Category Archives: European Court of Human Rights

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.

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).

Migrants at the border: fundamental rights at stake or just another breach of secondary law? Comparing “European Commission v. Hungary” with “N.D. and N.T. v. Spain”

In the case of European Commission v. Hungary (Déclaration d’intention préalable à une demande d’asile) (C-823/21, 22.6.2023), the CJEU applied Article 6 of Directive 2013/32 (the Procedures Directive), which regulates access to the procedure for international protection, to the situation of migrants at the State border.

The CJEU ruled that Hungary had failed to fulfil its obligations under Article 6 of Directive 2013/32 because it had made the possibility, for certain third-country nationals or stateless persons present in the territory of Hungary or at its borders, of making an application for international protection subject to the prior lodging of a declaration of intent at a Hungarian embassy located in a third country and to the granting of a travel document enabling them to enter Hungarian territory. Thus, these people have to leave Hungary and come back with papers delivered by a Hungarian embassy abroad before being able to apply for international protection.

In essence, the CJEU’s ruling is based on the following five considerations.

1. Article 6 of Directive 2013/32 allows any third-country national or stateless person to make an application for international protection, including at the borders of a Member State (Art. 3(1)), by expressing his or her wish to benefit from international protection to one of the authorities referred to in that article, without the expression of that wish being subject to any administrative formality. That right must be recognised even if that person is staying illegally on the territory of the Member State concerned and irrespective of the prospects of success of such a claim (§ 43).

2. The obligation imposed on migrants at the border by the impugned Hungarian legislation is not provided for by Article 6 of the Directive and runs counter to the objective pursued by it, which is to ensure effective, easy and rapid access to the procedure for granting international protection (§ 51).

3. This obligation also deprives migrants of their right, under Article 18 of the EU-Charter, to effectively seek asylum (§ 52).

4. A Member State cannot unjustifiably delay the time at which the person concerned is given the opportunity to make his or her application for international protection (§ 47).

5. The public health and public policy and security grounds invoked by the Hungarian government as justification for this scheme are ill-founded (§§ 54-69). 

Interestingly, , in the landmark case of N.D. and N.T. v. Spain a unanimous Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights recently dealt with the same topic, i.e. the forcible return of migrants from the Spanish border surrounding the enclave of Melilla. It did so under Articles 4 of Protocol No. 4 (prohibition of collective expulsion) and 3 of the Convention (prohibition of ill-treatment, including refoulement). In that same judgment, the ECtHR set out its doctrine about the rights and duties of migrants at the border of Contracting States. It is based on the following five principles, listed hereinafter with relevant excerpts from the judgment.

1. No formalities are required for a valid application for asylum

In the specific context of migratory flows at borders, the wish to apply for asylum does not have to be expressed in a particular form. It may be expressed by means of a formal application, but also by means of any conduct which signals clearly the wish of the person concerned to submit an application for protection. (N.D. and N.T., § 180)

2. The non-admission of a refugee is to be equated with refoulement

The “non-admission” of a refugee is to be equated in substance with his or her “return (refoulement)”. Consequently, the sole fact that a State refuses to admit to its territory an alien who is within its jurisdiction does not release that State from its obligations towards the person concerned arising out of the prohibition of refoulement of refugees. (§ 181)

3. The protection of the Convention is not subject to formal considerations

The protection of the Convention cannot be dependent on formal considerations such as whether the persons to be protected were admitted to the territory of a Contracting State in conformity with a particular provision of national or European law applicable to the situation in question. The opposite approach would entail serious risks of arbitrariness, in so far as persons entitled to protection under the Convention could be deprived of such protection on the basis of purely formal considerations, for instance on the grounds that, not having crossed the State’s border lawfully, they could not make a valid claim for protection under the Convention. States’ legitimate concern to foil the increasingly frequent attempts to circumvent immigration restrictions cannot go so far as to render ineffective the protection afforded by the Convention, and in particular by Article 3. (§ 184)

4. Expulsion is to be understood as any forcible removal of an alien from a State’s territory

The term “expulsion” is to be interpreted in the generic meaning in current use (“to drive away from a place”), as referring to any forcible removal of an alien from a State’s territory, irrespective of the lawfulness of the person’s stay, the length of time he or she has spent in the territory, the location in which he or she was apprehended, his or her status as a migrant or an asylum-seeker and his or her conduct when crossing the border. (§ 185)

5. States must make available genuine and effective access to means of legal entry, in particular border procedures

With regard to Contracting States like Spain whose borders coincide, at least partly, with external borders of the Schengen Area, the effectiveness of Convention rights requires that these States make available genuine and effective access to means of legal entry, in particular border procedures for those who have arrived at the border. Those means should allow all persons who face persecution to submit an application for protection, based in particular on Article 3 of the Convention, under conditions which ensure that the application is processed in a manner consistent with the international norms, including the Convention. In the context of the present case, the Court also refers to the approach reflected in the Schengen Borders Code. The implementation of Article 4 § 1 of the Code, which provides that external borders may be crossed only at border crossing points and during the fixed opening hours, presupposes the existence of a sufficient number of such crossing points. In the absence of appropriate arrangements, the resulting possibility for States to refuse entry to their territory is liable to render ineffective all the Convention provisions designed to protect individuals who face a genuine risk of persecution. (§ 209)

However, where such arrangements exist and secure the right to request protection under the Convention, and in particular Article 3, in a genuine and effective manner, the Convention does not prevent States, in the fulfilment of their obligation to control borders, from requiring applications for such protection to be submitted at the existing border crossing points (§ 210)

What conclusions can be drawn from a comparison of these two rulings?

The good news is that in terms of their outcome, i.e. the obligations of States regarding the treatment of migrants at the border, the two rulings appear to be very similar in that in essence, they both require the effective possibility for migrants at the border to make an application for international protection.

A striking difference, though, lies in the approach followed by each of the two European Courts. Whereas the CJEU adopted a rather textual approach based on the wording of Articles 6 and 3(1) of Directive 2013/32 and previous case-law, the ECtHR adopted a more principled approach, thereby going to great lengths, notably with a thorough analysis of the current state of international law, to explain that what is at stake in such cases are two basic fundamental rights of migrants, i.e. the right not to be subject to refoulement or collective expulsion. By contrast, nothing is said about these fundamental rights in Commission v. Hungary, despite the suggestion by the Commission that this case is in fact about refoulement (§ 23). The resulting impossibility for migrants at the Hungarian border to seek asylum is mentioned only incidentally by the CJEU (§ 52).

This is indeed the paradox of Commission v. Hungary and several other similar rulings: it is ultimately about basic fundamental rights, but nothing is said about them. Instead, the matter is addressed on the basis of a textual interpretation of “ordinary” provisions of secondary law of a rather technical nature. These provisions may perhaps have the same concrete impact in practice, but they also have the effect of trivialising the issues at stake and ignoring what is their very essence.

While the main issue characterising the situation of migrants at the Hungarian and other State borders is ultimately one of basic fundamental rights, i.e. one of refoulement and collective expulsion, as recently confirmed in S.S. and Others v. Hungary, this issue is being ignored in European Commission v. Hungary and treated as just another breach of an ordinary provision of EU law. The Strasbourg case-law therefore seems a good reminder of the deeper issues behind these ordinary provisions.

The practical relevance of this distinction is that, being of a higher rank and less easily modifiable, fundamental rights can be expected to provide a better protection in the long run. Moreover, they raise the importance of the issues involved, preventing them from being considered as purely technical matters.

Different ways to the same goal: Strasbourg and Luxembourg on same-sex couples

In the case of Koilova and Babulkova v. Bulgaria (40209/20, 5.9.2023), the European Court of Human rights found a violation of Article 8 of the Convention (right to respect for private and family life) on account of the failure by the Bulgarian authorities to set up a legal framework allowing same-sex couples to be granted adequate recognition and protection of their relationship.

The applicants, two women who married in the United Kingdom and live in Sofia, were denied the right to have their marriage entered in the Bulgarian civil status register, on the ground that under the Bulgarian legal system a marriage could only be between a man and a woman.

This case provides a good opportunity to compare with each other the Strasbourg and Luxembourg approaches to same-sex couples. While the former is based on the right to respect for private and family life, the latter relies on the right of EU citizens to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member Sates.

In essence, what Article 8 of the Convention requires is, as confirmed by Koilova and Babulkova, that Member States provide a “legal framework allowing same‑sex couples to be granted adequate recognition and protection of their relationship”, there being some margin of appreciation in determining the exact nature of the legal regime to be put in place. It does not necessarily have to take the form of a marriage (Fedotova and Others v. Russia, §§ 178 and 188).

The CJEU, for its part, developed its own case-law on the legal recognition of same-sex couples under Union law, notably in Coman and Othersand Stolichna obshtina, rayon “Pancharevo”.

Coman and Others was about a same-sex couple which married in Belgium, where they lived for a couple of years, and wanted to settle back in Romania, the country of origin of Mr Coman. His husband, however, was denied a resident permit on the ground that the Romanian legal order did not allow same-sex marriages. The CJEU ruled in essence that this refusal was in breach of Article 21(1) TFEU which enshrines the right for every citizen of the Union to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member states. It stated, inter alia:

Article 21(1) TFEU is to be interpreted as meaning that, in circumstances such as those of the main proceedings, a third-country national of the same sex as a Union citizen whose marriage to that citizen was concluded in a Member State in accordance with the law of that State has the right to reside in the territory of the Member State of which the Union citizen is a national for more than three months.

Stolichna obshtina, rayon ‘Pancharevo’, for its part, was about a minor child who is a Union citizen and whose birth certificate, issued by the Spanish authorities, designated as that child’s parents two persons of the same sex. The Bulgarian authorities refused to issue identity papers to the child on the basis of the Spanish birth certificate, arguing that this would contravene the Bulgarian public order which only allowed a man and a woman to be registered as the parents of a child. The CJEU ruled inter alia that the Member State of which that child is a national, i.e. Bulgaria, was obliged to recognise the document from the host Member State, i.e. Spain, which permits that child to exercise, with each of those two persons, his or her right to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States.

When comparing those two approaches, the following observations would appear relevant:

  • First of all, Koilova and Babulkova is another example of the ECtHR correcting the effects of mistakes made at domestic level in assessing Union law requirements. In this case, the Bulgarian administrative courts had indeed stated that their position was in line with Union law, as well as the Convention (§ 6). One may wonder why the Bulgarian courts did not make a reference for a preliminary ruling by the CJEU.
  • The CJEU case-law is based on the right of EU citizens to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States (Art. 21(1) TFEU and 45(1) of the EU-Charter). Thus, it would appear not to apply to situations where the legal status the recognition of which is sought in a EU Member State has been granted outside the EU.
  • Furthermore, the recognition in a Member State of the status granted in another Member State is imposed for the effective enjoyment of the right to move and reside freely within the EU. By its very nature, it presupposes that the EU citizen concerned made effective use of that right, notably by living in another Member State than the one which granted the status the recognition of which is being sought. As such, a person’s status is a matter which indeed falls within the exclusive competence of the Member States (Coman and Others, § 37).
  • These are notable differences with the Strasbourg case-law based on Article 8 of the Convention. The latter indeed applies to the entire jurisdiction of the Contracting States and to all persons subject to their jurisdiction, regardless of their biography or nationality.
  • However, as stated above, Article 8 does not require the benefit of a specific status for same-sex couples, but only an adequate recognition and protection of their relationship, i.e. an effective protection of their right to private and family life (Koilova and Babulkova, § 46). By contrast, EU law requires the recognition of the specific status which was granted by the host Member State. This may entail an obligation to recognise a same-sex marriage, at least for the purpose of the exercise of the right to move and reside freely, as in Coman and Others.
  • Finally, one should note the references made by each European Court to the case-law of the other, which testifies of the cross-fertilisation taking place between the two in this area.

The requirement of consent by the data subject declared compatible with the Convention: Judgment of the ECtHR in Jehovah’s Witnesses v. Finland

In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses v. Finland (31172/19, 9.5.2023), a Finnish religious community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, complained inter alia under Article 9 of the Convention (religious freedom) about an order prohibiting any notes being taken by individual Jehovah’s Witnesses for their personal use in the context of their door-to-door preaching activities without the consent of the data subject.

The requirement of consent by the data subject is laid down in Article 7 of the Data Protection Directive (95/46) which was transposed into the Finnish legal system through inter alia the Personal Data Act. The latter was relied on by the Finnish administrative courts when confirming the impugned order. In this context, the Supreme Administrative Court asked for a preliminary ruling in which the CJEU confirmed that the Data Protection Directive could be applied to the facts of the case.

