Probably precisely because it would have been obvious, Bobek AG did not refer in the opening lines of his Opinion in C-307/19 Obala v NLB to Groundhog Day, which, following Pula Parking, this case certainly is. He did at 2 summarise why the issue, essentially on the notion of ‘civil and commercial’ under Brussels Ia and the Service Regulation 1393/2007 keeps on coming before the CJEU (this time in no less than 9 long questions):
The crux of the problem appears to be a certain double privatisation carried out by the Croatian legislature at both management and enforcement level. A matter commonly perceived in other Member States to be administrative in nature is entrusted to private entities. The subsequent enforcement of such a claim is also not designed to be a matter for the courts, but rather, at least at first instance, for notaries.
The EC had objected to quite a few questions on the basis that they engaged too much the substance of the case, which the AG disagrees with: at 31 he suggest that inevitably in conflict of laws jurisdictional advice, ‘telescopic analysis of the substance’ is needed.
On the issue of ‘civil and commercial’, Germany and Slovenia submit the origin of the power under which the contract was concluded and which is enforced in this respect that is determinant. The applicant, the Croatian Government and the Commission take the opposite view: to them, it is not the origin of the power but rather the modalities of its exercise which represent the determinative element for identifying ‘civil and commercial matters’. It is quite extraordinary that we should still not have consensus on this after to many cases, however as I noted in my review of Buak, the divergent emphasis by different chambers of the Court has not helped.
At 42 ff Bobek summarily revisits the case-law under BIa (he concedes at 53-54 that case-law on other instruments does not add much), concluding at 52 that the CJEU has used both the ‘subject matter’ approach and the ‘legal relationship’ approach, without expressing a preference for either.
At 59 the Advocate-General opts for the ‘legal relationship’ approach, arguing that path ‘most reliably performs the function of the figurative railroad switch point guiding the dispute from one procedural track to another in search of the ‘right’ institutional path in a Member State at the preliminary stage of jurisdiction’. That path is also the one which as I point out in my review of Buak, was followed by the Second (which includes President Lenaerts, the chair of conflict of laws at Leuven prior to my immediate predecessor, Hans van Houtte) and not the First Chamber:
The Second chamber (K. Lenaerts, A. Prechal, Toader, Rosas and Ilešič in Buak, focus on Sapir which was issued by the third Chamber, comprising at the time Toader (Rapporteur), Ilešič, Jarašiūnas, Ó Caoimh, Fernlund. Toader and Ilešič are the common denominator with judment in BUAK. Sapir has focus also firstly on the legal relationship between the parties to the dispute, but secondly the basis and the detailed rules governing the bringing of the action (not: the to my knowledge never applied Eurocontrol criterion of ‘subject matter’ of the action).
At 66 the AG offers ‘pointers’ within the ‘nature of the legal relationship’ approach which he believes may be of assistance to any public power assessment:
‘(i) start with the legal relationship which characterises the dispute; (ii) assess it against the framework generally applicable to private parties; and (iii) establish whether the dispute arises from a unilateral exercise of public powers outside that normal private ‘reference framework’.’
which applied to the case at issue, he concludes at 87, leads to a finding of there not appearing to be an exercise of public powers.
I conclude my overview of ‘civil and commercial’ at para 2.65 of the third ed of the Handbook (forthcoming February 2021) with
the acte clair doctrine (meaning that national courts need not refer to the CJEU when the interpretation of EU law is sufficiently clear either by virtue of that law itself or following CJEU interpretation in case-law) implies that national courts by now ought to have been given plenty of markers when applying this condition of application of the Brussels I and Recast Regulation. Except of course the acte might not be that clair at all, as the above overview shows.
Bobek AG seems to have a similar end in mind: at 65: there is no unicorn, a truly autonomous interpretation of ‘civil and commercial’.
The Opinion continues with the classic themes of whether notaries are courts, and a firm opinion that leaving your car in a public parking space provokes contractual relations.
European Private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, paras 2.28 ff concluding at 2.65.