In two landmark judgments dated 6.11.2019 the German Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht – hereinafter “GCC”) dealt with the “right to be forgotten” and thereby clarified the relationship between the fundamental rights of the national Constitution (Grundgesetz), the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.
In the first judgment (“Right to be forgotten I” – 1 BvR 16/13) the GCC stated that in areas not fully regulated by EU law it was to be assumed that the EU legislature allowed for some variety also in the field of fundamental rights. In such areas, the GCC would therefore only apply the fundamental rights of the Constitution, even when the EU Charter also applied by virtue of its Article 51(1). It would do so on the basis of a presumption that the level of protection of the EU Charter is already included in the protection afforded by the fundamental rights of the Constitution (§ 55). This presumption, which could be rebutted on a case-by-case basis (§ 63), was rooted not least in the European Convention on Human Rights which is both binding on the EU member States and being relied upon by the TEU (Art. 6(3)) as well as by the Charter itself (Preamble and Art. 52(3) and 53) (§ 56-57). In this connection, the GCC highlighted the role of the European Convention on Human Rights, which was to ensure an overarching minimum pan-european protection as a basis underlying both the national and the EU protection of fundamental rights (§ 62).
The applicant in this case claimed a right to have newspaper articles on his criminal conviction dating back 30 years removed from online archives. The GCC considered that the facts of the case were not entirely regulated by the applicable EU law (Directive 94/46 on the protection of individuals with regard to the protection of personal data; now replaced by the GDPR, 2016/679) in that the latter left some discretion to the member States in applying the so-called media privilege laid down in Articles 9 of the Directive and 85 of the GDPR (§ 12). It thus solely applied the fundamental rights of the Constitution, thereby leaving open the question whether the EU Charter also applied to the facts of the case by virtue of its Article 51(1). At the same time, the GCC took the view that there was no reason to assume that the protection level of the EU Charter would not be respected by its judgment, since the latter relied on the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights which, by virtue of Article 52(3) of the Charter, was decisive in interpreting the Charter (§ 154).
By contrast, in the second judgment (“Right to be forgotten II” – 1 BvR 276/17) the GCC stated that in areas fully regulated by EU law only the EU fundamental rights were to be applied, provided they were sufficiently effective. Departing from its previous case-law, the GCC ruled in this context that it would henceforth assess itself compliance of domestic judgments with EU fundamental rights, including the EU Charter, and that it would do so in cooperation with the CJEU, pursuant to Article 267 TFEU (§ 68). The applicant in this case claimed a right to have a hyperlink to an unfavourable media report removed from the list of results provided by a search engine operator (Google). As, unlike in the first judgment (above), the facts of the case did not give rise to the application of the so-called media privilege, the GCC considered that the issue at stake was fully regulated by EU law (Directive 94/46 and the GDPR, as above) and that therefore only the EU fundamental rights, including the EU Charter, applied. It then went on to apply in particular Articles 7, 8 and 16 of the EU Charter, thereby referring to the case-law of the CJEU and, by virtue of Article 52(3) of the Charter, to that of the ECHR. Having regard to those two sets of case-law, the GCC concluded that in the absence of any unsettled issues concerning the interpretation of EU law, there was no need to make a preliminary reference to the CJEU under Article 267 TFEU (§ 137).
One of the striking features of those two judgments is their detailed analysis of how the national Constitution, the EU Charter and the Convention interact in practice and of the consequences at domestic level of the substantive link established by Article 52(3) of the EU Charter between the latter and the Convention. It plays a role notably for the assessment of whether domestic protection levels match EU protection levels (Right to be forgotten I) and of whether a preliminary reference to the CJEU is called for (Right to be forgotten II).