In its judgment, the ECtHR extensively relied on that ruling by the CJEU. It also noted in this connection:

The Court observes that the Personal Data Act transposed the Data Protection Directive into Finnish law (see paragraph 14 above). Before the Supreme Administrative Court reached its final conclusion on the matter, it sought guidance from the CJEU on the interpretation of the Data Protection Directive. The Court has regularly emphasised the importance, for the protection of fundamental rights in the EU, of the judicial dialogue conducted between the domestic courts of EU member States and the CJEU in the form of references from the former for preliminary rulings by the latter (see Bosphorus Hava Yolları Turizm ve Ticaret Anonim Şirketi v. Ireland [GC], no. 45036/98, § 164, ECHR 2005‑VI; Avotiņš v. Latvia [GC], no. 17502/07, §§ 105 and 109, ECHR 2016; and Satakunnan Markkinapörssi Oy and Satamedia Oy, cited above, § 150). (§ 85)

On the central issue in the case, i.e. the requirement of consent by the data subject, as prescribed by Article 7 of the Data Protection Directive, the ECtHR held:

The requirement of consent by the data subject is to be considered an appropriate and necessary safeguard with a view to preventing any communication or disclosure of personal and sensitive data inconsistent with the guarantees in Article 8 of the Convention in the context of door‑to‑door preaching by individual Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the absence of any convincing arguments by the applicant community, the Court cannot discern how simply asking for, and receiving, the data subject’s consent would hinder the essence of the applicant community’s freedom of religion. (§ 95)

Reopening of domestic proceedings suggested following a failure to act upon a request for a preliminary ruling by the CJEU: judgment of the ECtHR in Georgiou v. Greece

The judgment in Georgiou v. Greece (57378/18, 14.3.2023) is another application by the ECtHR of its doctrine on the obligation under Article 6 § 1 of the Convention (right to a fair trial) for last instance domestic courts to give reasons, based on the relevant Luxembourg case-law, as to why they would not make a request for a preliminary ruling by the CJEU (Art. 267 TFEU) despite a request to that effect by a party to the proceedings (see, previously, among others, Sanofi Pasteur v. FranceQuintanel and Others v. France, Rutar and Rutar Marketing D.O.O. v. Slovenia, and Bio Farmland Betriebs S.R.L. v. Romania).

In the present case, the ECtHR found a violation of Article 6 § 1 on the ground that in its judgment, the Greek Court of Cassation neither referred to the request made by the applicant that the CJEU be consulted under Article 267 TFEU, nor gave any reasons why it considered that the question raised by him did not merit reference to the CJEU (§ 25).

The novelty of this case, however, lies in the fact that the ECtHR, relying on Article 46 of the Convention (binding force and execution of judgments), suggested the reopening of the domestic proceedings, if requested, in the following terms:

In principle, it is not the Court’s task to prescribe exactly how a State should put an end to a breach of the Convention and make reparation for its consequences. Nevertheless, it is clear that restoration of “the closest possible situation to that which would have existed if the breach in question had not occurred” (see Papamichalopoulos and Others v. Greece (Article 50), 31 October 1995, § 38, Series A no. 330-B; Vistiņš and Perepjolkins v. Latvia (just satisfaction) [GC], no. 71243/01, § 33, ECHR 2014; and Chiragov and Others v. Armenia (just satisfaction) [GC], no. 13216/05, § 59, 12 December 2017) would consist, in the present case, in taking measures to ensure that the domestic proceedings are reopened, if requested, so that the request for a preliminary reference is examined by the Court of Cassation. (§ 33)

Consequently, point 3 of the operative part of the judgment reads:

[The Court] holds that the taking of measures by the respondent State to ensure that the proceedings before the Court of Cassation are reopened, if requested, would constitute appropriate redress for the violation of the applicant’s rights.

First assessment of the “hotspot approach”: a prefiguration of the co-respondent mechanism? Judgment of the ECtHR in the case of J.A. and Others v. Italy

In the case of J.A. and Others v. Italy (21329/18, 30.3.2023), the ECtHR for the first time assessed the compatibility with the Convention of the “hotspot approach”. The four applicants in this case were migrants who had to stay ten days at the Lampedusa hotspot, following which they were forcibly removed from Italy to Tunisia. The ECtHR found violations of the Convention on the ground that the conditions at the hotspot were inhuman and degrading (Article 3), that the presence of the applicants there amounted to an unlawful detention (Article 5 §§ 1, 2 and 4) and that they had been the victims of a collective expulsion (Article 4 of Protocol No 4).

