Author Archives: johan-callewaert

Trends 2021-24: Taking stock of the interplay between the European Convention on Human Rights and EU Law

After many presentations of individual judgments in recent years, time has come for a stock-taking of the general situation of the interplay between Strasbourg and Luxembourg.

This is the purpose of the short paper below. It sets out, with many case-law illustrations listed by area, the main trends characterising that interplay since 2021. These areas are: procedural rights in criminal proceedings, judicial independence, freedom of religion, the right to be forgotten, migration, the European arrest warrant, abduction of children, non bis in idem and the protection of personal data.

It is sometimes claimed that the protection of fundamental rights in Luxembourg and Strasbourg is virtually similar, any differences being negligible. This is an over-simplification of the issue. The real picture is much more differentiated, with significant consequences at domestic level, because of their impact on the precise level of protection which judges and prosecutors will apply and, ultimately, citizens will benefit from. This is indeed where the effects of this interplay are being felt on a daily basis.

The following five conclusions emerge from this paper:

  1. Whereas the areas of convergence are a reason for satisfaction, the areas of divergence represent a challenge for national judges and prosecutors.
  2. The EU legal system is autonomous, but the national judges and prosecutors are not, because they remain subject to the Convention and must apply EU law in compliance with it, which requires a comparison of the respective levels of protection.
  3. Consequently, in the field of fundamental rights, EU law is not the end of the story. Rather, a wholistic approach is called for, which takes into account the interplay between EU law and the Convention.
  4. Fundamental rights are in essence individual rights. They call for an individual test, which can be complemented but not replaced by a general test.
  5. As Executief van de Moslims van België shows, the last possible stop of a case as regards fundamental rights is Strasbourg and its ultimate benchmark is the Convention, as minimum standard. From this perspective, it makes little sense not to take into account from the start what is going to be the ultimate benchmark at the end anyway. The goal is not uniformity but cross-system compatibility of the case-law.

Successive scrutiny of the same legislation in Luxembourg and Strasbourg: judgment of the ECtHR in the case of Executief van de Moslims van België and Others v. Belgium

In the case of Executief van de Moslims van België and Others v. Belgium (16760/22 and 10 Others, 13.02.2024), the European Court of Human Rights found that the Belgian law, i.e. the Flemish and Walloon regional decrees, which only allows vertebrates to be put to death in the context of ritual slaughter by using reversible non-lethal stunning, does not breach the freedom of religion enshrined in Article 9 of the Convention. This finding is very similar to the one made by the CJEU on the very same legislation in the case of Centraal Israëlitisch Consistorie van België and Others.

This similarity very well illustrates two important aspects of fundamental rights in Europe today.

First, it shows the importance of a sufficient level of consistency between the jurisprudences at national, Union and Convention level, in view of the fact that the compatibility with fundamental rights of a same piece of legislation can, as in the present case, be checked at three different successive levels, the last one being Strasbourg. As pointed out by the ECtHR, in the case at hand the scrutiny of the same Belgian legislation indeed went all the way from the Belgian Constitutional Court to the CJEU and to the ECtHR. Contradictions or incompatibilities between these levels would have damaged legal certainty as much as the authority of the invoked fundamental rights themselves, quite apart from the difficulties they would have created for the national judges dealing with that kind of issues and subject to all three levels of scrutiny.

Secondly, this case also shows how beneficial it is for the cross-system consistency of the case-law on fundamental rights when the case-law of the ECtHR is taken on board from the beginning of the journey of a case through the judicial instances. Indeed, the last stop of such a case is in Strasbourg and its ultimate benchmark is the Convention, it being understood that this benchmark only represents a minimum protection level which can be raised (Art. 53 of the Convention). From this perspective, it makes little sense not to take into account from the start what is going to be the ultimate benchmark at the end anyway.

So there can be no doubt that seeing the CJEU extensively rely in Centraal Israëlitisch Consistorie van België on the Strasbourg case-law and acknowledge its benchmark function by qualifying it as “the minimum threshold of protection” (§ 56; see also this post) greatly facilitated reliance by the ECtHR on the fact that, having regard to the principle of subsidiarity, it should duly take into account the outcome of the “double control” which had already taken place in Brussels and Luxembourg prior to its own scrutiny (§ 112).

