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Brussels, 24 February 2011

Justice Council: 25 February, Brussels

European Union Justice Ministers will meet in Brussels on 25 February 2011. The European Commission will be represented by Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU's Justice Commissioner.

Main agenda items:

  • Reform of “Brussels I” Regulation – Cutting red tape in cross-border court cases

  • A coherent approach towards collective redress

  • Ensuring fair trial rights – Letter of Rights

  • Implementing the Charter of Fundamental Rights

1. Reform of “Brussels I” Regulation – Cutting red tape in cross-border court cases

In a true Single Market, judgements in civil and commercial matters issued in one Member State should be given full faith and credit in all EU Member States. Even though the Single Market gives businesses access to a market of 500 million consumers, only a quarter of Europe’s 20 million small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are involved in cross-border trade. A recent survey found that almost 40% of businesses would trade outside their home market if the procedures for settling court disputes abroad were simplified.

What is expected at this Council? The European Commission will present its proposal for a sweeping reform of the so-called “Brussels I” Regulation of 2001 (see IP/10/1705), a set of EU rules that determine which court has jurisdiction in cross-border cases and how court judgements issued in one EU Member State are recognised and enforced in another EU country.

Commission position: Under the reform, a time-consuming and costly legal procedure known as "exequatur" will be abolished. Exequatur is used for getting a judgment in a civil or commercial matter enforced in another EU country.

The situation today is as follows: A judgement issued by a court in one EU Member State in a civil or commercial case cannot be automatically enforced in another EU Member State. A judgement of a Polish court that obliges a French company to pay 10,000 is thus not automatically enforceable in France. The Polish company must first go through an additional court procedure – exequatur – in France to get the Polish judgement recognised. Exequatur takes time (sometimes up to 12 months) and it costs money (sometimes more than 12,000).

Businesses may save up to 48 million a year. The proposal will thus strengthen the Single Market, cut red tape and boost economic growth. It will also reinforce the protection of European consumers when they deal with businesses in third countries, enhance legal certainty for choice of law agreements among businesses, and improve the competitiveness of Europe’s arbitration industry.

Background: The "Brussels I" Regulation facilitates civil judicial cooperation in the EU by identifying the most appropriate jurisdiction for solving a cross-border dispute and ensuring the smooth recognition and enforcement of judgements issued in another Member State. This helps the Single Market function properly.

Eight years after the original Regulation came into force, the Commission’s reform proposals are now seeking to make it more efficient. The goal is that by 2013, judgements in civil and commercial matters can be executed effectively, speedily and inexpensively across the EU, whether they are made by a domestic court or a court in another EU country.

The proposal to abolish exequatur follows earlier moves such as the European Payment Order (a simplified procedure for uncontested cross-border claims), the European Small Claims Procedure for cross-border claims of less than €2,000 and the EU’s Maintenance Obligations Regulation.

2. A coherent approach towards collective redress

The Commission, as a public authority and the guardian of the EU Treaties, enforces EU law. In parallel, individuals and businesses can seek enforcement of their rights under EU law in national courts. In some cases, the violation of EU law may trigger multiple individual lawsuits. Current EU law already provides for the possibility of pursuing collective actions in the field of consumer law, but national legal systems vary considerably in several areas of law, such as financial markets, competition or environmental protection.

What is expected at this Council? The Commission will present its public consultation “Towards a more coherent European approach to collective redress" (see IP/11/132). The Commission will invite Member States to participate in the consultation and will seek a fruitful first discussion with ministers.

Commission position: The consultation’s purpose is to identify common legal principles, such as the need for effectiveness and efficiency, information for citizens and safeguards against abusive litigation. The consultation document makes it clear that the EU wants to avoid US-style class actions.

The outcome of the public consultation is open. The Commission will take the results into account when it publishes a Communication later this year.

Background: The consultation, which began 4 February, lasts 12 weeks until the end of April. The consultation will attempt to identify common legal principles and how these principles could fit into the EU legal system and into the legal orders of the 27 EU Member States. It also explores in which fields different forms of collective redress (injunctive and/or compensatory) could have an added value for improving the enforcement of EU legislation or for better protecting the rights of consumers.

3. Ensuring fair trial rights in the EU – Letter of rights

Procedural safeguards represent a top priority in the justice area. Minimum standards for the rights of suspects in criminal proceedings are essential to promote real mutual trust between citizens and the judicial authorities of different Member States, without which mutual recognition may never work properly. These standards should be fully compliant with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

What is expected at this Council? The Hungarian Presidency will present the current state of play on the draft Directive on the right to information in criminal proceedings, which the Commission proposed in July (see IP/10/989). Member States agreed a general approach at the Justice Council on 3 December 2010 (see IP/10/1652), except for the non-binding annexes including the model Letters of Rights. The next step is that the draft Directive will pass to the European Parliament.

Commission position: The Commission will encourage Member States to maintain the original proposal’s ambition and stress that the model Letters of Rights is optional and is meant to save Member States money because it has already been translated. The proposal, if adopted by the European Parliament and EU justice ministers, will help to avoid miscarriages of justice and reduce the number of appeals. Authorities prosecuting the case will have to ensure that suspects are given information about their rights. When someone is arrested, they will be given this information in writing – in a Letter of Rights – drafted in simple, everyday language. It will be provided to suspects upon arrest in all cases, whether they ask for it or not, and translated if necessary.

Background: The Commission has been committed to common EU standards in relation to criminal proceedings for many years and has taken a step-by-step approach on EU legislation. These measures will allow the Commission to develop a truly common and ambitious EU framework on the level of protection and fair trial rights. Justice Ministers approved the first such measure – the right to translation and interpretation – at their meeting in October (see IP/10/1305).

4. Implementing the Charter of Fundamental Rights

Since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty (1 December 2009), the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights has been legally binding on all of the EU's institutions when preparing legislation and on Member States when they are implementing EU law. The Charter entrenches classic human rights as well as other rights and principles resulting from the common constitutional traditions of the EU Member States, the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU and other international instruments.

What is expected at this Council? The Council will adopt conclusions on its commitment to ensure that the Charter will be respected throughout the legislative process.

Commission position: The Commission welcomes the commitment of the Council to making the rights included in the Charter a practical reality.

Background: In October 2010, the Commission adopted a strategy for effectively implementing the provisions of the Charter (IP/10/1348). Next month, it will publish the first annual report on the application of the Fundamental Rights Charter.

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