’ (this is a common misunderstanding), but the threshold of four-fifths of Member States’ governments in the Council is nevertheless fairly high. 

In practice, this process has been triggered both against Poland (by the European Commission) and Hungary (by the European Parliament). So far neither has resulted in any action by the Council, despite holding a number of the hearings referred to in Article 7(1).. So obviously triggering the process does not, as some think, mean that the Council will agree to issue a ‘yellow card’, or has done so already. If the Council ever did issue a ‘yellow card’, note that this does not entail a sanction as such: it is only a finding of a risk to EU values, with possible recommendations. Nevertheless, the issue of a ‘yellow card’ is perceived as extremely politically serious.

This brings us to Article 7(2), which is the ‘red card’ of the process:

2. The European Council, acting by unanimity on a proposal by one third of the Member States or by the Commission and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine the existence of a serious and persistent breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2, after inviting the Member State in question to submit its observations.

The procedure here is even tougher: unanimity of the Member States. The European Parliament cannot trigger the process, but could veto it if the Commission or a group of Member States trigger it. The threshold to be met is higher: not just the risk of a serious breach, but the ‘existence of a serious and persistent breach’ of those values. It’s likely that the EU would get to the ‘red card’ stage after issuing a ‘yellow card’, but that’s not a legal requirement: a ‘straight red’, for (say) a country which had suddenly undergone a military coup, is also conceivable.

What are the consequences of a ‘red card’? Article 7(3) sets them out:

…the Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide to suspend certain of the rights deriving from the application of the Treaties to the Member State in question, including the voting rights of the representative of the government of that Member State in the Council. In doing so, the Council shall take into account the possible consequences of such a suspension on the rights and obligations of natural and legal persons.

The obligations of the Member State in question under the Treaties shall in any case continue to be binding on that State.

Note that Member States don’t have to act unanimously in the Council when deciding exactly what sanctions to apply to the black sheep amongst them. The unanimity threshold only applies when taking the previous step of deciding whether there’s a serious and persistent breach of the EU values.  As for the specific sanctions which might be imposed, the Treaty mentions suspension of voting rights, but that’s just one example. The Council might instead (or additionally) impose other sanctions, such as suspension of MEPs’ voting rights (which raises the awkward question of whether they might also end up sanctioning any opposition MEPs from the Member State in question – whose voices would ideally need to be heard). However, there’s an obligation to consider the rights of individuals and businesses, which suggests that trade sanctions might be problematic. It might also be hard to justify restricting free movement rights, but in any event note that there are specific rules on asylum for EU citizens fleeing from a Member State subject to a ‘red card’. (see the second blog post).

Most significantly, there’s no provision to expel a Member State from the EU as such. Having said that, a Member State subject to suspension might be so outraged to be in that position that it triggers the process of leaving the EU under Article 50. The UK’s withdrawal process was complicated and controversial enough; now imagine the legal and political complexities of a Member State subject to an Article 7 ‘red card’ triggering Article 50. Should its political authorities’ actions be considered legally and morally valid? What if a group of exiles claim to be the legitimate government of that Member State (a la the USSR-era Baltic States), and that purported government does not wish to leave the EU?  What if a part of that Member State, at odds with the government in power over EU membership and its violation of EU values, attempts to secede?

Of course, the possibility of withdrawal (alongside concerns about sovereignty, and the workings of partisan politics) may also have influenced the pronounced reluctance of the EU to use the Article 7 process.

It’s sometimes suggested that the large bulk of Member States could just leave the EU, forming an “EU 2.0” copy of it among themselves, with only Poland and Hungary left in the original EU. Such a move would be risky for those who support EU membership in the departing Member States, as the critics of the EU would be given an opportunity to prevent their countries signing up to the new EU, or to demand renegotiation of the current terms of membership.

