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Forlati on the Fate of the 1968 Brussels Convention: Some Thoughts from the Perspective of the Law of Treaties

The post below was written by Serena Forlati, Professor of International Law at the University of Ferrara. It follows a post by Andrew Dickinson which opened an on-line symposium devoted to the fate of the 1968 Brussels Convention. One more contribution will be published on this blog in the coming days.

The symposium follows a lively exchange prompted by a post by Matthias Lehmann (Brexit and the Brussels Convention: It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue?), which attracted comments by Eduardo Álvarez-Armas, Apostolos Anthimos, Gilles Cuniberti, Burkhard Hess, Costanza Honorati, Alex Layton, François Mailhé and Fabrizio Marongiu Buonaiuti.

Readers are encouraged to share their views by commenting the contributions. Those wishing to submit a full contribution to the on-line symposium are invited to get in touch with Pietro Franzina at pietro.franzina@unicatt.it.


Matthias Lehmann’s post on the possibility to ‘revive’ the Brussels Convention in the relationship between the United Kingdom and EU Member States, and the discussion it triggered, raise a number of interesting issues of both private and public international law.

I intend to offer a few reflections from the latter perspective, and more specifically from the standpoint of the international law of treaties. While termination of the Brussels Convention is regulated by customary international law (see Article 4 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969), I will refer to the rules enshrined in the Vienna Convention since the grounds of termination it sets forth largely codify custom (see notably the ICJ Judgment in Gabčíkovo/Nagymaros, paras 46, 99-100, and here also for further references).

Whether the Brexit could revive the Brussels Convention in the relations between the United Kingdom and the EU Member States was already discussed in this blog (see here and here). I tend to rule out such possibility, for the reasons set out by Andrew Dickinson and Burkhard Hess. The picture would however be clearer if one could argue that, before Brexit, the Brussels Convention was no longer applicable as regards Aruba and relevant French overseas territories – as the revival of a treaty that was already completely terminated (cf Article 59 VCLT) would be difficult to conceive. An aspect worth raising in this regard (and I thank Pietro Franzina for pointing it out to me) concerns the impact of the Lugano Convention 2007 on the applicability of the Brussels Convention to such territories. Notably Article 69(7) of the 2007 Lugano Convention stipulates:

Insofar as the relations between the Member States of the European Community and the non-European territories referred to in Article 70(1)(b) are concerned, this Convention shall replace the Convention on Jurisdiction and the Enforcement of Judgments in Civil and Commercial Matters, signed at Brussels on 27 September 1968 … as of the date of the entry into force of this Convention with respect to these territories in accordance with Article 73(2).

In discussing this text, the Pocar Explanatory Report (para. 186) characterized the continuing applicability of the Brussels Convention to non-European territories as a ‘problem’ which the 2007 Convention ‘supplied an opportunity to resolve’, thus indicating that a complete termination of the Brussels Convention would be advisable. Still, Article 69(7) did not automatically achieve this result: the Lugano Convention could actually replace of the older instrument only upon completion of the simplified accession procedure under Article 70(1)(b) on behalf of those non-European territories ‘that are part of the territory of [a] Member State or for whose external relations [a] Member State is responsible’. This does not seem to be the case.

More specifically, the French Parliament has authorized the accession to the Lugano Convention on behalf of overseas territories to which the Brussels Convention applies through law No. 2019-983 of 26 September 2019 (see here, and here for the explanatory report); however, apparently the French Government did not follow suit, as no notification of accession is mentioned to date in the repository of the Swiss Government, as depositary of the Lugano Convention; nor is there any record of similar steps being taken by the Netherlands on behalf of Aruba (see here). Article 69(7) of the Lugano Convention and the implementing practice would thus seem to offer no conclusive indication ruling out a revival of the Brussels Convention.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Brussels Convention still regulates the relationship between the UK and the EU, and should the EU challenge the United Kingdom’s claim that it does not apply in its regard, which options would the United Kingdom have under the international law of treaties to terminate a treaty relationship that it deems no longer to meet its interests? None of the grounds of termination discussed in the previous posts would seem to be fully adequate for the purpose.

