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The Essence of Rights: An Unreliable Boundary?

  • Takis Tridimas and Giulia Gentile


Article 52(1) of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights lays down respect for the essence of right as one of the requirements that limitations on rights must respect. This provision is not innovative, as it formalizes into EU law the distinction between “core” and “periphery” of rights present in many national constitutions and in the ECJ and ECtHR case law. Nonetheless, the express reference to essence has given unprecedented resonance to that concept. Essence as the “limit of limits” has a Janus-like character. On the one hand, it pronounces that every fundamental right bears a minimum content which is ringfenced from interference by public and private actors. On the other hand, it stresses the malleability of rights and their social function. The core/periphery dichotomy reflects a balancing act moored in European legal tradition whose symbolism outperforms its utility as a judicial tool. This Article examines the essence clause of the Charter in light of the ECJ case law and the constitutional traditions of the Member States and assesses its role in the framework of fundamental rights protection in EU law. The Article first attempts a classification of rights limitations clauses in national constitutions, following which it discusses the interpretation of essence by the Spanish and the Italian Constitutional Courts. The Article then engages with a theoretical discussion of the concept of essence and examines the case law of the ECJ. Lastly, it looks at the limitations of the concept as a rights protection instrument in EU law.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence (, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is unaltered and is properly cited. The written permission of Cambridge University Press must be obtained for commercial re-use or in order to create a derivative work.


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Professor of European Law, the Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London; Professor and Nancy A. Patterson Distinguished Scholar, Penn State Law.


PhD Candidate and Visiting Lecturer in European Law, King’s College London.



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1 See European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights art. 52(1), Oct. 2, 2000 [hereinafter EUCFR], last sentence (“Subject to the principle of proportionality, limitations may be made only if they are necessary and genuinely meet objectives of general interest recognised by the Union or the need to protect the rights and freedoms of others.”).

2 See Praesidium Explanations accompanying the Charter, 2007 O.J. (C 303/17) 32. The provisions of the Charter must be interpreted with due regard to the Explanations: See art. 6(1) TEU and E.U. Charter art. 52(7).

3 See EUCFR arts. 2(1), 4; infra Section H.

4 See Takis Tridimas, Fundamental Rights, General Principles of EU Law, and the Charter, 16 Cambridge Y.B. Eur. Legal Stud. 361 (2014).

5 See infra Section D.

6 Draft Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, Oct. 11, 2000,

7 Maja Brkan, In Search of the Concept of Essence of EU Fundamental Rights through the Prism of Data Privacy, 1 Maastricht Working Papers Faculty of Law, 4 (2017).

8 Draft Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union art. Y, Feb. 11, 2000,

9 Draft Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union art. 50, July 28, 2000,

10 See Hessen Constitution, Dec. 1, 1948, art. 63(1). Essence limitations were also included in other Land constitutions adopted after the Basic Law. See e.g., Berlin Constitution, Sept. 1, 1950, art. 23(2) (now art. 36(2), amended Nov. 23, 1995 & Mar. 22, 2016); Brandenburg Land Constitution, Aug. 20, 1992, art. 5(2).

11 Eesti Vabariigi põhiseadus [Constitution] June 28, 1992, ch. II, para. 11 (Est.).

12 Magyarország Alaptörvénye [The Fundamental Law of Hungary], Alaptörvény Apr. 25, 2011, art. 8(2).

13 Constitution of the Portuguese Republic Apr. 25, 1976, art. 18(3) (prohibiting laws which “reduce the extent or scope of the essential content of the provisions of this Constitution”).

14 Konstytucja Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej [Constitution] Apr. 2, 1997, arts. 31, 53(2).

15 Constituţia României [Constitution] Dec. 8, 1991, art. 53(2) (referring to the requirement that restrictions must be “without prejudice to the existence [‘existenţ’] of the right or freedom in question”).

16 Ústava Slovenskej republiky [Constitution] Oct. 1, 1992, art. 13(4) (Slovk.).

17 C.E., B.O.E. n. 311, Dec. 29, 1978., art. 53(1) (Spain) (referring to respect of the “essential content” of a right).

18 Bundesverfassung [BV] [Constitution] Apr. 18, 1999, art. 36(4) (Switz.).

19 Czech Republic: Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms art. 4(4), Jan. 9, 1991. The Charter is part of the Czech Constitution. See Ústava České Republiky [Constitution of the Czech Republic] Jan. 1, 1993, art. 3.