According to Regulation (EU) 2019/1896, “hotspot area means an area created at the request of the host Member State in which the host Member State, the Commission, relevant Union agencies and participating Member States cooperate, with the aim of managing an existing or potential disproportionate migratory challenge characterised by a significant increase in the number of migrants arriving at the external borders” (Art. 2 § 23). Examples are Sicily and Lampedusa in Italy or Lesbos and Kos in Greece. The “hotspot approach” was part of the so-called European Agenda on Migration initiated by the European Commission in 2015 with a view to helping frontline Member States cope with massive migrant arrivals.

What is noteworthy about this judgment, in terms of the interplay between EU law and the Convention, is that it criticises the lack of appropriate safeguards protecting migrants against violations of their fundamental rights in Lampedusa but, at the same time, leaves open whether Italy or the EU is responsible for it. While the Italian Government did not refer to any piece of EU law being relevant in this context (§§ 70-72), the judgment nonetheless reproduces extensive EU law sources in the field of migration (§§ 27-37), thus suggesting that EU law may be relevant in this area, if only because of the cooperation taking place in hotspots between domestic and EU entities.

This is in particular the case with the unlawful detention of the applicants. On this issue, the ECtHR indeed noted that the Government had not shown that the “Italian regulatory framework, including EU rules that may be applicable,” provided clear instructions concerning the detention of migrants in these facilities (§ 90). A similar reference to the nature and function of hotspots being determined by “domestic law and the EU regulatory framework” is to be found in paragraph 95 of the judgment.

De lege lata, the EU not being a Contracting Party to the Convention, Italy is the sole respondent liable for the violations found by the ECtHR in this case, notably those which stem from the impugned lack of a clear legal basis for – and of safeguards relating to – the detention of applicants, regardless of whether that lack has its origin in domestic or EU law and whether the regulatory intervention needed was for Italy or the EU to perform. In the latter case, Italy might face a problem in executing the judgment.

De lege ferenda, however, should the EU become a Contracting Party under the revised Draft Agreement for the Accession of the EU to the Convention, this kind of scenario, characterised by issues as to the competent law-maker in the area concerned, might lend itself to the application of the co-respondent mechanism laid down in Article 3 of the Agreement. Under this mechanism, the EU could indeed become a co-respondent in the proceedings before the ECtHR, next to the respondent Member State, on condition that, first, the alleged violation(s) are due to the lack of adequate regulations rather than to a failure to correctly apply existing regulations and, secondly, that the EU takes the view that at least part of the missing regulations are within its own competence.

In such proceedings, the ECtHR would, just as in the present case, leave open whether and to what extent the Member State concerned, the EU or both are responsible for the violation(s) found. The difference would be, however, that rather than having only the possibility to declare the Member State responsible for the violations found and for the execution of the judgment, regardless of whether it is competent or not, the ECtHR would hold both the EU and the Member State jointly responsible, thus ensuring that the competent law-maker is on board in case the execution of the judgment requires a regulatory intervention. Securing the mandatory participation of the EU, according to its competence, in the execution of Strasbourg judgments is indeed the main benefit of the co-respondent mechanism.

Same national legislation examined in Luxembourg and Strasbourg: decision by the ECtHR in the case of Freire Lopes

In the case of Freire Lopes v. Portugal (31.1.2023, 58598/21), the ECtHR examined the application of the Portuguese legislation which organised the rescue of credit institutions by allowing their resolution and the transfer of part of their assets and liabilities to a bridge bank. The applicant was among the account holders of the Banco Espirito Santo (“BES”), one of the credit institutions to which that legislation had been applied. He complained about the financial losses which he had incurred as a consequence of the resolution of the BES. In his opinion, they were disproportionate and amounted to a breach of his right to property protected by Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention.

Interestingly, the legislation at issue in this case is the same as the one declared compatible with the right to property (Article 17(1) of the EU-Charter) by the CJEU in BPC Lux 2 and Others, in which the CJEU adopted the methodology followed by the ECtHR in assessing compliance with Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, except for the assessment of the limitations applied to the property rights involved, which it examined applying Article 52(1) of the EU-Charter.

