This post was written by Felix M. Wilke.
Many papers and posts have already appeared on the EU rule of law crisis, in particular on serious doubts regarding the independence and impartiality of the judiciary in certain Member States. In light of the recent judgment against Poland (C-204/21), more are likely to follow. For the most part, the discussion concerns potential reactions under primary law and the effects the crisis already has had on the European Arrest Warrant. There have been some predictions that the crisis also would affect judicial cooperation in civil and commercial matters (e.g. by Frąckowiak-Adamska). Indeed, how could it not? In this post I want to flag some issues and ideas to be fleshed out in a later publication, based on a presentation I gave at the IAPL Summer School 2023. As always, comments are very much welcome.
Mutual Trust and its Limits
It all goes back to mutual trust. According to the CJEU, mutual trust in particular means the presumption that other Member States comply with EU law and with the Charter of Fundamental Rights (Opinion 2/13). If we know or have very good evidence that another Member State’s judiciary is not independent or impartial, and the Member State thus cannot guarantee the right to a fair trial, this assumption seems to have been rebutted. One can hardly do business as usual, i.e. continue to apply instruments like Brussels Ibis that are based on mutual trust as if nothing had changed.
We actually have famous precedent for that from the field of judicial cooperation in criminal matters. In LM, the Court of Justice held that the “real risk” of a breach of the fundamental right to an independent tribunal “is capable of permitting the executing judicial authority to refrain, by way of exception, from giving effect to a [European Arrest Warrant]”. Granted, Article 1(3) of the Framework Decision on the European Arrest Warrant contains the express admonition that the Decision does not modify the Member States’ obligation to respect fundamental rights – even though the immediately prior provision of paragraph 2 requires them to execute any European Arrest Warrant based on mutual recognition.
In one area based on mutual trust, then, courts in one Member State can under certain circumstances review whether trust is actually warranted. This has been dubbed “horizontal Solange” (Canor), as opposed to “reverse Solange” (von Bogdandy et al.) and the good old regular “Solange” (Germany’s Constitutional Court). As long as – solange – there are no systemic violations of the rule of law, each Member State should cooperate with the others. So, should we pull a “horizontal Solange” in civil and commercial matters? Should it perhaps be a “modified horizontal Solange”, adjusted to the specifics of civil proceedings?
Horizontal Solange as Part of Public Policy Reservations
One obvious answer is that we have been doing so in civil and commercial matters, anyway. For the Brussels Regime has always contained a public policy reservation (now Art. 45(1)(a) Brussels Ibis). Public policy is the classic tool of trust management (M. Weller). It is accepted that violations of procedural fundamental rights in another Member State can trigger this reservation. While Brussels Ibis lacks a clear statement on fundamental rights like Article 1(3) Framework Decision on the European Arrest Warrant, the obligation to respect the fundamental rights of the Charter exists as a matter of course when Member States are “implementing” EU law (Article 51(1) of the Charter). Thus, even if the vague Recital 38 Brussels Ibis did not exist, public policy must be interpreted against the backdrop of the Charter. More importantly, even instruments of judicial cooperation in civil and commercial matters without a written public policy reservation must be interpreted as allowing a review of potential fundamental rights violations in another Member State.
But to rely on public policy does not come without obstacles. Should the burden of proof rest with the applicant even where there are systemic deficiencies in another Member State? Should an application even be necessary? The seriousness of the rule of law problems and their relation to the public interest might suggest a negative answer, but this would likely ask too much of those tasked with enforcing foreign judgments, in particular non-judicial bodies. And what about the unwritten condition of exhaustion of all remedies in the Member State of origin (Diageo Brands)? Some would say that it does not make sense, period. At least it does not make sense if the foreign judiciary as such does not meet the standards of independence and impartiality. Systemic deficiencies obviate the exhaustion requirement as it itself is based on mutual trust.
Doubts about the Existence of “Courts” and “Judgments”
Speaking of independence and impartiality: Has not the CJEU held in Pula Parking – even though the actual problem was that Croatian notaries did not conduct inter partes proceedings – that these two features characterize “courts” for the purposes of Brussels Ibis? Without them, a national body is no “court”. Without being a “court”, it cannot give “judgments” within the meaning of Article 2(a) Brussels I bis. This calls into question already the scope of application of Chapter III of Brussels I bis (and, thinking it through to the end, also the application of the lis pendens rules). If this is not met, there would be no recognition and enforcement. The result thus would seem to be the same as after a successful application relying on public policy.
The scope of application, however, must be checked ex officio, and a failure to exhaust national remedies in the Member State of origin clearly could not change the nature of body that gave the decision. Hence, the requirements could be quite different from the public policy reservation. On the other hand, again, to require an assessment of the independence and impartiality of other Member States’ bodies in every single case would put the institutions in the Member State addressed in over their heads.
Exploiting Private Parties?
Moreover, one could characterize this approach with some merit as exploiting civil and commercial matters, ultimately: the parties of such matters to address a crisis not of their making. I feel a certain unease about this, and I do not think I am the only one who feels that way. Granted, to make a Member State a less attractive forum could be an effective tool of bringing about change in that State. And it does seem paradoxical to continue to apply an instrument of mutual trust where serious doubt has been cast on this trust.
Yet we can hardly blame a claimant for having pursued her claim in a certain Member State, even less so when jurisdiction in that State was based on entirely uncontroversial grounds, perhaps even on Brussels Ibis itself. To put a stop to EU judicial cooperation in civil matters without an individual violation of the defendant’s/debtor’s fundamental rights also would be questionable from the perspective of the claimant’s/judgment creditor’s fundamental rights. The ECtHR has recognized that the enforcement (even) of foreign judgments is an integral part of the guarantee of Article 6(1) ECHR (Hornsby v. Greece, McDonald v. France, Avotiņš v. Latvia). Then again, if one negated the scope of application of Brussels Ibis, at least national rules of recognition and enforcement could still apply.
I am inclined to let national bodies operate on the prima facie basis of a foreign “judgment” for now. There is less risk of legitimizing such bodies this way than accepting preliminary references from them (as the CJEU does, C-132/20). A potential gamechanger would be a decision under Article 7(2) TEU. Yes, such a decision seems unlikely. But the inadequacy of solutions under primary law do not imply the necessity of sweeping modifications of the rules for cross-border proceedings.
I would relegate the rule of law issues to the public policy clauses (whether express or implied). This implies court proceedings upon application (typically) of the debtor. The interpretation and application of the public policy reservation must sufficiently accommodate the applicant’s right to a fair trial. For example, if the applicant can establish systemic rule of law violations, she must not have exhausted all remedies in the State of origin. One could also be more liberal with the requirement of “manifest” violations. Additionally, I would advocate for a similar unwritten exception to the lis pendens rules, in line with LM. If there is the “real risk” that a later judgment from another Member State could not be recognized and enforced due to public policy, there is no point in staying one’s own proceedings. It will be hard to establish this real risk, to be sure. But that is not necessarily bad – civil and commercial matters are not the right place to try to solve systemic problems.