EU Seal product ban upheld by the ECJ – (unsubstantiated) Inuit and traders’ arguments fall on deaf ears

Postscript: the ECJ equally dismissed, on 3 October 2013, the Inuit’s action against the basic Regulation: see case C-583/11P.

Postscript 2, 19 March 2015: Kokott AG suggests the appeal against the judgment in the posting below, be equally dismissed.

 

The European Court of Justice has dismissed an application by Inuit community group, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), and the Fur Institute of Canada, for the Commission’s Implementing legislation of the EU’s ‘Seal Pups Regulation‘ [seal products Regulation somehow has not made it into mainstream language] to be held illegal. The Regulation effectively bans all seal products from being placed on the EU market, with limited exceptions, and it does so on the basis of animal welfare considerations:

Article 3 - Conditions for placing on the market
1. The placing on the market of seal products shall be allowed only where the seal products result from hunts traditionally conducted by Inuit and other indigenous communities and contribute to their subsistence. These conditions shall apply at the time or point of import for imported products.
2. By way of derogation from paragraph 1:
(a) the import of seal products shall also be allowed where it is of an occasional nature and consists exclusively of goods for the personal use of travellers or their families. The nature and quantity of such goods shall not be such as to indicate that they are being imported for commercial reasons;
(b) the placing on the market of seal products shall also be allowed where the seal products result from by-products of hunting that is regulated by national law and conducted for the sole purpose of the sustainable management of marine resources. Such placing on the market shall be allowed only on a non-profit basis. The nature and quantity of the seal products shall not be such as to indicate that they are being placed on the market for commercial reasons.
The application of this paragraph shall not undermine the achievement of the objective of this Regulation. (...)'

Further detail for the application of the exceptions was provided by the Commission in follow-up regulation . It is the follow-up (implementing) Regulation which was the subject of current action. The applicants in this case argued as follows:

1. The basic Regulation lacks legal basis (i.e. Heads of power), for it was adopted on the basis of the Internal Market article of the EU Treaties, while in fact it was animal welfare considerations which led to the initiative. The Court disagreed: Member States had differing regulations in place with respect to seal products, or were planning them. This threatened a clear EU view on the matter and hence disruption of that internal market, whence justifying Article 114 TFEU (at the time: Article 95 EC). Watertight conclusion under EU law – even if paradoxically in order to safeguard the Internal Market, the EU effectively resorted to scrapping that very market.

2. Failing argument 1, the Regulation at any rate is disproportionate and incompatible with the principle of subsidiarity. The latter was dismissed on similar grounds as the review of the legal basis, referred to above. The former seems to have not been helped by the vagueness of the claims of applicants. In particular, they had put forward the view that the Inuit exemption is dead letter, for the communities concerned have to rely on commercial outlets to market their products, not having any such outlets themselves. The Court rejected this argument as too vague and unsubstantiated. It also rejected labelling (testifying to the killing having been done ‘humanely’) as an alternative, for the feasibility of such an option was examined and rejected in the run-up to the legislation.

3. Human rights. Right to property arguments were rejected by the Court, for viz the Inuit, they could still trade in the products concerned and the Court had already established that the ‘dead letter’ argument was unsubstantiated. Viz the applicants which are commercial operations, the Court referred to its earlier case-law the guarantees accorded by the right to property cannot be extended to protect mere commercial interests or opportunities, the uncertainties of which are part of the very essence of economic activity.

4. Ultra vires. The arguments that the Commission implementing Regulation exceeded what the Commission was entitled to regulate, in particular, that its enforcement measures were such as to make trade in Inuit seal products effectively impossible, even if it was instructed to lay down rules leading to a viable Inuit trade, were swiftly rejected by the Court. Again, it referred to a complete lack of data in the file substantiating the claim that all such trade would effectively be impossible.

The actions at the ECJ cannot of course be seen completely detached from the ongoing litigation against the EU over at the World Trade Organisation, on which Robert Howse has posted near-complete records of the hearings which this week finished in Geneva: that Panel report is one to look forward to (although judging by the sounds coming out of Geneva, the Panel would not exactly seem on top of things).

Geert.

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