Article 7(4) TEU then provides that the Council, again by qualified majority, may ‘vary or revoke’ its sanctions against a Member State ‘in response to changes in the situation which led to their being imposed’. Article 7(5) notes that the rules on voting within the institutions when Article 7 is being applied are set out in Article 354 TFEU. The latter provides that the Member State which is the subject of potential sanctions has no vote at any stage of Article 7, as otherwise this would obviously have made the adoption of any decision on breach of EU values impossible. Abstentions cannot prevent the adoption of a ‘red card’ decision. Where the Council votes to implement a ‘red card’ decision, a higher threshold for adopting EU laws applies (72% of participating Member States in favour, instead of the usual 55%). If a Member State’s voting rights are suspended, the usual rules on Council voting with only some Member States participating apply. For its part, the EP ‘shall act by a two-thirds majority of the votes cast, representing the majority of its component Members’.

Finally, Article 269 TFEU significantly limits the role of the CJEU over the sanctions procedure:

The Court of Justice shall have jurisdiction to decide on the legality of an act adopted by the European Council or by the Council pursuant to Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union solely at the request of the Member State concerned by a determination of the European Council or of the Council and in respect solely of the procedural stipulations contained in that Article.

 Such a request must be made within one month from the date of such determination. The Court shall rule within one month from the date of the request.

The legal issues

Given the limit on judicial control of the Article 7 process, it is almost entirely political. So the legal questions arising from it may be largely hypothetical in practice. However, they do exist.

The first important point is the wide scope of issues which can be the subject of the Article 7 process. It is sometimes claimed that the process can only be used to sanction Member States for breaches of EU law, but this is clearly false. There is no reference to EU law breaches in Articles 2 or 7. Indeed, such a limit on the scope of Article 7 would be odd, given that Article 269 TFEU limits the Court’s jurisdiction, yet other provisions of the Treaties (discussed further in the second blog post) give the Court extensive jurisdiction over the enforcement of ordinary EU law.

This claim about the limited scope of Article 7 is also absurd if you consider the broader context. Imagine, for instance, a Member State placing LGBT citizens in concentration camps. A narrow interpretation of Article 7 would mean that the EU could only complain about this to the extent that being locked up in camps would have a discriminatory effect on the detainees’ access to employment (ie, an issue definitely within the scope of EU law). Yes it would; but that would hardly be the most outrageous aspect of detaining LGBT people in camps because of their sexual orientation. (EU law is also relevant to LGBT refugees, but the Article 7 process would have to be triggered first for it to be relevant to refugees who are EU citizens).

So obviously Article 7 is not intended to be limited in this way. Indeed, its broad scope partly explains why the CJEU’s jurisdiction is limited – to avoid giving it jurisdiction to rule on issues which are not normally within the scope of EU law. (Another reason is the intention to keep the Article 7 process in the hands of politicians, not judges).

On the other hand, the Article 7 process and ordinary EU law can overlap. The Court can use its ordinary jurisdiction to rule on an issue being discussed in the Article 7 process, and vice versa – for example, in the string of rule of law judgments regarding the Polish courts.

Exactly how does the Court’s limited jurisdiction over Article 7 work? The wording of Article 269 TFEU definitely covers the decisions on the ‘yellow card’ or the ‘red card’. At first sight, it also applies to the implementation of sanctions, since the text refers to any Council actions pursuant to Article 7 TEU. But on this point, the use of the word ‘determination’ is confusing, as Article 7 doesn’t use that word to refer to the implementation of sanctions,  but only the decisions on whether EU values have been (or might be) breached.

Note also that the only possible challenger is the Member State sanctioned under Article 7 – not any other Member State, an EU institution, or an individual or business. If individuals are barred from challenging the validity of Article 7 implementation decisions, even indirectly via national courts to the CJEU, how else can the Council’s obligation to ‘take into account the possible consequences of such a suspension on the rights and obligations of natural and legal persons’ be enforced? At any rate, there’s no limit on the Court being asked by national courts to interpret the decisions implementing sanctions, which could be significant in working out the impact of sanctions on individuals. In particular, if Council decisions under Article 7 disapply ordinary EU law in some way, there should be no objection to the Court’s ordinary jurisdiction to interpret such ordinary EU law applying.

A Court judgment under Article 269 TFEU can only address procedural issues, not substance. In other words, the Court cannot be asked to rule on the question of whether the Member State concerned has actually breached EU values (or seriously risks breaching them). As we will see in the second blog post, however, the developing case law on the overlap between Article 7 and ‘ordinary’ EU law renders this firewall a little diffuse. Also, one can imagine that a Member State may make arguments about the fairness of the hearings, even where (as in the case of Poland and Hungary) some hearings have been held (note that the Council's internal rules on Article 7 hearings have been published). Finally, the time limits in Article 269 require significant fast-tracking: the challenge must be made one month after the determination (the usual deadline to bring an action to challenge an EU act is two months after publication) and (uniquely in EU law) one month for the Court to give its ruling.  

