Prospects for Enhanced Infringement Procedures in the EU

Jesse Stricklan
Vol. 37 Notes Editor
Vol. 36 Associate Editor

It is a fundamental assumption of the EU project that economic and political freedoms go hand-in-hand,[i] but recent political trends in some EU member states, particularly Hungary, seem to be challenging this consensus.  In 2010, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party enacted reforms in pursuit of “illiberal democracy” to consolidate their grip over elections, governance, and the media, all the while asserting that an illiberal Hungary could exist in harmoniously within the EU.[ii]  The Fidesz reforms elicited outrage from both domestic[iii] and international[iv] human rights organizations and spread worry across Europe.

What is the EU to do when a member state engages in systemic violations of fundamental rights protection?  The EU treaties provide tools to deal with such situations – namely, infringement procedures and Article 7 procedures.  Infringement procedures derive from Article 258 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) as a means of resolving disputes between the European Commission and Member States about the application of EU law within national jurisdictions.[v]  Article 7 procedures derive from the Treaty on the European Union (TEU), granting the European Council broad powers to sanction Member States for a “serious and persistent breach” of rights protections under Article 2 TEU, but only after reaching near unanimity in the Council as to the breach.[vi]  The infringement procedures, already underway, seem to be ineffective at changing Hungary’s behavior, and Article 7 procedures have not been employed.

In the first place, infringement procedures are a poor remedy for addressing systemic violations.  Infringement procedures usually pursue an individual remedy for each violation, which multiplies the work for the EU and leaves EU citizens without a remedy while their cases work through the system.  More importantly, infringement procedures might focus on details and leave larger questions unaddressed, particularly because they are typically applied to specific EU regulations.[vii]

If infringement procedures are too weak, the disenfranchisement procedures under Article 7 may seem too strong.  Article 7 procedures require a great deal of consensus and can result in severe consequences levied against the member state in question, according to the almost plenary discretion of the EU institutions involved.[viii]  Thus, the wide gap persists between the intimidatingly broad powers of Article 7 and the relatively benign infringement procedures.

To close the gap, the EU could employ something like what Kim Lane Scheppele calls “enhanced infringement procedures” through the application of Article 2 TEU (as opposed to Directives or Regulations) by means of an infringement action based on Article 258 TFEU.[ix]  If the Commission were to present the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) with systematic fundamental rights violations, the Court might find it easier to assert general EU treaty principles as inherently binding.  Enhanced infringement procedures would use existing infringement procedures more aggressively and thereby avoid modification of the treaty.

Nevertheless, some EU legal observers are skeptical of the effectiveness of enhanced infringement procedures.  Jan Komárek has argued that it would be more appropriate (and more effective) to establish a more direct method of enforcing Article 2, perhaps by revising the treaty.[x]  Matej Avbelj argues that Article 2 can only be properly defended if citizens of a state care to do so on a domestic level,[xi] and Paul Blokker worries that the legalistic application of Article 2 standards by the CJEU may encourage the very feelings of resentment toward EU institutions which is animating Fidesz’s current political success.[xii]  While these concerns are well-founded, the more pressing question is whether inaction is more costly to the EU than pursuing action.

If action is necessary, then one of the great advantages of enhanced infringement is that the Commission already has the legal authority to pursue this course of action.  Articles 258 and 260 of the TFEU specify that infringement procedures may be brought in connection with any “obligation under the treaties.”[xiii]  Given the fraught nature of exercising EU powers against a member state, it seems to me that the use of Directives and Regulations in infringement actions is rooted not in a legal restriction but rather an excess of caution; some might fear that if Article 258 TFEU infringement actions can be applied to Article 2 TEU, then a whole range of actions are immediately available to the Commission and the CJEU.

From a legal perspective, it is indeed worrisome to set a possibly open-ended precedent applying infringement procedures to any general treaty principle, particularly in light of the difficulty of bringing any check upon the CJEU.  The concern with opening the aperture of infringement procedures as applied to Article 2 derives from the general difficulty of courts applying general rights such as those found in Article 2, including “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights … [and] a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”[xiv]  This broad language contrasts sharply with the often narrowly-focused provisions usually applied in infringement procedures.  Once enhanced infringement procedures are applied to Article 2, would enhanced infringement represent a blank check to the Commission and the CJEU to interfere with Member State law?

The answer is two-fold.  In the first place, it does not seem strange to assert that all the provisions of the TEU should be interpreted as having binding force.  If the concern is to maintain member state authority, or that resistance from member states will be sufficiently strong so as to make this process ineffective, the immediate response appears to be that the member states signed on to the EU treaties in the first place and must be considered to have given consent to their application.

The second observation supports the first: EU institutions, and in particular the CJEU, have traditionally understood the development of EU processes as requiring restraint.  Just because the Commission can apply infringement procedures to any part of the treaties, it may not choose to do so, and the CJEU may choose not to proceed.  This is not a legal as much as a political consideration, which may not be terribly reassuring to critics of an enhanced infringement procedure.  However, the CJEU has demonstrated the capacity to interpret general rights, just as a constitutional court might.

The very serious challenge presented by systemic fundamental rights violations should change the risk-reward calculus of such an expansion, particularly since enhanced infringement procedures may be the best way to avoid a more destructive conflict through the direct application of Article 7.  Given the tools at hand, enhanced infringement procedures represent an opportunity to resolve a difficult situation in fundamental rights protection.  Infringement uses existing mechanisms within the TEU and commands a higher degree of legitimacy through the involvement of multiple EU institutions, in which Member States have a strong say (as opposed to autonomous action by the CJEU).  Friction in the application of new EU authority will be inevitable, but unless EU institutions are content to wait and hope that the Hungary problem resolves itself, they must attempt to navigate fundamental rights protection by one method or another.

