Why is there an overlap between the scope of EU Law and that of the Convention?
This overlap is the result of two different factors:
- The Convention applies to 47 European States, including the 27 EU Member States. Unlike EU law, it covers the entire legal system of the 27 EU Member States, including those parts which are regulated by EU law (Matthews v. the United Kingdom, Appl. No. 24833/94, judgment of 18 February 1999, § 29).
- The Convention is not displaced by EU law when the latter applies (Bosphorus v. Ireland, Appl. No. 45036/98, judgment of 30 June 2005, § 154).
What are the implications of this overlap for the courts of the EU Member States?
The main implication is that the domestic courts of the EU Member States must act in compliance with the Convention when applying EU law. This compliance can be assessed by the European Court of Human Rights in the context of an application under Article 34 of the Convention directed against the Member State concerned.
However, for the sake of facilitating European integration, the European Court of Human Rights will assume – until proof of the contrary, to be adduced on a case-by-case basis – that the EU Member States act in compliance with the Convention when they do no more than execute their obligations under EU law, i.e. act without discretionary power (Bosphorus v. Ireland, cited above, §§ 155-156; Avotinš v. Latvia, Appl. No. 17502/07, judgment of 23 May 2016, § 101).
Do the Convention and EU Law protect the same fundamental rights?
In part, yes. This is because the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which belongs to EU primary law (Art. 6(1) TEU), has imported – albeit sometimes with a different wording – a large number of the rights contained in the Convention and its Protocols.
According to Article 52(3), first sentence, of the EU-Charter, these rights will have “the same meaning and scope” under EU law as they have under the Convention. At the same time, the second sentence of Article 52(3) reserves the possibility for EU law to “provide a more extensive protection”.
As a result, the rights of the Convention which have been imported into the EU-Charter can be divided into two categories: those which ensure the same level of protection as the Convention and those which raise that level. A list of those two categories has been included in the Explanations relating to Article 52(3) of the EU-Charter.
The effect of this provision is that while, as regards the rights imported from the Convention, their level of protection can always be raised under EU law, it can never be allowed to fall below the level of protection guaranteed by the Convention. A great deal of legal harmony between the Convention and EU law has been achieved on this basis, the possibility for EU law to go beyond the Convention protection level (as, for example, in such areas as the protection of personal data) being no obstacle to that harmony.
However, there is an issue here on how the respective protection levels should be assessed: by considering only the substance of the rights concerned or also the methodology applied to them? Depending on the answer, results can indeed be very different (on this, see the article “Do we still need Article 6(2) TUE?”, at the bottom of this page, at p. 1695 et seq.).
Is this situation generating problems for national courts of the EU Member States?
Since, as explained above, the domestic courts of the Member States must comply with the Convention when applying EU law, individuals can challenge before the European Court of Human Rights the conformity with the Convention of any application of EU law by domestic courts. The number of such cases is increasing. Examples are listed in the same article, at the bottom of this page, at p. 1710 et seq. More recent examples can also be found under the tab “recent case-law” on this portal.
Typically, problems arise for the domestic courts of the EU Member States when they have to combine fundamental rights under EU and Convention law which set different protection levels. In such a situation, it is safe to assume, as the result of a combination of Art. 52(3) of the EU-Charter and Art. 53 of the Convention, that domestic courts should apply the higher of the two levels.
However, problems can nonetheless arise:
- When the EU protection level is lower than the Convention level and cannot be raised under EU law. This situation can occur:
- either in terms of the substance of the rights concerned (as in C-129/14 PPU, Spasic, EU:C:2014:586)
- or in terms of the methodology applied to them (notably in the field of mutual recognition, as in joined cases C-411/10 and C-493/10, N.S. and Others, EU:C:2011:865; C-367/16, Piotrowski, EU:C:2018:27)
- Or when it is difficult to identify which is the higher level of protection to be applied, because of complex methodological differences between the Convention and EU law (as in C-524/15, Menci, EU:C:2017:667).
However that may be, in the case of Avotins v. Latvia (see above), the European Court of Human Rights ruled that if a serious and substantiated complaint is raised before the domestic courts of the EU Member States to the effect that the protection of a Convention right has been manifestly deficient and that this situation cannot be remedied by European Union law, they cannot refrain from examining that complaint on the sole ground that they are applying EU law (§ 116). In this case, the European Court of Human Rights almost found a violation of the Convention because the domestic courts had applied the Brussels I Regulation (No. 44/2001) without having regard to the requirements of Article 6 of the Convention (right to a fair trial). A finding of a violation could only be avoided because the Court of its own motion satisfied itself that those requirements had been met.
All issues addressed on this page are explained in greater detail in the following article:
and summarised in the following documents: