Protocol 16 and the Autonomy of EU law: who is threatening whom?

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The author,   is Deputy Grand Chamber Registrar at the European Court of Human Rights and professor at the Universities of Speyer and Louvain. This contribution, written in a strictly personal capacity, is taken from a conference which the author recently gave at the European Law Academy of Trier.


On 2 October 2013, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe opened for signature Protocol no. 16 to the European Convention on Human Rights. This new Protocol, which has been referred to as the “Protocol of the dialogue” by Dean Spielmann, the President of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), creates the possibility for supreme courts of the Contracting States to the Convention to request an advisory opinion from the ECtHR on “questions of principle relating to the interpretation or application of the rights and freedoms defined in the Convention or the protocols thereto”.

Even though the material scope of Protocol no. 16 is clearly confined to the Convention and its protocols, some concerns have been expressed in the recent past, notably at the recent hearing held by the ECJ on the draft agreement on EU Accession to the Convention (“DAA”), that the use of this new instrument of consultation by courts of the EU Member States might be problematic from the point of view of EU law. More specifically, the question was raised in this context whether Protocol no. 16 would not threaten the autonomy of EU law and the monopoly of the ECJ on the interpretation of EU law, by allowing supreme courts of the Member States to engage in a kind of “forum shopping” between the Luxembourg and Strasbourg courts. This contribution purports to demonstrate that those concerns are unjustified and should not be allowed to undermine the further development of the Convention system initiated by Protocol no. 16.

Scope of the problem

Let us begin by clarifying the scope of the problem. First of all, whilst, through some of its characteristics, the advisory opinion provided for by Protocol no. 16 resembles the preliminary ruling given by the ECJ under Art. 267 TFEU, there are important differences. As part of these differences only “the highest courts and tribunals of a High Contracting Party” will be entitled to request such an opinion; it will be optional for them to do so and not in any way obligatory; and the advisory opinions given by the ECtHR will not be binding.

Thus, the scenario considered as potentially problematic by definition only concerns supreme courts, i.e. those courts entitled to request an advisory opinion from the ECtHR. Moreover, the problem would presumably not arise whenever such a court is under an obligation, pursuant to Art. 267 TFEU, to make a reference for a preliminary ruling to the ECJ. In conjunction with Art. 4 (3) TEU and 344 TFEU, this provision would indeed appear to stand in the way of any “forum shopping” by domestic courts. The actual cause of concern is rather a scenario in which, because of a prior reference to the ECJ by a lower court, under the CILFIT doctrine a supreme court would no longer be bound by Art. 267 TFUE and could therefore come before the ECtHR for a “second” preliminary opinion.

The answer given by some experts, notably Johansen and Streinz, to these concerns has been to suggest that a number of legally binding restrictions should be imposed on the use of Protocol no. 16 by the supreme courts of the EU Member States, for the sake of preserving the autonomy of EU law. In their opinion, such restrictions could be put in place through the ECJ’s case-law or the internal rules designed to complement the DAA. However, those suggestions would appear to be neither proportionate nor justified.

Restrictions on the use of Protocol no. 16 would be disproportionate

First of all, it should be noted that the scope of Protocol no. 16 is not limited to the EU and its Member States but rather covers all Contracting States to the Convention, of which the EU Member States form only a part. Moreover, to the extent that the Protocol applies to the latter, it will apply to all the situations coming under the “jurisdiction” of those States within the meaning of Art. 1 of the Convention, i. e. not just to those which are governed by EU law. The suggestion made by Johansen that EU Member States should be legally precluded from signing and ratifying Protocol no. 16 altogether would therefore appear to be totally disproportionate, as it would also affect situations occurring in the EU Member States which are not governed by EU law.