20 Ustav Republike Hrvatske [Constitution] Dec. 22, 1990, art. 16 (Croat.).

21 Σ’yntaΓma T KyΠpiakhΣ ΔhmokpatiaΣ [Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus] Aug. 16, 1960, art. 33.

22 1975 Syntagma [Syn.] [Constitution] art. 25(1) (Greece).

23 Lietuvos Respublikos Konstitucija [Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania] Oct. 25, 1992, art. 28.

24 See A.G. Raikos, Constitutional Law: Fundamental Rights, Vol. III, 167 (Law Library Press, Athens, 4th ed., 2011).

25 For example, Article 15(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Netherlands regulates restrictions to the right to liberty; Article 11(6) of the Luxembourg Constitution regulates limitations to the freedom of commerce and industry, the exercise of liberal professions and of agricultural labor; Section 9 of the Finnish Constitution regulates the limitations which can be lawfully imposed on the right to privacy.

26 See Constitución Política de la República de Chile [C.P.] [Constitution] art. 26.

27 Article 1 declares that “[t]he Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

28 See India Const. art. 13(2).

29 S. Afr. (Interim) Const., 1993., § 33(1)(b).

30 Section 36 of the Constitution nonetheless provides a comprehensive, well-drafted, limitations clause which reads as follows:

  1. (1)

    (1) The rights in the Bill of Rights may be limited only in terms of law of general application to the extent that the limitation is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom, taking into account all relevant factors, including—

    1. (a)

      (a) the nature of the right;

    2. (b)

      (b) the importance of the purpose of the limitation;

    3. (c)

      (c) the nature and extent of the limitation;

    4. (d)

      (d) the relation between the limitation and its purpose; and

    5. (e)

      (e) less restrictive means to achieve the purpose.

  2. (2)

    (2) Except as provided in subsection (1) or in any other provision of the Constitution, no law may limit any right entrenched in the Bill of Rights.

31 Article 28 of the Lithuanian Constitution states as follows: “While exercising their rights and freedoms, persons must observe the Constitution and the laws of the Republic of Lithuania and must not impair the rights and interests of other people.”

32 For example, under Swedish law, freedom of worship is an absolute right. Limitations to freedom of expression and freedom of information are subject to a qualified procedure, while the right to industrial action and to property may be limited via ordinary legislation. For an English translation of the Constitution, see The Constitution of Sweden (2016), available at <>.

33 See Raikos, supra note 24, at 168.

34 Robert Alexy, A Theory of Constitutional Rights 192 (2nd ed. 2010).

35 See Raikos, supra note 24, at 168.

36 See infra Ssection C.

37 Despite the absence of reference to essence in the Austrian Constitution, the Austrian Constitutional Court has developed the concept of Wesensgehalt (essential core of rights) to ensure a minimum guarantee of individual rights even though the main judicial tool is the principle of proportionality: See Konrad Lachmayer, The Austrian Constitutional Court, in Comparative Constitutional Reasoning (András Jakab et al. eds., 2017); Stephan G. Hinghofer-Szalkay, The Austrian Constitutional Court: Kelsen’s Creation and Federalism’s Contribution?, 17 Fédéralisme Régionalisme (2017) (

38 I.R. Coelho (Dead) By Lrs v. State Of Tamil Nadu & Ors (2007) AIR 2007, SC 861, 23 (India)

39 See Brkan, supra note 7, at 6.

40 See, among others, Alexy, supra note 34.

41 Marian Ahumada Ruiz, The Spanish Constitutional Court, in Comparative Constitutional Reasoning 606 (András Jakab et al. eds., 2017).

42 Sentencia 11/1981, S.T.C., Apr. 25, 1981 (B.O.E., No. 99) (Spain).

43 See id. at para. 8 of the legal grounds of the judgment.

44 See id. at para. 8 of the legal grounds (Constituyen el contenido esencial de un derecho subjetivo aquellas facultades o posibilidades de actuación necesarias para que el derecho sea recognoscible como pertinente al tipo descrito y sin las cuales deja de pertenecer a ese tipo y tiene que pasar a quedar comprendido en otro desnaturalizándose, por decirlo así’).

