I am not especially keen on celebrating anniversaries. However, as things stand now in the European Union I thought it worth a short post on the seminal decision of the Court of Justice in case 22/70, AETR (EU:C:1971:32), of 31 March 1971. My attention has been drawn to its fiftieth anniversary.
Let’s celebrate what it meant legally (no political stance here), in terms of strengthening the competences of the (nowadays) Union and, as a consequence, for the uniformity of the legal systems of the Member States.
The case is named after the European Agreement concerning the work of crews of vehicles engaged in international road transport (AETR), done at Geneva on 19 January 1962. The agreement had been signed by five of the six Member States of the EEC and other European States, but could not enter into force, absent the necessary ratifications. Negotiations for the revision of the agreement were resumed in 1967. Similar work undertaken at Community level with regard to standardizing driving and rest periods of drivers of road transport vehicles resulted in Regulation No 543/69 of the Council of 25 March 1969 on the harmonization of certain social legislation relating to road transport. In the course of its meeting on 20 March 1970 the Council, in view of the meeting of the sub-committee on Road Transport of the Economic Commission for Europe of April 1970 at Geneva, discussed the attitude to be taken by the six Member States of the EEC in the negotiations for the conclusion of a new AETR.
The Member States conducted and concluded the negotiations in accordance with the proceedings of 20 March 1970. The AETR was made available by the secretariat of the Economic Commission for Europe from 1 July 1970 for signature by the Member States. On 19 May 1970 the Commission of the European Communities lodged an application for the annulment of the proceedings of the Council of 20 March 1970 regarding the negotiation and conclusion of the AETR by the Member States of the EEC.
In essence, the Commission disputed the validity of said proceedings on the ground that they involved infringements of the Treaty, more particularly of Articles 75, 228 and 235 concerning the distribution of powers between the Council and the Commission, and consequently the rights which it was the Commission’s duty to exercise in the negotiations on the AETR.
The Court ruled actually against the application. This notwithstanding, it also made substantial assertions on the extent of the external competence of the Community:
The Community enjoys the capacity to establish contractual links with third countries over the whole field of objectives defined by the Treaty. This authority arises not only from an express conferment by the Treaty, but may equally flow from other provisions of the Treaty and from measures adopted, within the framework of those provisions, by the Community institutions. In particular, each time the Community, with a view to implementing a common policy envisaged by the Treaty, adopts provisions laying down common rules, whatever form they may take, the Member States no longer have the right, acting individually or even collectively, to undertake obligations with third countries which affect those rules or alter their scope. With regard to the implementation of the provisions of the Treaty, the system of internal Community measures may not be separated from that of external relations.
Consequences in the Domain of PIL
The consequences of the AERT decision on PIL conventions have been profusely analyzed by scholars (see, for instance, The External Dimension of EU Private International Law after Opinion 1/13, edited by P. Franzina). Two Opinions have been rendered directly focusing on the field. In the first one, Opinion 1/03 (EU:C:2006:81), delivered on February 7, 2006, the Court was requested by the Council to answer whether the conclusion of the new Lugano Convention on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters falls entirely within the sphere of exclusive competence of the Community, or within the sphere of shared competence of the Community and the Member States. The second Opinion is Opinion 1/13 (EU:C:2014:2303), of 14 October 2014; the European Commission asked the Court whether the exclusive competence of the European Union encompasses the acceptance of the accession of a non-Union country to the Convention on the civil aspects of international child abduction concluded in the Hague on 25 October 1980.
In both cases the Court’s ruling supports the exclusive competence of the Union. This should be enough to proceed without a further Opinion in regard to the HCCH 2019 Judgments Convention, or, for that matter, to the accession of the UK to the 2007 Lugano Convention. A trickier question may be, though, whether the Member States are free to update bilateral conventions preexisting the Brussels regime, just as Norway has done (see, implicitly in favor of negative answer, Alex Layton here. I concur).