Firstly, as regards termination on grounds of breach, Matthias Lehmann rightly questions whether the repeal of implementing legislation would as such qualify as a ‘material breach’ of the Brussels Convention. Although this is not straightforward, the repeal, taken together with the notification to the European Council of 29 January 2021, could amount to a ‘repudiation’ of the treaty (see Article 60, para 3(a) VCLT); this notion is understood as ‘encompass[ing] all means by which a party intends to relieve itself from its obligations under a treaty’  (cf here B. Simma, C. Tams, ‘Article 60’, para 16), and this is clearly the intention of the United Kingdom. However, under the rule reflected in Article 60(2)(a) VCLT the United Kingdom’s non-performance could be invoked as a ground for termination only by all the other Parties to the Brussels Convention acting together – most likely through the EU Institutions, in light of the EU’s acquired exclusive external competence in the issue. Should such a consensus exist, it would be much more practical to express it right away – even if only implicitly by accepting the UK’s request to accede to the Lugano Convention, in line with the approach of the other contracting Parties to the latter instrument (see here and here). The possibility for ‘specially affected States’ to individually suspend the Brussels Convention (Article 60(2)(b) VCLT) would seem to raise further difficulties also in light of the EU’s exclusive competence in the matter.

Whether the United Kingdom could invoke a fundamental change of circumstances is also doubtful in my view. I agree that the ‘subjective’ requirement set forth by Article 62 VCLT is met in this case, since membership in the European Union was ‘an essential basis of the consent’ of the United Kingdom to be bound by the Brussels Convention.  However, as Matthias Lehmann notes in his reply of 17 February 2021, it is by no means certain that a renewed application of that instrument would ‘radically […] transform the extent of obligations still to be performed under the treaty’ (Article 62(1)(b) VCLT).

The United Kingdom may be on safer ground in invoking Article 56 of the Vienna Convention, whose paragraph 1 stipulates: ‘A treaty which contains no provision regarding its termination and which does not provide for denunciation or withdrawal is not subject to denunciation or withdrawal unless: (a) it is established that the parties intended to admit the possibility of denunciation or withdrawal; or (b) a right of denunciation or withdrawal may be implied by the nature of the treaty’. Arguably the presumption against withdrawal enshrined in Article 56 can be rebutted in the case of the Brussels Convention (and of the 1978 Luxembourg Convention) by relying on either the intention of the parties or the nature of the treaty in question.

The scope of these exceptions is admittedly ambiguous, and the burden of proving that the situation falls under their scope would fall upon the United Kingdom (see here  T. Giegerich on Article 56, p. 1048, margin note 24). Notably the exception linked to the ‘nature’ of a treaty was the object of much controversy during the negotiations. According to the International Law Commission’s Special Rapporteur Waldock, the category would include ‘commercial and trading’ treaties, that seem much closer to the Brussels Convention than the examples of treaties which in his view ‘shall continue in force indefinitely’, listing treaties establishing boundaries and territorial regimes, treaties of peace, treaties concerning the final settlement of international disputes and multilateral treaties codifying general international law (see under Article 17 in his Second Report on the Law of Treaties, p. 64; on practice subsequent to the adoption of the Vienna Convention see however T. Christakis’ comment to Article 56, para 59).

A further indication as to the possibility to withdraw unilaterally from the Brussels Convention could come from ‘the intention of the parties’, under Article 56(1)(a) VCLT. The silence of the Brussels Convention could arguably be read in light of its nature as an instrument of EC Law, that others have highlighted in this discussion; this would militate in favour of a possibility for the United Kingdom to withdraw unilaterally once its membership in the EU has ceased, without necessarily meeting the requirements for termination in light of a fundamental change of circumstances. Nonetheless, a clear stance by the EU in this respect would be welcome in the interest legal certainty and of the stability of future relations.

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