In the case of Generalstaatsanwaltschaft Bamberg (Exception to the ne bis in idem principle) (C-365/21, 23.3.2023), the CJEU was called on to rule on possible exceptions to the ne bis in idem principle. The main issue was about the compatibility with Article 50 of the EU-Charter of the declaration which Germany made pursuant to Article 55(1)(b) of the Convention implementing the Schengen Agreement (CISA). According to this declaration, Germany would not be bound by the ne bis in idem principle laid down in Article 54 of the CISA where the acts to which the foreign judgment relates constitute an offence against its national security or its other equally significant interests.
The accused in the main proceedings in Germany, MR, had been convicted in Austria for serious commercial fraud and money laundering. While he served his sentence in Austria, a German court issued a European arrest warrant (EAW) requesting his transfer on charges of formation of a criminal organisation and investment fraud. In this context, the CJEU was asked for a preliminary ruling on, inter alia, the question whether the German courts could lawfully rely on the said declaration and consider that ne bis in idem would not preclude the execution of the EAW in the case at hand.
In its ruling, the CJEU took the view that the possibility, provided for in Article 55(1)(b) of the CISA, for a Member State to derogate from the ne bis in idem principle when the acts to which the foreign judgment relates constitute an offence against its security or other equally essential interests is to be seen as a limitation to ne bis in idem as guaranteed by Article 50 of the EU-Charter. Consequently, its lawfulness had to be assessed in light of Article 52(1) of the EU-Charter (§§ 47-48). The CJEU then embarked on a detailed analysis of whether the requirements of the latter provision were met. It thereby came to the conclusion that Article 55(1)(b) was compatible with Article 50 of the EU-Charter.
What is noteworthy about this ruling from a Convention point of view is some confusion between limitations and exceptions to ne bis in idem. A limitation to a fundamental right, which is called “interference” in the Convention terminology, usually refers to a measure affecting the enjoyment of a fundamental right by an individual without precluding it entirely, thus only restricting it. By contrast, there will be an exception from a fundamental right when its enjoyment is actually precluded altogether, here by reason of the category of offences involved. This is also why the CISA refers to Article 55 (1) (b), which provides for a scenario where States are not at all bound by ne bis in idem, as entailing an exception from its Article 54 (§ 5).
Thus, in light of this distinction, the present case is in fact about an exception to ne bis in idem rather than a mere limitation or restriction, since it is about denying the benefit of that principle altogether to MR. The notion of exception is therefore correctly used in paragraphs 5, 53 and 63 of the ruling. Yet, the CJEU nonetheless analyses this exception as a pure limitation and applies to it the test laid down in Article 52(1) of the EU-Charter. As if the benefit of ne bis in idem in the present case was only to be limited, as it was for instance in Menci and bpost, whereas in fact the suggestion was to reduce it to nothing at all.
This ambivalence becomes particularly apparent when, applying Article 52(1), the CJEU addresses the question whether the essence of ne bis in idem would be preserved in case the German declaration could be applied. It answers that question in the affirmative, but it does so by adopting a general perspective rather than that of the individual concerned. The CJEU indeed sees this requirement as fulfilled because “it permits that Member State to punish offences which affect the Member State itself and, in so doing, to pursue objectives that necessarily differ from those for which the person prosecuted has already been tried in another Member State.” (§ 57)
Thus, according to this reasoning, the essence of ne bis in idem is to be preserved for the benefit not of the accused person but of the State concerned, which will remain able to conduct its own prosecutions. It is therefore all the more surprising to read later in the judgment that this derogation from ne bis in idem “is accompanied by rules that will guarantee that the resulting disadvantages, for the persons concerned, are limited to what is strictly necessary” (§ 65, emphasis added). In fact, there is nothing left of that right for the individuals in the situation of MR, because ne bis in idem here is not subject to a mere limitation but to a full exception.
This approach would appear to be in serious contrast with the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, for at least two reasons.
First, Article 4 of Protocol no. 7 to the Convention, which is the provision laying down the ne bis in idem principle in the Convention system, provides for no limitations at all to that principle. Exceptions from it are allowed only in two different situations: if there is evidence of new or newly discovered facts, or if there has been a fundamental defect in the previous proceedings, which could affect the outcome of the case (Art. 4 § 2). Ne bis in idem cannot even be derogated from under Article 15 of the Convention, in times of emergency (Art. 4 § 3).
Secondly, when the Strasbourg Court examines whether the essence of a fundamental right has been preserved by an interference with that right, it does so from the perspective of the applicant, thereby asking the question whether the latter enjoyed at least part of his or her fundamental right in the circumstances. In other words, it adopts an individual approach, not a general one. This is because, if a fundamental right is to be enjoyed by an individual, the preservation of its essence by definition must be in the interest of that same individual, not in that of the State interfering with his or her right (see, e.g. Regner v. Czech Republic, § 148).
All in all, the approach followed by the CJEU in the present case would appear to remain below the protection level ensured by Article 4 of Protocol No. 7 to the Convention. This is in spite of the explanations to Article 50 of the EU-Charter, according to which “As regards the situations referred to by Article 4 of Protocol No 7, namely the application of the principle within the same Member State, the guaranteed right has the same meaning and the same scope as the corresponding right in the ECHR”. This level of protection can hardly be allowed to vary according to whether ne bis in idem should apply between several States or within one and the same.