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Views Diverge Among Member States as to EU External Competence Regarding Service of Documents

The Hague Convention of 15 November 1965 on the service abroad of judicial and extrajudicial documents in civil or commercial matters is currently in force for more than 80 States.

All the Member States of the European Union are bound by the Convention. Most of them were parties to the Convention well before the Union was given the power to adopt measures concerning judicial cooperation in civil matters. Others joined afterwards.

Austria and Malta were the latest to do so. They respectively ratified and acceded to the Convention based on a Council Decision of 10 March 2016 whereby they were authorised (and in fact requested) to do so “in the interest of the Union”. The latter expression is used in cases where the Union considers it has the power to conclude an international agreement, but the agreement in question fails to include a REIO clause or is otherwise only open to States, meaning that the Union has no other option than to join the agreement through its Member States.

The Council Decision of 2016 was adopted on the assumption that the Union has external competence with regard to the Convention “in so far as its provisions affect the rules laid down in certain provisions of Union legislation or in so far as the accession of additional Member States to the Convention alters the scope of certain provisions of Union legislation”.

One such provision is Article 28 of the Brussels I bis Regulation. Article 28(2) stipulates that the court seised “shall stay the proceedings so long as it is not shown that the defendant has been able to receive the document instituting the proceedings or an equivalent document in sufficient time to enable him to arrange for his defence, or that all necessary steps have been taken to this end”. It is added in (3) that Article 19 of the 2007 Service Regulation (bow Article 22 of the Recast Service Regulation) applies instead of (2) where service occurred under the latter Regulation, and, in (4), that were the Union’s rules are not applicable, then Article 15 of the Hague Service Convention shall apply, “if the document instituting the proceedings or an equivalent document had to be transmitted abroad pursuant to that Convention”.

The stated existence of a Union’s external competence in this area has not prevented other uncertainties from arising. Specifically, the question arose of whether it is for the Union (and the Union alone) to take a stance on subsequent accessions to the Convention by third States.

Pursuant to Article 28 of the Convention, any State not represented at the Tenth Session of the Hague Conference on Private International Law (which took place in 1964) may accede to the Convention after the latter’s entry into force on the international plane. The Convention will then enter into force for such a State “in the absence of any objection from a State, which has ratified the Convention before such deposit, notified to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands within a period of six months after the date on which the said Ministry has notified it of such accession”.

Put in another way, the Hague Service Convention offers the States that are already bound by it to veto the establishment of relations under the Convention between any acceding State and all of the Contracting States. So far, this “right of veto” has never been used in practice.

The Council of the European Union has recently discussed whether it is for the Union, or rather its Member States, individually, to decide about the line to take regarding the accession of Singapore to the Convention, which occurred on 16 May 2023.

Member States had apparently no difficulties in agreeing that there were no grounds, in substance, to issue such an objection. However, procedurally, while the majority took the view that the decision belonged to the Union, two States – France and the Czech Republic – expressed doubts in this regard, and abstained from the vote.

In a joint statement, France and Czechia noted that the other Member States agree that the Hague Service Convention falls under EU exclusive external competence, pursuant to Article 3(2) TFEU, but argued, for their part, that, “since the provisions of the Hague Convention on service do not apply in relations between Member States but only when a third State is involved, the possibility of affecting or modifying the common EU rules is doubtful”.

France and Czechia did not intend to prevent the Council from adopting an EU-wide approach to the accession of Singapore, but stressed they would not consider such a decision “as a precedent for any other accessions to the Hague Service Convention and other measures of the European Union that aim to regulate comparable subject matters, where exclusive external competence of the European Union could play a role but has not been agreed upon by the Member States”.

On 13 October 2023, Coreper issued a recommendation to approve the line to be taken regarding the accession of Singapore (the recommendation being that no objection should be raised), while acknowledging that the recommendation “is without prejudice to the procedure to be followed in the future to establish the European Union’s position concerning the accession of third States to such Hague Conventions which have the same accession mechanism as the 1965 Hague Convention”.

The issue, it is believed, may resurface, in particular, with respect to the Hague Convention of 18 March 1970 on the taking of evidence abroad in civil or commercial matters. The latter Convention, too, has special rules on the acceptance of accessions (Article 39), although their design and practical implications depart from the corresponding provisions of the Hague Service Convention.

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