 


[i] See, e.g., Consolidated Versions of the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, Oct. 26, 2012, 2012 O.J. (C 326) Preamble. But there is also the productive relationship of EU institutions with the ECHR and the incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, for example.

[ii] Khormany.gov, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Speech at the 25th Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp, http://www.kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/the-prime-minister-s-speeches/prime-minister-viktor-Orbán-s-speech-at-the-25th-balvanyos-summer-free-university-and-student-camp.

[iii] See, e.g., Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Disrespect for European Values in Hungary, 2010-2014, http://helsinki.hu/wp-content/uploads/Disrespect_for_values-Nov2014.pdf.

[iv] See, e.g., Human Rights Watch, Hungary: Constitutional Change Falls Short – Europe Should Act on its Rule of Law Concerns, http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/09/18/hungary-constitutional-change-falls-short.

[v] Consolidated Version of the Treaty on European Union, art. 258, 2010 O.J. (C 83/01) [hereinafter TFEU].

[vi]  Consolidated Version of the Treaty on European Union, art. 7, 2010 O.J. C (83/01) 19.

[vii]See, e.g., Case C-288/12, Data Head Protection Case (in which the CJEU ruled that the Hungarian official in charge of applying Directive 95/46/EC (On Data Protection) must be allowed to finish his term in pursuit of the independence required by the Directive, but declined to address broader freedom of expression concerns).

[viii] Perhaps recognizing this, EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso announced an “early warning” process in March 2014. European Commission presents a framework to safeguard the rule of law in the European Union, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-14-237_en.htm. This process has not yet been used, and the announcement leaves unclear what legal force would be employed in pursuit of the “early warning” perhaps still requiring the initiation of Article 7 procedures, which in turn requires unanimity.

[ix] Kim Lane Scheppele, Making Infringement Procedures More Effective: A Comment on Commission v. Hungary Case C-28812, Eutopia Law (Apr. 29, 2014), http://eutopialaw.com/2014/04/29/making-infringement-procedures-more-effective-a-comment-on-commission-v-hungary-case-c-28812-8-april-2014-grand-chamber/

[x] Jan Komárek, Systemic infringement action: mind the particulars – and go for the big picture, VerfBlog (Nov. 28, 2013), http://www.verfassungsblog.de/en/systemic-infringement-action-mind-the-particulars-and-go-for-the-big-picture-2.

[xi] Matej Avbelj, The Inherent Limits of Law – the Case of Slovenia, VerfBlog (Dec. 6, 2013), http://www.verfassungsblog.de/en/the-inherent-limits-of-law-the-case-of-slovenia-2/.

[xii] Paul Blokker, Systemic infringement action: an effective solution or rather part of the problem?, VerfBlog (December 5, 2013), http://www.verfassungsblog.de/en/systemic-infringement-action-an-effective-solution-or-rather-part-of-the-problem-2/.

[xiii] TFEU, supra note 5, Article 258.

[xiv] TFEU, supra note 5, Article 2.

2 thoughts on “Prospects for Enhanced Infringement Procedures in the EU

  1. Would these enhanced infrigement procedures begin a slippery slope to impinge on the sovereign internal rights of member nations?

    • Re — Nelson:

      Clearly, any expansion of power by the center to enforce compliance among Member States represents a shift in power, on a practical level if not in terms of the law. It is virtually certain many will view any assertion of new power to enforce the EU treaty as problematic. Others, such as Avbelj and Blokker (see footnotes xi and xii), feel that any action against Hungary (at least at this point) creates more problems than it solves.

      I intend to be sensitive to those concerns while contending that allowing Hungary to set a precedent of violating fundamental rights is dangerous enough to warrant at least small steps of centralizing authority inside the EU, lest Member States feel they can violate fundamental rights protections provided by the EU treaty at will. The knock-on effects of inaction might lead, down the road, to Member States asserting that they need not abide by the principles of the treaty when it is inconvenient for them.

      Any choice, whether action or inaction, represents a compromise on the way that fundamental rights will be protected in Europe. The question is what kind of compromise is most beneficial for individuals, Member States, and the EU as a whole.

      One of the attractive features of enhanced infringement procedures is that the process contains a great deal of checks and balances, requiring substantial consensus among Member States before submitting an action to the Court of Justice of the European Union, but not requiring the virtual unanimity of Article 7 procedures. However, some of the concerns about Member State autonomy might better be addressed in other ways. Concerns about the erosion of member state power might more directly be taken into consideration by what Daniel Halberstam has called a “Reverse Solange” principle. In this case, the Court of Justice of the European Union could strike a similar bargain with Member States that the Constitutional Court of Germany struck with the EU in the Solange cases: namely, that the EU will not interfere with Member States’ interpretation of European fundamental rights as long as Member States generally adhere to basic standards of those rights — or in other words, they reserve the right to interfere in an egregious case of systematic rights violation, but make it none that they will not assert that right as a general rule, even in the case of individual violations of fundamental rights. (See Daniel Halberstam, “Constitutional Hetarchy,” Dunoff and Trachtman, eds., Ruling the World? at 353.)

      A “Reverse Solange” regime would provide Member States with clear criteria for predicting when the CJEU would get involved, as well as ensure that they will have a margin of discretion in applying human rights inside their countries. However, it is also more open-ended than the infringement procedures suggested here and discretion for its application would lie with the CJEU and not with representatives of Member States. If action is indeed necessary to prevent setting a bad precedent on fundamental rights, each proposal should be evaluated in order to determine what compromise is acceptable to Member States while still protecting fundamental European rights.

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