Under these circumstances, it came as no surprise that, in a welcome unisono with the CJEU, the ECtHR held that the obligations imposed by the Belgian legislation at stake were not disproportionate and therefore were not in breach of Article 9 of the Convention.

Is the CJEU creating two different categories of fundamental rights? Judgment of the CJEU in the case of GN

GN is yet another case concerning the execution of a European arrest warrant (EAW). This time round, the person subject to that EAW is the mother of a young child who, at the time of the events, was also pregnant with a second child. The Belgian judicial authorities had issued a EAW in respect of her for the purpose of enforcing a custodial sentence of five years which was handed down in absentia.

After a first refusal by the Bologna Court of Appeal to surrender GN to the Belgian authorities, on the ground that the latter had never responded to its request for information concerning inter alia the arrangements for the enforcement of sentences imposed on mothers living with minor children and the measures taken in relation to GN’s minor child, the case ended up before the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation, which referred the case for a preliminary ruling by the CJEU.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court of Cassation stated in its referral request that if the Belgian legal order did not provide for measures protecting the rights of children which were comparable to those provided for by Italian law, the surrender of GN would lead to a breach of the latter’s fundamental rights protected by the Italian Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights (§ 22). In its second question to the CJEU, the Supreme Court of Cassation explicitly raised the question of the possible incompatibility of the surrender of GN with Articles 7 and 24(3) of the EU-Charter, “also considering the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to Article 8 [ECHR] and the constitutional traditions common to the Member States”.

In its response, the CJEU follows its traditional two-step approach, consisting of a general test, on the existence of systemic or generalised deficiencies in the issuing Member State, followed by an individual test, on whether in light of such deficiencies, there are substantial grounds for believing that the persons concerned will run a real risk of breach of their fundamental rights. In the case at hand, this risk concerned the rights to respect for one’s family life and to consideration given to the child’s best interests, as laid down in Articles 7 and 24(2) of the EU-Charter respectively (§§ 45-48).

Despite the sensitive nature of the issues involved, affecting minor children, the CJEU appears determined in this case to further narrow the scope left to the executing judicial authorities for the consideration of individual circumstances which might be relevant in the assessment of the risks incurred in the issuing Member State by the persons subject to the EAW at stake.

For not only does the CJEU confirm in GN its recent case-law precluding the executing judicial authorities from applying the individual test in the absence of systemic or generalised deficiencies or from applying the two tests simultaneously (§ 46), this time round it also explicitly prohibits these authorities, in the absence of systemic or generalised deficiencies, from inquiring under Article 15(2) of Framework Decision 2002/584 about the conditions under which it is intended, in the issuing Member State, to detain persons as Ms GN and/or to take care of their children (§ 50). This only reinforces the conclusion already reached in Staatsanwaltschaft Aachen about the mere ancillary function of the individual test.

However, what is worrying about this strict ban on the application of an autonomous individual test, and the inquiries which may go with it, is that it may interfere with the obligations placed by the Convention on the executing judicial authorities. Given that the Convention applies to the execution of a EAW (see, among others, Bivolaru and Moldovan v. France) and that it only provides for an individual test, the question indeed arises whether the two-step approach, with the individual test made contingent on the outcome of the general test, leaves enough room for the judges of the executing Member State to conform with their duties under the Convention. This may also be the sense of the concerns expressed by the Supreme Court of Cassation concerning compliance with the Convention.

Of course, national judges are not prevented by the Convention from having regard, if appropriate, to the general context of the individual situations they must assess. However, the ultimate test to be applied by them – and indeed by the ECtHR – is always an individual test, which is autonomous and focussed on the individual situation of the person concerned. It does not need to be preceded by any prior general assessment. Even less is its validity contingent on any specific outcome of that general assessment.

It follows that under the Convention the scope of the risks capable of justifying a ban on the the extradition or deportation of a person is not limited to those risks which flow from systemic or generalised deficiencies. Risks of a violation of fundamental rights in the country of destination which are unrelated to any systemic or generalised deficiencies, such as risks stemming exclusively from the biography of the person concerned, are equally relevant. For why should a risk of breach of a fundamental right be ruled out only because it does not exist on a large scale?

Thus, as confirmed in Bivolaru and Moldovan v. France, compliance with the Convention when executing a EAW logically also requires an assessment about the personal and individual risks incurred by the person concerned in the issuing Member State. The scrutiny cannot stop after a general assessment, regardless of its result, as this would be tantamount to replacing the individual test required by the Convention by a general test which only considers the overall situation in the issuing Member State, thereby also raising the question as from when deficiencies are to be considered systemic or generalised.

Yet, it would appear that under EU law the simple finding by the executing judicial authority that no systemic or generalised deficiencies can be identified in the issuing Member State is sufficient to preclude any such individual assessment. This situation raises at least two following questions. First, is the CJEU creating two categories of fundamental rights in this area: those which stem from systemic and generalised deficiencies and are therefore relevant, and those which do not stem from such deficiencies and can be ignored? Second, are national judges being prevented by EU law from correctly applying the Convention in this area, as they are instructed to do by the Avotiņš v. Latvia and Bivolaru and Moldovan v. France jurisprudence?

AG 505 zum Grundrechtsschutz: Sitzung vom 18. Januar 2024

Liebe Studierende,

auf unserer kommenden und letzten Sitzung in diesem Semester werden wir folgende Themen aus konventionsrechtlicher Sicht behandeln:

1. Minderjährige unbegleitete Asylbewerber im Dschungel von Calais (Rs. Khan / Frankreich)

2. Todesstrafe und Todeszellentrakt in Amerika (Rs. Soering / Vereinigtes Königreich)

Die zu besprechenden Urteile liegen bei.

Ich freue mich auf einen spannenden Austausch mit Ihnen.

Prof. Dr. Johan Callewaert

AG 505 zum EGMR: Sitzung vom 11. Januar 2024

Liebe Studierende,

auf unserer kommenden Sitzung werden wir folgende Themen aus konventionsrechtlicher Sicht behandeln:

1. Anforderungen aus Art. 8 EMRK zum Schutz gegen Racial-Profiling (Rs. Basu / Deutschland)

2. Persönlichkeitsrechte von Polizeibeamten vs. Pressefreiheit im Internet (Rs. Bild GmbH & Co. KG / Deutschland)

Die zu besprechenden Urteile liegen bei.

Ich freue mich auf einen spannenden Austausch mit Ihnen.

Prof. Dr. Johan Callewaert

AG 505 zum EGMR: Sitzung vom 10. Januar am Sitz des EGMR

Liebe Studierende,

auf unserer kommenden Sitzung werden wir folgende Themen aus konventionsrechtlicher Sicht behandeln:

1. Aufenthaltsbedingungen und Verfahren in den Transitzonen für Migranten (Rs. Ilias und Ahmed / Ungarn)

2. Konventionsrechtliche Kontrolle des parlamentarischen Betriebs am Beispiel der Wahlprüfungsbeschwerden (Rs. Mugemangango / Belgien)

Die zu besprechenden Urteile liegen bei.

Ich freue mich auf einen spannenden Austausch mit Ihnen.

Prof. Dr. Johan Callewaert

AG 505 zum EGMR: Sitzung vom 4. Januar 2024

Liebe Studierende,

auf unserer kommenden Sitzung werden wir uns mit der Rechtsprechung des EGMR zum assistierten Suizid (Pretty / das Vereinigte Königreich und Haas / die Schweiz) sowie zum Abbruch künstlicher lebenserhaltender Maßnahmen (Lambert u.a. / Frankreich) beschäftigen.

Die zu besprechenden Urteile liegen bei.

Ich freue mich auf einen spannenden Austausch mit Ihnen.

Prof. Dr. Johan Callewaert

Which fundamental rights exactly apply to proceedings of the EPPO? Judgment of the CJEU in the case of G.K. and Others

In the case of G.K. and Others (European Public Prosecutor’s Office) (C-281/22, 21.12.2023), the CJEU interpreted Regulation 2017/1939 implementing enhanced cooperation on the establishment of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) and ruled on the scope of the judicial review to be carried out by the courts of the Member States in the event of cross-border investigation measures.