45 Id.

46 Solidarity strike is a strike by a trade union or a corporation in support of a strike initiated by workers of a separate trade union or another corporation.

47 Sentencia 91/2000, S.T.C., May 4, 2000 (B.O.E., No. 107) (Spain).

48 ECJ, Case C-399/11, Stefano Melloni v. Ministerio Fiscal, ECLI:EU:C:2013:107, Judgment of 26 Feb. 2013. See infra Section H.

49 See Sentencia 26/2014, S.T.C., Mar. 11, 2014 (B.O.E., No. 60) para. 4 of legal grounds (Spain).

50 See Sentencia 37/1987, S.T.C., Apr. 14, 1987 (B.O.E., No. 89) (Spain).

51 Sentencia 93/2015, S.T.C., June 19, 2015 (B.O.E., No. 146) para. 13 (Spain).

52 See Corte Costituzionale, 29 May 1968, n. 56, G.U. n. 139, 1968 (It.), discussed infra 67.

53 For a more general discussion on the case law of the Italian Constitutional Court, see Claudia Marchese, Diritti Sociali E Vincoli Di Bilancio, Ricerca di dottrina (2014) (; Maria Fierro et al., I Diritti Fondamentali nell’ordinamento giuridico comunitario e negli ordinamenti nazionali (2017) (

54 Loris Iannucci, L’interpretazione Secundum Constitutionem Tra Corte Costituzionale E Giudici Comuni Brevi Note Sul Tema, “Corte costituzionale, giudici comuni e interpretazioni adeguatrici,” Roma, Palazzo della Consulta (2009) (

55 See Tania Groppi, The Italian Constitutional Court: Towards a ‘Multilevel System’ of Constitutional Review? JCL 3:2 The Italian Constitutional Court 105 ( See also Ruiz, supra note 41.

56 The interpretative methods of the Italian Constitutional Court have been the subject of a vast scholarly debate, which has focused mainly on the methods of interpretation used for statutory law. Literature on the most suitable interpretation techniques for the Italian Constitution is divided and controversial. Rutolo observes that the Constitutional Court has adopted an evolutive interpretation of the Constitution, which should be limited by following a more restrained interpretation based on its text as suggested by Crisafulli. See Marco Ruotolo, Interpretazione conforme a Costituzione e tecniche decisorie della Corte costituzionale, Gruppo di Pisa (2011) ( Groppi, by contrast, praises the virtues of the evolutive interpretation followed by the Constitutional Court. See Groppi, supra note 55. This debate has been summarized in the essays published in R. Romboli, La giustizia costituzionale a una svolta (Giappichelli ed. 1990).

57 In this respect, the Italian Constitutional Court seems to follow the distinction between “rules” and “principles” introduced by Esser and further developed by Alexy. See Joseph Esser, Grundsatz und Norm: in der richterlichen Fortbildung des Privatrechts. (Tubingen: Mohr, 3rd ed. 1974); Robert Alexy, On the Structure of Legal Principles, 13 Ratio Juris 294 (2002)

58 See Groppi, supra note 55.

59 For an account of the adjudication style of the Italian Constitutional Court, see Marta Cartabia, Of bridges and walls: The “Italian Style” of Constitutional Adjudication, 1 It. J. Pub. L 1 (2016),

60 Corte Costituzionale, 29 December 1988, n. 1146, G. U. n. 2, 1989 (It.), para 2.1 of the legal grounds.

61 The notion of contenuto essenziale dei valori supremi della Costituzione italiana is also found in Corte Costituzionale, 10 February 1997, n. 35, G.U. n. 7, 1997 (It.); Corte Costituzionale, 25 June 2015, n. 118, G.U. n. 26, 2015 (It.).

62 See ECJ, Case C-105/14, Taricco and Others, ECLI:EU:C:2015:555, Judgment of 8 Sept. 2015; ECJ, Case C-42/17, M.A.S. and M.B., ECLI:EU:C:2017:936, Judgment of 12 May 2017.

