This post was originally published on the EU Law Analysis blog.
In last Thursday’s judgment on the Case C-425/13, Commission v Council, the CJEU was asked to determine the scope of the Council’s powers to issue negotiating directives to the Commission and the role of the special committee overseeing the Commission during the negotiations with Australia concerning the linking of its emissions trading system with the EU. The case concerns the division of powers between the Council and the Commission and the extent to which the former can exercise some kind of control over how the latter is conducting international negotiations.
Between 2012 and 2013, the Commission negotiated an agreement with Switzerland to link their emissions trading scheme to the EU’s. To be better informed of the how the negotiations were being conducted, the Council set up a special committee pursuant to Article 218 (4) TFEU (the Treaty clause setting out rules on how the EU negotiates and concludes international treaties). However, the Council was not completely satisfied on how the Commission consulted this committee during the negotiations of the agreement. Certain Member States argued that the information provided by the Commission was scant. In fact, the Commission referred the Council to a website of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment when asked to provide an update on how negotiations were going.
In light of what the Council regarded as the Commission’s failure to effectively consult the special committee, when the Council adopted the negotiating directives for the conclusion of a similar agreement with Australia, it envisaged a greater involvement of the Council during the negotiations through the special committee. The Decision of the Council of the European Union of 13 May 2013 authorizing the opening of negotiations on linking the EU emissions trading scheme with an emissions trading system in Australia (Council Decision) establishes in the second sentence of Article 2 that “the Commission shall report in writing to the Council on the outcome of the negotiations after each negotiating session and, in any event, at least quarterly.” Moreover, Article 1(2) of the Decision states that the Commission shall conduct the negotiations in accordance with the very detailed negotiating directives and procedures set out in the Annex to the Council Decision. The annex provides, among other things, that detailed negotiating positions of the Union shall be established within the special committee.
Inasmuch as the Council Decision restricted the Commission’s scope of maneuver when negotiating with Australia, the Commission brought an action against it. The Commission’s plea boils down to two claims. First, the obligation to report in writing after each negotiation session or at least quarterly constitutes a breach of Article 13(2) TEU (role of the institutions), Article 218(2) to (4) TFEU (Treaty negotiation process), Article 295 TFEU (possibility to conclude interinstitutional arrangements) and the principle of institutional balance. Secondly, in so far as it provides that ‘detailed negotiating positions of the Union shall be established’ by the special committee or the Council, the Commission alleges a breach of Article 13(2) TEU, Article 218 TFEU and the principle of institutional balance.
The Judgment of the CJEU
In relation to the Commission’s first claim, the Court began by recalling the constitutional significance of Article 218 TFEU insofar as it confers specific powers on the EU institutions with a view to establishing a balance between those institutions during the treaty-making procedure. In practice, Article 218 TFEU gives different roles to each institution. Even though the Treaties have decided that the Commission is to act as the negotiator and to ensure the EU’s external representation (in all those areas not covered by the CFSP, see article 17 (1) TEU), the Council is nonetheless entrusted with the power to sign and conclude the agreement. According to the Court, in the context of those functions, the Council and the Commission are required to comply with the second sentence of Article 13(2) TEU, which states, “the institutions shall practice mutual sincere cooperation.” Moreover, that cooperation becomes of crucial importance for EU action at international level, as such action triggers a closely circumscribed process of concerted action and consultation between the EU institutions (para 64).
It is in this context of concerted action and consultation that article 13 (2) TEU triggers that article 218 (4) TFEU comes in, as the consultation and cooperation between the Council and the Commission will be channeled through the special committee. Consequently, what do the obligations of cooperation and consultation amount to? For the Court, those obligations mean that the Commission must provide the special committee with all the information necessary for it to monitor the progress of the negotiations, such as, in particular, the general aims announced and the positions taken by the other parties throughout the negotiations. It is only in this way that the special committee is in a position to formulate opinions and advice relating to the negotiations (para 66).
In any event, the Court also reminds the Commission that regardless of whether there is a special committee in place, it can be required to provide that information to the Council as well. Given the role of the Council in the treaty-making procedure, it should possess all the necessary information to have clear knowledge of the ongoing negotiations concerning the preparation of an agreement that will be submitted for its approval. Consequently, the Court concludes that an obligation such as the one enshrined in Article 2 of the Council decision which sets out the Commission’s obligation to report in writing to the Council on the outcome of the negotiations after each negotiating session and, in any event, at least quarterly’, is in conformity with Article 218(2) and (4) TFEU (para 68).