In the case before the referring court, several persons were being prosecuted for fraud concerning the import of biodiesel into the Union. The EPPO conducted an investigation in Germany through a “handling European Delegated Prosecutor” (EDP) and, for the purposes of the investigation, the search and seizure of goods in Austria was ordered. The German handling EDP thus delegated the enforcement of those measures to an Austrian “assisting EDP”. The accused persons challenged those investigation measures before the Vienna court of appeal, which referred to the CJEU several questions about the extent of the judicial review which it should carry out for the purpose of authorising the investigation measures which had been assigned by the German handling EDP to the Austrian assisting EDP.

The CJEU ruled that Articles 31 and 32 of Regulation 2017/1939 limit the review by the courts of the Member State of the assisting EDP to matters concerning the enforcement of those measures, to the exclusion of matters concerning their justification and adoption, which are to be assessed by the courts of the Member State of the handling EDP. The CJEU added that the latter matters must be subject to prior judicial review in the Member State of the handling European Delegated Prosecutor in the event of serious interference with the rights of the persons concerned guaranteed by the EU-Charter.

While this ruling answers a number of important questions arising in the context of criminal proceedings by the EPPO, one equally important issue is being completely ignored by it: the status under the Convention of the national authorities involved in EPPO-proceedings, i.e. the enforcement authorities, such as police forces and investigators, and the courts entrusted with reviewing procedural acts by the EPPO and adjudicating the cases brought before them by the EPPO. Are these national authorities subject to the Convention or not, in addition to them being subject to Union law? The answer to this question will determine which fundamental rights exactly will apply to EPPO-proceedings.

While it seems clear that EDPs, acting on behalf of the EPPO, an EU institution, are not subject to the Convention, the situation is less clear as regards these national authorities. This can only be decided by the ECtHR itself. Pending this clarification by the ECtHR and focussing on the national courts involved in proceedings initiated by the EPPO, it should be recalled that the creation of the EU and its predecessor organisations did not remove the responsibility of the Member States under the Convention for their application of Union law (see, among others, Bivolaru and Moldovan v. France). Neither does Regulation 2017/1939 provide that the national courts would act as EU courts when involved in EPPO-proceedings.

It can therefore be assumed that the national courts, when involved in such proceedings, remain national courts and, in this capacity, remain bound to apply Union law in conformity with the Convention. In any event, any other solution would deprive citizens who are the subject of EPPO-proceedings of the possibility of filing an application for external review of these proceedings by the ECtHR. Their fundamental rights would in that case be less well protected than those of the persons who are subject to proceedings initiated by national prosecutors under national law, which would be unacceptable.

Thus, as things currently stand, two partially different sets of European fundamental rights apply to a single set of EPPO-proceedings, depending on the acting institution: the sole EU rights in respect of legal acts by the EDPs, and a combination of EU and Convention rights in respect of legal acts by the national courts and perhaps also by the national enforcement authorities. This distinction becomes relevant in all cases where the level of protection between EU and Convention fundamental rights differs.

Fortunately, in criminal proceedings more than in any other area, the CJEU seems to be taking greater care in avoiding discrepancies with the Strasbourg case-law, which is beneficial to the coherence of the European standards in criminal procedure and facilitates the challenging task of national judges (see Greater convergence). However, some differences remain, e.g. with the application of the ne bis in idem principle (see Convention control, at p. 342) or with some aspects of the right to legal assistance such as the free choice of a lawyer.

What is helpful in this context, though, is that Article 41(2) of Regulation 2017/1939 provides that suspected or accused persons shall, “at a minimum”, have the procedural rights provided for in Union law enumerated in that provision (§ 76). This seems to indicate that the level of protection guaranteed by the latter can be raised if need be.

At the same time, this duality of European sources of fundamental rights can prove useful, as it will allow national judges to also rely on the Strasbourg case-law on the right to a fair trial in criminal matters which, being developed since more than 70 years, is indeed richer and more comprehensive than the Luxembourg case-law on these issues and, in any event, by virtue of Article 52(3) of the EU-Charter, represents a mandatory minimum protection standard which is also applicable under EU law.

