LugaNON. My brief thoughts on the European Commission’s refusal to support the UK’s accession to Lugano 2007, and a clarification of the procedure and required majorities.

Update 9 July 2021 Thank you Ekaterina Pannebakker for flagging the momentarily definitive ‘no’: the EU’s official confirmation of non-consent.

Update 8 June 2021 for the Dutch regret of the EC’s approach yet de facto acceptance of the EC position, see  here – with thanks to Taco Van Der Valk for signalling. The Dutch Government also emphasises the fact that the issue is open-ended: it can be revisited in a later stage of EU-UK relations.

This post is my tuppenny worth on the European Commission’s Assessment on the application of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to accede to the 2007 Lugano Convention. These are my considered but of course not my exhaustive initial thoughts. For excellent review of the legal status quo, see Andrew Dickinson’s ‘Realignment of the Planets – Brexit and European Private International Law’ in IPRax 2021/3.

The background. 

In June 2020, Michel Barnier reportedly commented ‘Do we really want the UK to remain a centre for commercial litigation for the EU, when we could attract these services here?’. This illustrated what has been clear now for quite a while: legal services contribute directly to GPD, mostly as a result of law firms’ turnover and, more recently,  via the financial performance of third-party financing. More importantly, they have an impact on the reputation of a country. Courts’ know-how, speed and general performance are a particularly relevant factor here. Therefore the legal sector acts as one factor in attracting foreign direct investment, as the rise of  international commercial courts shows.

The quote also illustrates however that the European Commission and the Member States were keenly aware of the impact of Brexit on judicial co-operation. Throughout the process, this included early EU flags that, should judicial co-operation fail to be included in the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement – TCA, it should not be assumed that the EU would support UK Lugano membership. Scholarship, too, warned of the inferiority of Lugano viz Brussels IA, and the particular weakness of Lugano States only having to take  ‘due account’ (Article 1 Protocol 2 Lugano 2007) of CJEU case-law on Lugano.

As readers will be aware, the TCA as eventually negotiated includes precious little on judicial co-operation in civil and commercial matters. A Hard Brexit in this area, therefore. Amidst the many issues that needed to be discussed in the TCA, judicial co-operation did not make the grade. This was not a big surprise. As Peter Bert signalled from the start, judicial co-operation barely featured in the negotiation mandate on the EU side, and on the UK side the Government kept largely schtum about the issue.

The lack of provision in the TCA put back into the spotlights the UK’s April 2020 application to join Lugano. Of note is as I have signalled before, that the UK could accede to Lugano, bypassing EU approval , if it were to become a fully fledged EFTA Member State (A70(1)a Lugano). That of course is not the route the UK has followed in its disentanglement from the EU. Under A72 Lugano therefore accession requires consent from the current Lugano States, consent which they ‘endeavour to give’ at the latest within one year after the invitation to do so by the Depository (i.e., Switserland). 

The flip-flop? 

It is reporting in the Financial Times which subsequently put things into a bit of a spin, whether as a result of misinformation or lobbying, I cannot say. On the day of an important meeting of the relevant Working Party, the FT first reported the EC would support Lugano Membership – contrary to what the vast majority of observers had assumed. By the afternoon a U-turn in reporting was made, suggesting additionally that a split had emerged among the Member States. That split is simply not there, or not to a sufficient degree (see below re the voting procedure).

The morning’s reporting of white smoke made the lack of EC support look like a surprise or indeed a disappointment. Clearly it could not have been the former: most of us had assumed the EC would not support the application.

That leaves the feeling of disappointment. Quite aside from one’s view on Brexit as a whole, for legal practice clearly a continuing umbilical cord between the UK and the Brussels Regime in its widest form (BIa, Rome I and II etc etc) would have been most preferable. Lugano would have been a second best. I remind readers that Lugano not only lacks a unified solid judicial oversight. It also lags behind Brussels Ia in important aspects (Lugano 2007 instead mirrors Brussels I, Regulation 44/2001).

The reasoning.

In its Communication to the EP and the Member States, as Peter Bert reports, the EC’s core reasoning is

“For the European Union, the Lugano Convention is a flanking measure of the internal market and relates to the EU-EFTA/EEA context. In relation to all other third countries the consistent policy of the European Union is to promote cooperation within the framework of the multilateral Hague Conventions. The United Kingdom is a third country without a special link to the internal market. Therefore, there is no reason for the European Union to depart from its general approach in relation to the United Kingdom. Consequently, the Hague Conventions should provide the framework for future cooperation between the European Union and the United Kingdom in the field of civil judicial cooperation.”

