Lithuania v Veolia. How the CJEU’s ISDS judgments in Achmea, Komstroy etc revive interest in foreign public law limitations.

Many thanks Bruno Hardy, counsel at Liedekerke, for reconnecting me with a case I had seen in passing and then lost track off. Bruno also reports on the issues here; there is also a mainstream media report and a more specialised report.

On 18 January the Lithuanian Supreme Court held that the France-Lithuania BIT is no obstacle to Lithuania seizing the Lithuanian courts of a claim that Veolia and consorts unlawfully took over control of heating businesses in a dozen Lithuanian municipalities in 1993-2003, and excessively profited from same. The claim was initially formulated as a counterclaim in ongoing ICSID proceedings (note there are also ongoing commercial arbitration proceedings relating to the case under Stockholm Chamber of Commerce rules) and is now pursued in the courts in ordinary, using Article 7(2)’s locus damni gateway.

The SC first of all rejected Veolia’s claim that the case should at the least be stayed until the ICSID ruling has been issued. For the SC, CJEU Achmea (which declared dispute settlement via ISDS in intra-EU BITs incompatible with EU law) implies that the arbitration procedure under the BIT has now lapsed (and this ab initio, hence making the later entry into force of the EU Member States’ BIT termination agreement irrelevant) meaning Lithuania not merely may but indeed it must drop its claims in the ISDS procedure.

From what I understand, the SC did not hold on whether A7(2) BIa is a possible gateway, focusing instead on the fate of Lithuania’s involvement in the ISDS procedure. In a perhaps unexpected ruling, as Bruno reports, the Vilnius Regional Court subsequently found that it lacked international jurisdiction seeing as in its (prima facie unconvincing) view the Lithuanian claim falls under acta iure imperii, hence cancelling out Brussels Ia, instead making the claim subject to residual Lithuanian private international law rules. These seem to direct the suit to France, the domicile of the defendant.

This is where there is a final twist in the tail. What I assume to be the reason for the court to find acta iure imperii (that the claim’s origin and DNA are actions taken by a state in its sovereign capacity) may well result in the French court refusing to entertain the claim as well (potentially leading to the need for a Lithuanian forum necessitatis). Indeed as Bruno points out, under the French SC Guatemala rule, French courts do not rule on cases necessarily involving the application of foreign public law (this echoes some of the issues in Skatteforvaltningen, currently under appeal). The 1975 Institute of International Law’s Resolution on same comes to mind.

The judgment shows very clearly the urgency for a proper debate on the relationship between EU law, the CJEU, ISDS and other forms of international dispute settlement. I fear the rather unnuanced CJEU statements in cases like Komstroy do little to resolve many of the underlying issues.

Geert.

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