Even though Article 7 has not resulted in any sanctions decision yet, the CJEU did address some issues about its scope in 2021, when it ruled on a legal challenge by Hungary to the European Parliament’s decision merely to trigger Article 7. In the Court’s view, the special rules in Article 269 did not exclude a legal challenge to the decision to trigger the process, because those special rules only apply to acts of the Council or European Council. The European Parliament’s resolution had legal effect, because it also triggered the protocol on asylum for EU citizens; therefore it could be challenged (non-binding EU acts, ie with no legal effect, cannot be challenged). Nor did the Court agree with the European Parliament that its resolution was a purely intermediate step.

However, the Court ruled that some aspects of Article 269 did apply to legal actions against the triggering of an Article 7 procedure: only the Member State concerned could bring a challenge, and it could only raise the procedural issues referred to in Article 269, not the substance of whether the body which started the process had wrongly claimed that the Member State was breaching (or risked breaching) EU values to the thresholds set out in Article 7. However, that Member State was entitled to the usual two months to bring the legal action, not the one month referred to in Article 269. Ultimately the Court rejected the Hungarian government’s argument on the merits, finding that European Parliament correctly counted the votes cast (and abstentions) to trigger the Article 7 process.

One key legal and political question is the interpretation of the unanimity requirement to issue a ‘red card’ determination of a serious breach of EU values. Some have suggested that since two Member States are facing Article 7 procedures, and they would have a natural tendency to stick together and vote for each other, unanimity can never be reached. Therefore, for the ‘red card’ procedure to be effective, it must be interpreted to mean that any Member State facing an Article 7 procedure must lose its vote even as regards issuing a ‘red card’ against another Member State.

With respect, this interpretation is untenable. Article 354 TFEU refers to ‘the Member State in question’ not voting in its own case – clearly using the singular, as well as the definite article. There is no way to stretch the canons of interpretation for this to refer to multiple Member States. Such wild leaps of legal fancy are particularly inappropriate when a main point of the process is to ensure protection of the rule of law in the European Union.


Article 7 TEU was conceived as a political process par excellence, and it remains supremely political. Due to its impact on national sovereignty, and the web of transnational partisan politics in which the governments concerned are embedded, Article 7 has long been seen as a ‘nuclear weapon’ – only to be used as a last resort, in a political emergency such as a military coup. Although the attempt to nuance Article 7, by adding a ‘yellow card’ process, dates from 2003, in practice this version of the process is perceived as politically ‘nuclear’ too.

The obvious problem here – which the ‘yellow card’ reform sought but failed to address – is that democracy rarely collapses overnight. In the famous words of Michael Rosen, ‘people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress’, but in fact ‘it arrives as your friend’ – promising to:

…restore your honour, 

make you feel proud, 

protect your house, 

give you a job, 

clean up the neighbourhood, 

remind you of how great you once were, 

clear out the venal and the corrupt, 

remove anything you feel is unlike you...

And to that end, and for those reasons, it often gains a foothold through the democratic process. Yet the values of the EU to be protected also include democracy – and the Article 7 process is in the hands of the governments of fellow Member States. All have some skeletons in their own closet; and all have backs that might need some scratching by the governments of the States being criticised. While recent Hungarian elections have been criticised as undemocratic, Member States seem reluctant to pursue the route of defining what they consider to be acceptable democratic standards and sanctioning other Member States for breaching them.

So is the Article 7 process doomed? In fact, the expansion of EU law in areas with significant relevance to human rights, the willingness of the CJEU to rule on the judicial independence of national courts in general, and the creation of new means to address ‘rule of law’ concerns within the EU budget system means that recourse to the nuclear option may arguably not be necessary. In effect, the conflict over the protection of human rights and the rule of law in Member States can also be fought by conventional means: the ordinary EU law system, discussed in the second blog post.


Barnard & Peers: chapter 9

Photo credit: Steve Peers