The Commission specifically refers to the example of Poland as the direction of travel (closer integration with the EU), and to Lugano being a flanking measure of the Internal Market. The 1968 Brussels Convention quite clearly shows the DNA and the narrative of market integration. The development of the EU judicial area in the meantime has moved along in the direction of the EU citisen, rather than merely corporations, as consumers of EU judicial co-operation. Yet without Lugano States being part of the much wider judicial co-operation agenda of the EU proper, it is not absurd to suggest that Lugano 2007’s narrative is more closely aligned with market  integration than it is with ever deeper integration.

At the time of Poland‘s accession to Lugano, this was indeed clearly also linked to its impending membership of the EU, as also noted by David Lock QC, relevant UK Minister at the time. For current candidates, one could think e.g. of Georgia, and the Balkan countries, as stronger candidates for Lugano membership than the UK. Clearly, however, they may bump into opposition by the non-EU Lugano States.

The victims.

The general narrative, to which I subscribe, is that it is not Business to Business contracts, and the litigation by big business cases that will be much hit by this hard Brexit in judicial co-operation. They will turn to arbitration, they will agree exclusive choice of court (covered by the 2005 Hague Convention), and if need be they will simply absorb being litigated in, or having to litigate in the EU. Likewise, many UK judgments in standard business cases will find little difficulty, if some delay, in enforcement in the EU.

Rather: SMEs (lest they too enter into exclusive choice of court agreements per Hague 2005; and they will be less likely to be able to absorb the cost of parallel litigation), consumers and employees, travellers (including in direct action versus the insurer), and claimants in corporate due diligence cases will find it much harder to have a smooth judicial process between the UK and the EU. Consumers domiciled in the EU will still be able to sue UK corporations in the EU, provided they meet the Pammer Alpenhof criteria under the relevant Section of Brussels Ia; and employees carrying out their duties here, likewise will be able to sue a UK employer in the EU. Yet with the distinct possibility of parallel UK proceedings, and subsequent difficulties in having a European judgment enforced, there will be many a freezing effect on proactive judicial action by these protected groups. Clearly and mutatis mutandis, the same categories in the UK will see a major judicial protection avenue fall away, as non-EU cq non-Lugano domiciled consumers, employees and small insureds do not enjoy the protection of the relevant Sections in BIa cq Lugano.

A distinct category of claimants that will be hit, are those which recently have enjoyed the reigning in of forum non conveniens in business and human rights cases particularly under Lugano (where Owosu’s rejection of forum non rules) and even under Brussels Ia (where A33-34 does create some obstacles). Without Lugano, forum non in these cases will once again come to the fore, although recent Court of Appeal and Supreme Court authority on duty of care may alter that fear. 

The voting procedure and future options.

Greg Callus suggests a number of future options here. I have made the following admittedly lame football comparison: If BIa is the Champions League, then Lugano is the Premier League and the Hague Judgments Convention the Ruritanian Boy Scouts football conference. That is because the 2019 Convention does not impact on forum non theories of the signatory States; is a long, long way off entry into force (albeit as noted the EC signals it might speed up the accession process); has such a huge amount of exceptions, reservations and open questions, counsel will drive an entire tank company through it; and, like all Hague instruments, lacks a harmonising court with authority over interpretation.

The Lugano Convention encourages consent within a year of notification. Absence of an answer in other words simply continues a status of lack of consent.

An important final word on the voting procedure: it is NOT the case that the final word on the current initiative lies with the Member States under qualified majority – QMV voting. An EU yes to Switserland, the depository, requires a Council Decision with QMV. However that requires a COM proposal for such decision. This, the European Commission clearly is not willing to put forward. Article 241 TFEU enables Council to request the EC to put forward a proposal for decision. Yet to amend that proposal (which would have to be the case here, seeing as the EC will not propose consent), unanimity is required.

In conclusion

I return to my Barnier quote above: ‘Do we really want the UK to remain a centre for commercial litigation for the EU, when we could attract these services here?’ Free movement of judgments simply is too big a cherry to have the UK pick it in the absence of a more overall framework for judicial co-operation in civil and commercial matters. I fear the fall-out for the categories listed above, might not be enough to make the EC and indeed enough Member States deviate from the Brexit negotiation mandate, which continues to cast a long shadow over this particular initiative.

Geert.

EU private international law, 3rd ed. 2021, Heading 1.7.

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