63 See, for example, Corte Costituzionale, 22 October 2014, n. 238, G.U. n. 45, 2014 (It.).

64 See M.A.S., supra note 62.

65 Corte di Cassazione, sez. III, 8 July 2016, n. 212, G.U n. 41, 2016 (It.).

66 Corte di Cassazione, sez. III, 8 July 2016, n. 212, G.U n. 41, 2016 (It.) at p. 31 of the judgment.

67 See for example Corte Costituzionale, 29 May 1968, n. 56, G.U. n. 139, 1968 (It.); Corte Costituzionale, 24 July 1972, n. 141, G.U. n. 194, 1972 (It.); Corte Costituzionale, 6 October 1983, n. 300, G.U. 281, 1983 (It.).

68 Corte Costituzionale, 17 July 1998, n. 267, G.U. n. 29, 1998 (It.).

69 Corte Costituzionale, 1 July 2015, n. 125, G.U. 27, 2015 (It.).

70 This provision provides for the legislative competences of the Italian state and the regions.

71 ECJ, Case C-4/73, Nold KG v. Comm’n, ECLI:EU:C:1974:51, para. 14, Judgment of 11 Jan. 1977.

72 In subsequent case law, the ECJ has refined the formula referring to the permissibility of restrictions on the exercise of fundamental rights which “in fact correspond to objectives of general interest pursued by the Community and do not constitute, with regard to the aim pursued, disproportionate and unreasonable interference undermining the very substance of those rights.” See e.g., ECJ, Case C-292/97, Kjell Karlsson and Others, ECLI:EU:C:2000:202, para. 45, Judgment of 13 April 2000.

73 See e.g., ECJ, Case C-548/09, Bank Melli Iran v. Council, ECLI:EU:C:2011:735, para. 114, Judgment of 16 Nov. 2011; ECJ, Case C-416/10, Jozef Križan and Others, ECLI:EU:C:2013:8, para. 113, Judgment of 15 Jan. 2013; ECJ, Case C-539/10, Stichting Al-Aqsa v. Council, ECLI:EU:C:2012:711, para. 121, Judgment of 15 Nov. 2012.

74 Nold, supra note 71, at 515.

75 See ECJ, Case C-118/75, Watson and Belmann, ECLI:EU:C:1976:106, Judgment of 7 July 1976.

76 See e.g., Case 11/70, Internationale Handelsgesellschaft, 1970 E.C.R. 1125; Case C-44/79, Hauer, 1979 E.C.R. 3727; ECJ, Case C-5/88, Wachauf v. Bundesamt für Ernährung und Forstwirtschaft, ECLI:EU:C:1989:321, Judgment of 13 July 1989.

77 Thus, in the original version of his opinion in Nold, Trabucchi AG referred to the “essenza” of fundamental rights. Whilst the English, Italian, and French versions of the judgment refer to “substance,” the Spanish version uses the term “esencia.” Charter terminology is to “essence” and “essential content.” The French, Italian, and Spanish versions of Article 52 refer respectively to the “contenu essentiel,” “contenuto essenziale” and “contenido esencial” of fundamental rights. The English and German versions refer to “essence” and “Wesensgehalt” respectively.

78 See Explanations relating to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, Dec. 14, 2007, 2007 O.J. (C 303/17) 32.

79 Note, however, that in his opinion in Case C-353/99, Council v. Hautala, ECLI:EU:C:2001:392, Judgment of 6 Dec. 2001, Leger AG found that the Council had breached the very essence of the fundamental right to access to documents by depriving all applicants of the right to have access to information not covered by the public interest exception. See Hautala, C-353/99 at para. 115. Neither the General Court at first instance nor the ECJ on appeal relied on the concept of substance. For a finding that the essence was not violated, see e.g., Joined Cases 20 & 64/00, Booker Aquaculture v. The Scottish Ministers, per Mischo AG, ECLI:EU:C:2003:397, Judgment of 10 July 2003.

80 The first reference to the protection of the substance of Convention rights appears in the Belgian Language Case. See Case “Relating to Certain Aspects of the Laws on the Use of Languages in Education in Belgium” v. Belgium, App. Nos. 1474/62; 1677/62; 1691/62; 1769/63; 1994/63; 2126/64 (July 23, 1968), The first reference to essence was made in Winterwerp v. The Netherlands, App. No. 6301/73 (Oct. 24, 1979), In this case, the ECtHR found a breach of the very essence of the right to liberty as protected by Article 5(4) ECHR.