Even so, the fact nonetheless remains that under the scheme put in place by Regulation 2017/1939, such “double standards” distort the uniformity which should in principle characterize, throughout criminal proceedings, the fundamental rights applied to the latter. For how coherent is it for an accused to be entitled to claim a level of protection which did not apply to the prosecutor in the very same case? Both should rather play by the same rules. If not, and in the event, as a result, of a failure by national courts to comply with the Convention, the Member State concerned would, in addition, incur liability in Strasbourg for action by an independent EU institution over which it has no control. The only way to minimize the impact of such distortions would be for the EU to become a Contracting Party to the Convention, along with its own Member States (for a more detailed analysis of the impact of the Convention on criminal proceedings of the EPPO, turn to No case to answer).

One can only regret that the authors of Regulation 2017/1939 did not adopt a wholistic approach which would have allowed them to address these important issues and help avoid yet another layer of complexity in this area.

Preventive Convention control by the ECtHR over the execution of European arrest warrants

The case of Arsene v. Italy (39817/23) provides a good opportunity to draw attention to the preventive control exercised by the ECtHR, under Rule 39 of its Rules of Court, over the execution of European arrest warrants (EAW) which are challenged by applicants under Article 3 of the Convention (prohibition of ill-treatment).

In this case, the ECtHR decided on 10 November 2023 not to indicate to the Italian Government the interim measure which the applicant was seeking under Rule 39 of the Rules of Court and which would have temporarily stopped his surrender to Romania on the basis of the EAW issued against him. The interim measures indicated under this provision are indeed legally binding (Mamatkulov and Askarov v. Turkey).

Arsene v. Italy is only the most recent in a series of cases in which applicants requested the ECtHR to stop the execution of a EAW by reason of a serious risk of violation of Article 3 of the Convention in the issuing Member State. Other such cases include Caragea v. Italy and Romania (11773/20), Coarda v. Sweden (18732/20), Ursu v. Italy (54281/20) and Cretu v. United Kingdom (9749/22).

In all the above cases the applicants had been convicted to custodial sentences by Romanian courts and were the subject of EAWs issued for the purpose of the service of these sentences in Romania. The applicants challenged the execution of these EAWs before the ECtHR, thereby referring to the pilot judgment in Rezmiveș and Others v. Romania, in which the ECtHR found that the persisting structural problems of overcrowding and poor conditions of detention in Romania amounted to a practice incompatible with Article 3 of the Convention and requested the Romanian authorities to urgently remedy that situation.

Yet, all requests in the above cases for the indication of interim measures were rejected by the ECtHR on their merits, i.e. after a thorough examination of the circumstances of each case by the duty judge. In line with established practice concerning Rule 39, no reasons were given by the ECtHR for these dismissals. However, a striking feature which all these cases have in common are formal and individualised assurances given by the Romanian authorities regarding the places of detention of the persons concerned and respect for their rights under Article 3, which the authorities of the executing States considered trustworthy, in the absence of any evidence showing that the Romanian authorities had ever breached assurances of this type in the past.

In Dorobantu, the CJEU ruled that in the presence of deficiencies which affected certain places of detention, the executing judicial authority is bound to determine, specifically and precisely, whether, in the particular circumstances of the case, there are substantial grounds for believing that, following the surrender of a person to the issuing Member State under a EAW, he/she will run a real risk of being subject in that Member State to inhuman or degrading treatment, because of the conditions for his detention envisaged in the issuing Member State (§§ 52, 55). However, the CJEU was somewhat ambivalent on whether the executing judicial authority should just ask the issuing authority for information on the conditions in which it is intended that the individual concerned will be detained in that Member State, or for proper assurances concerning respect for the individual’s fundamental rights, or for both (§§ 67-69).

Be that as it may, what is clear in the light of the ECtHR’s practice in exercising a preventive control under Rule 39 over intended surrenders under a EAW is that formal and reliable assurances by the authorities of the issuing Member State concerning respect for the fundamental rights of the persons concerned would appear to make a difference, not only in the executing Member States but also in Strasbourg (on the requirements to be fulfilled by such assurances, see Othman (Abu Qatada) v. the United Kingdom).