Which strap on which boot? CJEU rejects von Munchausen in Nikiforidis, without suggesting alternative. And it leaves effet utile stranded in the mud.

As my review of Szpunar AG’s Opinion in Nikiforidis highlighted, on the issue of temporal applicability to continued contracts, the AG suggested along the lines of Rome I Article 10’s regime (the von Munchausen or the ‘bootstrap’ principle) that the lex causae has to determine the moment of ‘conclusion’.

The employment relationship at issue is conducted in Germany and subject to German law, which does not permit reductions in remuneration similar to those to which the Hellenic Republic had recourse (as a result of austerity).

The Court held last week and points out (at 20) that if the Rome I Regulation did not apply to the main proceedings, Article 34 of the EGBGB (the relevant provisions  of residual German private international law concerning contractual relationships) would permit it to take into account the overriding mandatory provisions of another State. Provisions like those are exactly why the UK and Luxembourg in particular (concerned about financial services contracts subject to their laws) insisted on Article 9 Rome I seriously constraining the room for manoeuvre of the forum.

Different from its AG, the Court squarely rejects (at 30) any role here for Article 10. In support, it refers to the original proposal of the European Commission with a view to the adoption of what eventually became Rome I. COM(2005) 650 referred to ‘contractual obligations’: ‘‘contractual obligations arising after its entry into application’; as opposed to the Regulation’s eventual use of ‘‘contracts’ concluded as from 17 December 2009.

At 34: ‘Whilst the reference, proposed by the Commission, to contractual obligations arising after the entry into application of that regulation covered, in addition to contracts concluded after its entry into application, the future effects of contracts concluded before then, that is to say, obligations arising from the latter after then, this is not so in the case of the wording of Article 28 of the Rome I Regulation, which covers exclusively contracts concluded on or after 17 December 2009, the date on which that regulation became applicable pursuant to Article 29 thereof. It follows that, contrary to what the referring court envisages, any agreement by the contracting parties, after 16 December 2009, to continue performance of a contract concluded previously cannot have the effect of making the Rome I Regulation applicable to that contractual relationship without thwarting the clearly expressed intention of the EU legislature.’

Now, I have admittedly only quickly scanned the travaux preparatoires in writing up this post, yet I do think the Court’s conclusion on this point may be misguided. It was Parliament which introduced ‘contracts’ as opposed to ‘contractual obligations’. It did so in response to the EC’s proposed sentence which read in full

‘It shall apply to contractual obligations arising after its entry into application. However, for contractual obligations arising before its entry into application, this Regulation shall apply where its provisions have the effect of making the same law applicable as would have been applicable under the Rome Convention of 1980.’

Parliament proposed lifting the first sentence into a separate Article and to drop the second sentence altogether, citing ‘Unlike in the case of torts and delicts, contracts are entered into deliberately and voluntarily. It is essential for the parties to know that the provisions on applicable law contained in this Regulation will apply only to contracts concluded after its date of application. Therefore proceedings brought after the date of application concerning contracts concluded before that date will apply the Rome Convention.’

This intervention therefore I believe was targeted at avoiding debates on equality between Rome I and Rome Convention outcomes. No indication was given that the change from ‘contractual obligations’ to ‘contract’ was of any specific relevance for the debate.

However, in the end that discussion in my view does not really matter because the Court itself does subsequently admit that its observation, that the Regulation cannot mean that ‘any, even minor, variation made by the parties, on or after 17 December 2009, to a contract initially concluded before that date were sufficient to bring that contract within the scope of the Rome I Regulation’ (at 35) , should not negate that

‘the possibility remains, as the Commission has pointed out in its written observations, that a contract concluded before 17 December 2009 may be subject, on or after that date, to a variation agreed between the contracting parties of such magnitude that it gives rise not to the mere updating or amendment of the contract but to the creation of a new legal relationship between the contracting parties, so that the initial contract should be regarded as having been replaced by a new contract, concluded on or after that date, for the purposes of Article 28 of the Rome I Regulation.’ (at 37).

Whether such ‘new legal relationship’ has been formed in casu, is down to the national court to decide. The CJEU does not give any indication whatsoever of what law is to guide that court in that decision. A European ius commune? I don’t see it. Lex fori? Perhaps. But that would encourage forum shopping. Lex causae? But the Court had dismissed Article 10 of having any relevance. I am at a loss.

Now, to the question of overriding mandatory requirements (please refer again to my review of Szpunar AG’s Opinion for context): here the Court I believe misses the mark. After pointing out, justifiably (and in contrast with the AG), that Article 9 needs to be interpreted restrictively, it holds that ‘the list, in Article 9 of the Rome I Regulation, of the overriding mandatory provisions to which the court of the forum may give effect is exhaustive. (at 49).

Check.

This means Article 9 of the Rome I Regulation must be interpreted ‘as precluding the court of the forum from applying, as legal rules, overriding mandatory provisions other than those of the State of the forum or of the State where the obligations arising out of the contract have to be or have been performed. Consequently, since, according to the referring court, Mr Nikiforidis’s employment contract has been performed in Germany, and the referring court is German, the latter cannot in this instance apply, directly or indirectly, the Greek overriding mandatory provisions which it sets out in the request for a preliminary ruling.’ (at 50).

Check.

But then, at 52:

‘On the other hand, Article 9 of the Rome I Regulation does not preclude overriding mandatory provisions of a State other than the State of the forum or the State where the obligations arising out of the contract have to be or have been performed from being taken into account as a matter of fact, in so far as this is provided for by a substantive rule of the law that is applicable to the contract pursuant to the regulation.

And in conclusion, at 53:

Accordingly, the referring court has the task of ascertaining whether Laws No 3833/2010 and No 3845/2010 are capable of being taken into account when assessing the facts of the case which are relevant in the light of the substantive law applicable to the employment contract at issue in the main proceedings.

Err, here I really do not follow. Surely such de facto circumvention of Article 9’s restrictive scope, negates its effet utile. If and when a law other than the lex causae may be taken into account ‘as a matter of fact’, the Rome modus operandi is to say so: see in this respect in particular Article 17 Rome II. And what would ‘taking into account as a matter of fact’ mean for the case at issue?

Now you see it, now you don’t. In West Tankers the Court took effet utile to extreme length. Here it arguably entirely negates it. I am not convinced.

Geert.

(Handbook of) European Private international law, 2nd ed. 2016. Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.8.3, Chapter 3, Heading 3.2.5 , heading 3.2.8.

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