ZN v [Bulgarian Consulate]. Confirming Mahamdia and the ‘international’ in ‘private international law’.

In C-280/20, ZN v Generalno konsulstvo na Republika Bulgaria v grad Valensia, Kralstvo Ispania [the Bulgarian consulate], the CJEU last week essentially confirmed CJEU C-154/11 Mahamdia. ZN is a Bulgarian national residing in Sofia who holds a permit to reside in Spain, where she provided services relating to the activity of the Consulate General. ZN brought an action in Bulgaria against the Consulate General seeking, first, recognition of her employment relationship and, second, payment of compensation in lieu of paid annual leave not taken during a period in which she provided services concerning the receipt of documents. The Consulate General contests the jurisdiction of the Bulgarian courts and invokes the jurisdiction of the Spanish courts as the courts of ZN’s place of employment. The referring court has doubts as to the existence of cross-border implications in so far as the dispute at issue in the main proceedings concerns a Bulgarian employee and a Bulgarian employer, and the fact that their legal relationship is closely connected with the Republic of Bulgaria.  It also notes that Bulgarian law expressly provides that, in the case of contracts concluded between a Bulgarian employer established abroad and a Bulgarian national working abroad, any disputes may be examined only by the Bulgarian courts.

In Mahamdia the Court first of all applied the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and held that an embassy often acts iure gestionis, not iure imperii, and that under the Vienna rules, the EU is perfectly entitled to apply the Regulation given that it applies to ‘civil and commercial’ matters. In that vein, an embassy may very well have to be regarded as an ‘establishment’ within the meaning of Article 20(2) (on employment contracts). In ZN, the Court [28-29] suggests that services in connection with the receipt of documents in files opened at the consulate by Bulgarian nationals and the management of those files, do not fall within the exercise of public powers and do not risk interfering with the security interests of the Republic of Bulgaria. Hence it strongly suggests the issue is a ‘civil and commercial one’, leaving final determination of same to the referring court. I would intuitively have thought that processing documents at a country’s consulate quite au contraire, does engage closely with diplomatic functions that must be qualified as iure imperii, particularly seeing as before said processing one is likely not to have knowledge of the documents’ content.

On the issue of ‘international element’ required to trigger Brussels Ia, the Court per Mahamdia considers a consulate to be an ‘establishment’ of one Member State in another Member State. Hence one of the parties to the dispute must be considered to be domiciled or habitually resident in a Member State other than that of the court seised [37]: the cross-border element is clearly present, which will not surprise many of us. One also assumes that the  aforementioned Bulgarian rule on exclusive jurisdiction for employment disputes between Bulgarians even with an international element present, does not meet with EU law requirements.

Geert.

EU Private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, para 2.35, para 2.128.