Furthermore, the Court considers that an obligation of information as the one recognized in Article 2 of the Council decision does not violate Article 13 (2) TFEU, insofar as the Council’s powers to lay down such an obligation of information have been exercised with due regard to the Commission’s power to negotiate international agreements (para 70).
Finally, in relation to Article 295 TFEU concerning the obligation to consult each other and by common agreement make arrangements for their cooperation, the Court understands that this obligation to conclude interinstitutional arrangements does not prevent the Council from being able to set out, in a decision authorizing negotiation, arrangements relating to the information that the Commission must provide to it periodically throughout the negotiating process (para 72). Hence, the Court dismissed the Commission’s first claim.
In relation to the second claim, concerning the powers of the special committee to establish detailed negotiating positions of the Union; the Court conducts its analysis in two stages. First, it examines whether the Council has the power to set up procedures pursuant to the first part of Article 218 (4) TFEU, like the one enshrined in the annex of the Council decision. Secondly, it focuses on the specific procedure set out in the annex to the Council decision and more specifically the powers that were conferred upon the special committee.
In the analysis of whether the Council has the power to set up a procedure like the one drawn up in the annex of the Council Decision, the Court examines the mandate of the special committee. In this regard, it considers that the special committee designated by the Council has the mandate to follow the conduct of the negotiations and guide the negotiator (para 76). In addition, the Court argues that since the Council is empowered to designate a special committee and the Commission is required to conduct the negotiations “in consultation with” that committee, the Commission must inform the committee of all aspects of the negotiations in order that it may be properly consulted (para 77). Therefore, Article 218(4) TFEU generally allows the Council to set out procedural arrangements governing the process for the provision of information, for communication and for consultation between the special committee and the Commission, as such rules meet the objective of ensuring proper cooperation at the internal level (para 78).
However, when analyzing the minutiae of the annex to the Council Decision, the CJEU considered that certain parts of that annex were not designed to enhance the transfer of information and the consultation between the special committee and the Commission. Instead, it argued that the possibility for the special committee to establish detailed negotiating positions as envisaged in the second sentence of the first paragraph of the Annex seek to bind the Commission in contravention of article 218 (4) TFEU, Article 13 (2) TEU and the principle of institutional balance. For the Court, the power to establish detailed negotiating procedures goes beyond the consultative function assigned to the special committee. The annex has the effect of imposing negotiating positions on the negotiator, i.e. the Commission (para 90). Therefore, the Court accepted the Commission’ second claim and partially annulled the Council Decision.
To a certain extent, the EU’s treaty-making procedure constitutes an example of the Principal – Agent problem. The Council (Principal) authorizes the Commission (Agent) to negotiate on its behalf, yet it does not completely trust the Commission. The Court understands that it is the information asymmetry that fuels the Council’s lack of trust on the Commission’s role as a negotiator. Consequently, anything in the Council decision that might exceed the obligation to inform and consult would be a breach of the principle of institutional balance, regardless of how badly the Commission had previously complied with that obligation.
In this regard, a parallelism with Case C-658/12 European Parliament v Council (Mauritius, AKA Somali Pirates) (discussed here) could be drawn. In that case the Court understood that by not informing the European Parliament (EP) immediately and fully informed concerning the conclusion of an extradition agreement with Mauritius, the Council had breached Article 218 (10) TFEU. Inasmuch as that provision aimed as ensuring that the EP could effectively exercise its powers in relation to the conclusion of international agreements, the Council had breached the principle of institutional balance. In the present case, the Court understands that an obligation to inform the Council on on-going negotiations is an expression of that principle. The Council also needs to be immediately and fully informed throughout the negotiations of an agreement it will end up concluding.
Finally, in the last couple of years we have witnessed an increase in the litigation between the different EU institutions concerning the exercise of their powers and the delicate balance between them in the field of EU External Relations. It appears that the EU institutions are still learning how to live with each other after the Lisbon Reform. Yet within this learning process, it appears, that the EU institutions seem to be moving away from cooperation arrangements and are pushing for a rigid interpretation of their respective powers. This is clearly seen in how the principle of institutional balance figures prominently in the present case or in other cases such as Mauritius Island, Case C-409/13 (Council v Commission) concerning the Commission’s right to withdraw proposals (discussed here), or Case C-28/12, Commission v Council, (US Air Transport Agreement). While in principle this is not per se a problem, it could signal that an increasing institutional divide on the way the to conduct the EU’s external representation after the Lisbon Treaty is emerging.
Andrés Delgado Casteleiro
Lecturer, Durham Law School