ECJ rules arbitration clauses in Intra-EU BITs contrary to EU Law

Alicia Nicholls

In a landmark and much-anticipated judgement delivered on Tuesday, March 6th, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that arbitration clauses in bilateral investment treaties (BITs) concluded between European Union Member States were incompatible with, and had ‘an adverse effect’ on EU law.

The background to the judgement involved a claim brought against the Slovak Republic by a Dutch private sickness insurance services subsidiary, Achmea, after the former had briefly prohibited the distribution of profits generated by private sickness insurance activities. This prohibition was later ruled unconstitutional by that country’s Constitutional Court, and Achmea subsequently brought a claim for damages under the Agreement on encouragement and reciprocal protection of investments between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia (Netherlands- Slovak Republic BIT), to which the Slovak Republic had succeeded upon Czechoslovakia’s dissolution.

In 2012 an arbitral tribunal established in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, pursuant to Article 8(2) of the Netherlands-Slovak Republic BIT found in favour of Achmea and ordered the Slovak Republic to pay 22.1 million euros in damages. As German law applied (since Frankfurt am Main was the chosen place of arbitration), the Slovak Republic turned to the German courts to have the arbitral award set aside.

The Slovak Republic argued that the arbitration clause in Article 8 of the Netherlands-Slovak Republic BIT was compatible with Articles 18, 267 and 344 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Given the importance of this question and its implications for the many remaining intra-EU BITs in force, the German Federal Court of Justice referred this question to the ECJ

In its judgment, the ECJ held that

Articles 267 and 344 TFEU must be interpreted as precluding a provision in an international agreement concluded between Member States, such as Article 8 of the BIT, under which an investor from one of those Member States may, in the event of a dispute concerning investments in the other Member State, bring proceedings against the latter Member State before an arbitral tribunal whose jurisdiction that Member State has undertaken to accept.

The ECJ came to its decision based on the fact that arbitral tribunals established under such treaties may be called on to interpret and apply EU law, but could not be classified as a court or tribunal ‘of a Member State’ within the meaning of Article 267 of the TFEU. The tribunals had no power to refer matters to the ECJ and could stop disputes from “being resolved in a manner that ensures the full effectiveness of EU law even though they might concern the interpretation or application of that law”. The Court went further by stating that Article 8 of the BIT in question “has an adverse effect on the autonomy of EU law” and was not compatible with the principle of sincere cooperation.

Unlike state to state dispute settlement, ISDS allows an investor of a party who believes its rights have been violated to bring a claim directly against the host State before an arbitration tribunal. The rationale was that it precluded investors from having to convince their home State to bring a claim on their behalf, and was also borne out of distrust of the courts in host States (usually mainly developing countries).

ISDS has come under much fire, particularly due to inconsistent arbitral rulings (which are final under most BITs with these clauses), the lack of transparency in the process, and the concern about the system’s implications for States’ regulatory flexibility and authority in the public interest, particularly with regard to the protection of public health and the environment. Moreover, for small States, such as those in the Caribbean, the financial and reputational burdens of an adverse judgement are magnified.

In the EU context, intra-EU BITs have long been a controversial issue due to treaty shopping; investors have often favoured the ISDS provisions in intra-EU BITs over EU judicial channels for the settlement of disputes. This is costly for EU Member States having to defend themselves against claims and has implications for the uniform interpretation of EU law.

Newer investment agreements, including BITs,  have increasingly included express language regarding a party’s right to regulate in the public interest,  have considerably narrowed the scope of applicability of ISDS clauses, or have abandoned ISDS altogether. In light of the growing backlash against ISDS within the EU, the European Commission has already signalled that it is moving away from the ISDS model of dispute settlement in favour of an investment court as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between the European Union and Canada shows.

Implications for Caribbean BITs with EU countries  

The ECJ ruling is clear that the ISDS clauses in the nearly 200 BITs currently in force between EU member states inter se are incompatible with EU law. What is not so clear-cut is whether this also applies to BITs concluded between individual EU member countries and third States, such as those in the Caribbean. In such cases, the governing law in such disputes might not be EU law but the law of the third State.

While there is little evidence that the existence of a BIT is a major factor in a European investor’s decision to invest in the Caribbean, given that the BITs existing between European and Caribbean countries are generally of an older vintage and in need of modernisation, the time is ripe to have a relook at the regime for the protection and promotion of investment between the EU and CARIFORUM countries which is currently fragmented. Such a review is provided for under Article 74 of the Agreement.

At the time of the negotiation of the CARIFORUM-EC Economic Partnership Agreement, the European Commission only had competence to negotiate market access for investment, which explains why the investment chapter (Chapter 2: Commercial Presence) of the EPA is limited mainly to market access, national treatment, most favoured nation treatment, with some provisions on investor behaviour and a requirement that parties do not lower standards to attract FDI. More extensive investment protection provisions, such as the controversial fair and equitable treatment clauses, are covered in the BITs between individual EU and Caribbean States, many of which were signed before the EPA and also lack the more development friendly provisions of newer BITs.

Conclusion

The ECJ’s ruling is significant and may be considered another nail in the ISDS coffin. It is worth considering what, if any, impact this ruling may have for EU Member States’ BITs with third States, such as those in the Caribbean, and whether it is time to re-examine the regime for EU-CARIFORUM investment as provided for under Article 74 of the EPA.

The full judgement may be viewed here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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