Yet, the test provided for by Article 52(1) is slightly different from the one applied in Strasbourg under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, which is based on the “fair balance to be struck between the demands of the general interest of the community and the requirements of the protection of the individual’s fundamental rights”. Thus, it was the latter test which the ECtHR applied in Freire Lopes and which led to the finding that, having regard to all the general and individual circumstances of the case, the complaint about a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 was manifestly ill-founded, because a fair balance had been struck between the competing interests.

While the European Courts came to similar conclusions on the substance, some lessons can nonetheless be drawn from these parallel cases.

First, the same fundamental rights can have to be applied to similar cases by each of the European Courts acting at different stages of the respective proceedings involved and from a different perspective: Luxembourg will examine in abstracto, Strasbourg in concreto.

Secondly, the final ex post assessment of compliance with fundamental rights in such cases only takes place in Strasbourg, on the basis of the sole Convention. Thus, the liability which may be incurred by domestic judges in Strasbourg is only with respect to their compliance with the Convention, even when the domestic law at stake, as in the present case, is based on Union law.

Thirdly, in Freire Lopes the ECtHR repeatedly relied on the assessments made by the CJEU on the basis of the criteria which it borrowed from the Convention case-law on property rights. This not only demonstrates the impact on the outcome of a case in Strasbourg of the use by the CJEU of harmonised criteria, it also considerably facilitates the task of national judges.

The fact remains, though, that national judges are (partly) confronted with a duality of methodologies when dealing with property rights.

Imposed changes to the name of a person: judgment of the ECtHR in the case of Künsberg Sarre v. Austria

In the case of Künsberg Sarre v. Austria (19475/20, 17.1.2023), the European Court of Human Rights found a violation of the applicants’ private and family life (Art. 8 of the Convention) on account of the fact that after long periods of accepted use, in 2018 their surnames were changed by the authorities from “von Künsberg Sarre” to “Künsberg Sarre”, pursuant to the Abolition of Nobility Act of 1919. The ECtHR considered, inter alia, that the domestic courts had not explained why, as claimed by the Government, the prohibition of the use of the impugned surname was necessary to maintain democratic equality and public safety.

Considered from the perspective of the interplay between the Convention and EU law, the following passage from the ECtHR’s reasoning is noteworthy:

It appears that the change in the administrative practice and, consequently, in the authorities’ attitude towards the applicants’ surnames, occurred only after the Constitutional Court departed from its previous case-law, starting with its decision of 26 June 2014 … This change seems in turn to have been prompted by the judgment of the CJEU of 22 December 2010 in Sayn-Wittgenstein … It should be stressed, however, that the latter judgment considered the question at issue only from the perspective of Article 21 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union …, but not from the perspective of Article 8 of the Convention. The fundamental rights issue of “private and family life”, which includes a proportionality test under the Convention standards relating to Article 8, was not addressed. Consequently, that CJEU judgment does not appear pertinent to the present context, which concerns questions relating to Article 8 of the Convention. (§ 69)

In Sayn-Wittgenstein, the CJEU had indeed ruled that:

Article 21 TFEU must be interpreted as not precluding the authorities of a Member State, in circumstances such as those in the main proceedings, from refusing to recognise all the elements of the surname of a national of that State, as determined in another Member State – in which that national resides – at the time of his or her adoption as an adult by a national of that other Member State, where that surname includes a title of nobility which is not permitted in the first Member State under its constitutional law, provided that the measures adopted by those authorities in that context are justified on public policy grounds, that is to say, they are necessary for the protection of the interests which they are intended to secure and are proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued. (§ 95)

This approach was later confirmed in Bogendorff von Wolffersdorff.

The lessons to be drawn from this are that:

a) The examination of certain issues from the perspective of fundamental rights is specific in that another perspective such as the freedom of movement in the EU cannot be considered equivalent to it.

b) Despite its different perspective, the CJEU’s ruling is not clashing with the above Strasbourg judgment. The CJEU indeed only set the criteria to be applied by the domestic authorities under Article 21 TFEU (justification, necessity, proportionality), without applying them itself.

c) The fact that these criteria bear some similarities with those applicable under Article 8 of the Convention is useful in view of the fact that the ultimate control over the domestic decisions on such issues, notably their weighing of the competing interests, is done ex post in Strasbourg under that same Article 8 only.