The Court of Justice has an opportunity to clarify the exact relationship between mandatory and overriding mandatory provisions of EU and national law under the Rome Convention on applicable law to contracts (! do note that the issue is formulated differently in the Rome Regulation).
‘Overriding mandatory provisions’ is what French and Belgian private international law refers to as ‘lois de police‘, also known as lois d’application immédiate or lois d’application nécessaire. Lois de police is the term used in the French version of the Regulation. In Arblade, which concerned free movement of services and the application of lois de police in Belgian legal practice, the Court of Justice described ‘public order legislation’ as
national provisions compliance with which has been deemed to be so crucial for the protection of the political, social or economic order in the Member State concerned as to require compliance therewith by all persons present on the national territory of that Member State and all legal relationships within that State
In the Rome I Regulation on applicable law for contracts, room is made for overriding mandatory provisions as follows:
Overriding mandatory provisions
1. Overriding mandatory provisions are provisions the respect for which is regarded as crucial by a country for safeguarding its public interests, such as its political, social or economic organisation, to such an extent that they are applicable to any situation falling within their scope, irrespective of the law otherwise applicable to the contract under this Regulation.
2. Nothing in this Regulation shall restrict the application of the overriding mandatory provisions of the law of the forum.
3. Effect may be given to the overriding mandatory provisions of the law of the country where the obligations arising out of the contract have to be or have been performed, in so far as those overriding mandatory provisions render the performance of the contract unlawful. In considering whether to give effect to those provisions, regard shall be had to their nature and purpose and to the consequences of their application or non-application.
Under the Rome Convention, which ratione tempore applies to the contract at issue, room for manoeuvre for the forum was wider:
Article 7 – Mandatory rules
1. When applying under this Convention the law of a country, effect may be given to the mandatory rules of the law of another country with which the situation has a close connection, if and in so far as, under the law of the latter country, those rules must be applied whatever the law applicable to the contract. In considering whether to give effect to these mandatory rules, regard shall be had to their nature and purpose and to the consequences of their application or non-application.
2. Nothing in this Convention shall restrict the application of the rules of the law of the forum in a situation where they are mandatory irrespective of the law otherwise applicable to the contract.
Belgium’s stronger protection of the agent, long held by Belgian law to be of overriding mandatory rules calibre, gold plates the regime of the Commercial Agents Directive, Directive 86/653. In Unamar, parties have agreed on Bulgarian law being applicable law (as well as incidentally on the case having to go to arbitration in Bulgaria first, attempting to circumvent Belgian law which proscribes the use of arbitration for disputes such as those at issue). The question therefore arises as to whether Belgian law, the lex fori, can justifiably trump Bulgarian law of which no suggestion is being made that it does not meet the minimum standard of the precited Directive.
Were the case to be decided under the Rome I Regulation, I would argue in view of effet utile, that in the absence of a reference to gold plating in Article 9, and (arguably) its presence in Article 3, that the allowance for national rules of overriding mandatory nature, does not cover gold plating. However in the Rome Convention which is applicable to the case referred, EU law as mandatory law does not figure at all, and the room for overriding rules is much wider than it is in the Rome Regulation.
A reference of this kind is long overdue. What remains to be seen as what the Court’s eventual answer will teach us about the Rome Regulation (as opposed to the Convention).