General test made autonomous for the assessment of risks involved in the execution of a EAW: judgment of the CJEU in the case of Puig Gordi and Others

In the case of Puig Gordi and Others (C-158/21, 31.1.2023), the CJEU ruled on the refusal by Belgian courts to execute a European arrest warrant (EAW) which had been issued by the Spanish Supreme Court in respect of several Catalan separatists. The refusal was based on concerns about the lack of jurisdiction of the court called upon to try them.

In its ruling, the CJEU relied on the two-step examination which it had previously applied, in such cases as Openbaar Ministerie, and which basically comes down to applying a double test, a general one followed by an individual one, for the assessment of any risks of a serious breach of fundamental rights which could be triggered by the execution of a EAW. While this methodology differs from the one applied by the ECtHR when assessing the execution of a EAW, which is more focussed on the individual risks, it is not problematic as such, as confirmed by Bivolaru and Moldovan v. France.

However, in Puig Gordi and Others the CJEU went one step further in developing its “two step” methodology, by denying the possibility to examine individualised risks in the event of a surrender if, prior to that, no systemic or generalised deficiencies have been found to exist. In substance, it ruled inter alia that in the absence of systemic or generalised deficiencies in the issuing State to the effect that persons in that State would be generally deprived of an effective legal remedy enabling a review of the jurisdiction of the criminal court called upon to try them, a court of the executing State may not refuse to execute a EAW (§ 111).

This comes down to autonomising the general test, to the effect that the application of the individual test is precluded if the result of the prior general test is negative. Thus, in that case the general test is suffient and can replace any further individual analysis. In that logic, the scale which deficiencies must reach to become relevant under the general test would appear to be of a magnitude which may be rarely reached in practice and which, in the few cases where it could still be reached, may be difficult to evaluate by domestic judges and even more difficult to prove by the persons concerned by the EAW. It can therefore be assumed that under this methodology, in most cases the assessment by the executing judicial authority will stop, out of convenience, after the first general step, leaving out the second individual step altogether. This would bring us back, de facto, to the much-criticised single collective test used in N.S. and Others, which would appear to be difficult to reconcile with the individual test being systematically and exclusively applied by the ECtHR, not least because one of the cornerstones of the Convention system is the right of individual petition.

Fortunately, in Puig Gordi and Others the CJEU did not go as far as suggested by its Advocate General, who wanted this new version of the “two step” examination potentially precluding the application of an individual test to be applied to all aspects of the right to a fair trial before a tribunal previously established by law under Art. 47(2) of the EU-Charter (on this Opinion, see the following comment).

By contrast, the CJEU limited the scope of its ruling to issues relating to the sole lack of jurisdiction of the courts in the issuing State, thereby placing some emphasis on the existence of efficient legal remedies which should avoid “the very occurrence” of the infringement at issue or avoid irreparable damage arising from that infringement (§ 113). Yet this latter consideration seems in contrast with other rulings in which the CJEU denied the relevance of existing domestic remedies in the issuing State for the assessment of risks to fundamental rights in that State (CJEU 25.7.2018, Generalstaatsanwaltschaft (Conditions of detention in Hungary), C-220/18 PPU, § 74, and CJEU 15.10.2019, Dorobantu, C-128/18, § 80).

The fact remains, though, that in this way, a door has again been opened, for the sake of the efficiency of the EAW mechanism (§ 116), to a general rather than an individual assessment of respect for fundamental rights. One may wonder whether it will be further widened in the future. In this context, it might be useful to recall the following finding by the ECtHR in Avotins v. Latvia, § 113-114:

The Court has repeatedly asserted its commitment to international and European cooperation …. Hence, it considers the creation of an area of freedom, security and justice in Europe, and the adoption of the means necessary to achieve it, to be wholly legitimate in principle from the standpoint of the Convention. Nevertheless, the methods used to create that area must not infringe the fundamental rights of the persons affected by the resulting mechanisms, as indeed confirmed by Article 67(1) of the TFEU. However, it is apparent that the aim of effectiveness pursued by some of the methods used results in the review of the observance of fundamental rights being tightly regulated or even limited.