Furthermore, the scenario which would allegedly open up room for forum shopping between Luxembourg and Strasbourg would appear to be a rather marginal one. In fact, there seem to be only two possibilities: either the specific issue considered by a supreme court to warrant an advisory opinion has been determined by the ECJ in a previous ruling or it has not. If it has, the previous ruling should in principle be binding upon this supreme court as well. If it has not, common sense and the rationale of the CILFIT doctrine would both suggest that the supreme court in question is not dispensed from raising this specific novel issue before the ECJ under Art. 267 TFEU.

Restrictions on the use of Protocol no. 16 would be unjustified

Be that as it may, and in the rather theoretical event of a supreme court not bound to go before the ECJ under 267 TFEU – whatever the reason – and choosing to ask the ECtHR for an advisory opinion, it is clear that the subject matter of a valid request could only be an issue relating to the Convention and not to EU law, as the ECtHR has no competence to interpret EU law. What are the options available to the ECtHR in such a situation?

In answering that question, one should bear in mind that the ECtHR has always been very anxious to respect the autonomy of EU law and to avoid every decision capable of encroaching on it. This is illustrated not only by its case-law but also by its constant efforts to secure the participation of the EU institutions, and notably the European Commission, as a third party in proceedings where EU law is involved. Moreover, one of the key principles underpinning the DAA has been the preservation of that autonomy, in line with Protocol 8 to the Treaty of Lisbon. This philosophy has been explicitly supported all along the negotiations of the DAA by the Council of Europe and the ECtHR, for the obvious reason that the ECtHR has no interest whatsoever in interfering with the autonomy of EU law. It is neither its competence nor its task to do so.

Under these circumstances, one may ask how realistic it is to assume that the panel of the ECtHR in charge of selecting the requests for an advisory opinion[6] would accept a request from a “forum shopping court” in the first place, if it appeared that it raises an issue of EU law.

How much autonomy can there be in the field of fundamental rights?

That being said, a distinction should be made between EU law autonomy in the field of fundamental rights and elsewhere. Quite apart from the general question whether all fundamental rights lend themselves to being the subject of interpretations varying from one legal system to another, the fact remains that there is one area where, by virtue of Article 52 § 3 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, EU law has itself limited the scope of its autonomy, namely as regards those rights which the Charter has borrowed directly from the Convention.

This provision indeed reads: “In so far as this Charter contains rights which correspond to rights guaranteed by the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the meaning and scope of those rights shall be the same as those laid down by the said Convention. This provision shall not prevent Union law providing more extensive protection”. Thus, insofar as, in pursuance of this provision, the Charter refers to the Convention in determining the minimum level of protection of a right enshrined therein, EU law itself agrees not to interpret this right completely autonomously and, in contrast, relies indirectly on the ECtHR. Moreover, after EU-accession the Convention will become part of EU law.

Consequently, in this limited area, EU law issues can also be Convention issues and vice versa. Here again, two scenarios should be distinguished. First, in all cases where Art. 267 TFUE applies, no threat to EU law autonomy is to be feared as this provision would preserve the ECJ monopoly on the interpretation of EU law, including on the fundamental rights protected by EU law. On the other hand, in the rare instances where this provision would not apply and the ECtHR would be asked to give an advisory opinion nonetheless, such an opinion – if the ECtHR accepted to give it – would by definition be confined to “questions of principle relating to the interpretation or application of the rights and freedoms defined in the Convention or the protocols thereto”.


As a result, it might certainly make sense for the supreme courts of the EU Member States to be reminded in an appropriate way, when considering applying Protocol no. 16, of their duties under Art. 267 TFEU and of the supreme authority of the ECJ as regards the interpretation of EU law. However, legally binding restrictions on the use of that Protocol would appear to be both disproportionate and unjustified. They would be a threat to the further development of the Convention system as a whole, much more than the Protocol could ever represent a threat to the autonomy of EU law. Contrary to what some may think, this is not a purely internal EU law matter.



Acerca de Manel

Magistrado con veinte años de experiencia en materia penal y Derecho de la Unión Europea.

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