81 George Letsas, Strasbourg’s Interpretive Ethic: Lessons for the International Lawyer, 21 Eur. J. Int’l L. 509 (2010).

82 See Young, James and Webster v. United Kingdom, 11 Eur. Ct. H.R. 439, para. 55. (1989).

83 For a discussion in English of German theories on the essence of right, see Ingrid Leijten, Core Socio-Economic Rights and the European Court of Human Rights 126–41 (2018).

84 See Re Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s Application for Judicial Review [2018] UKSC 27 (Ire.) para. 338, per Lord Reed (making statement in relation to absolute rights guaranteed by the ECHR).

85 Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfGE] [Federal Constitutional Court] July 18, 1967, Neue Juristische Wochenschrift [NJW] 1795, 1967 (Ger.).

86 Alexy, supra note 34 at 194–95.

87 Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfGE] [Federal Constitutional Court] 31 January 1973, Neue Juristische Wochenschrift [NJW] 981, 1973 (Ger.).

88 See e.g., Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfGE] [Federal Constitutional Court] June 11, 1958, Neue Juristische Wochenschrift [NJW] 1035, 1958 (180) (Ger.); Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfGE] [Federal Constitutional Court] 10 June 1963, Neue Juristische Wochenschrift [NJW] 1667, 1963 (201) (Ger.); Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfGE] [Federal Constitutional Court] 4 May 1971, Neue Juristische Wochenschrift [NJW] 2121, 1971 (69) (Ger.).

89 State v. Makwanyane 1995 (6) BCLR 665 (CC) (S. Afr.).

90 See Alkotmánybíróság (AB) [Constitutional Court] Oct. 31, 1990, Decision No. 23/1990 (Hung.). The Hungarian Constitutional Court found the death penalty to be contrary to the right to life guaranteed by Article 54 of the Constitution of Hungary. It held that capital punishment infringed the essential content of the fundamental rights to life and human dignity, which must be respected under Article 8.

91 Note, however, that, as stated above, not all provisions of the Charter create rights. Article 51 envisages a distinction between, on the one hand, rights and freedoms, and, on the other hand, principles but it is not necessarily clear which provisions of the Charter provide merely for principles. It will be a matter of interpretation to determine to what extent the provisions of Title IV of the Charter, which pertain to social rights, establish rights rather than principles.

92 The rights recognized in Title I of the Charter are absolute. These are human dignity, the right to life, the right to the integrity of the person, prohibition of torture and inhuman or degradation treatment or punishment, prohibition of slavery and forced labor. Certain rights recognized by the Convention are also considered to be absolute. These are the prohibition of torture and cruel treatment (Article 3), the prohibition of slavery (Article 4(1) and the principle of nulla poena sine lege (Article 7). For a discussion, see Natasa Mavronicola, What is an absolute right? Deciphering Absoluteness in the Context of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, 12 Hum. Rights L. Rev. 723 (2012).

93 See supra the discussion of the case law of the Italian Constitutional Court.

94 Explanations relating to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, Dec. 14, 2007, 2007 O.J. (C 303/17) 17.

95 This is evident, in particular, from the right to private life and the protection of personal data. See e.g., ECJ, Digital Rights Ireland, Joined Cases 293 & 594/12, ECLI:EU:C:2014:238, Judgment of 8 April 2014; ECJ, Tele2 Sverige AB v. Postoch telestyrelsen, Joined Cases 203 & 698/15, ECLI:EU:C:2016:970, Judgment of 21 Dec. 2016; ECJ, Case C-362/14, Schrems v. Data Protection Commissioner, ECLI:EU:C:2015:650, Judgment of 6 Oct. 2015.

96 ECJ, Case C-291/12, Schwarz v. Stadt Bochum, ECLI:EU:C:2013:670, Judgment of 17 Oct. 2013.

97 Schwarz, supra note 96, para 39.

98 By contrast, Mengozzi AG did not engage with the concept of essence in that case.

99 The engagement of the General Court with the concept of essence has been minimal. For general references to essence as part of the conditions of Article 52(1), see e.g., ECJ, Case T-545/13, Fahed Mohamed Sakher Al Matri v. Council, ECLI:EU:T:2016:376, Judgment of 30 June 2016, para. 163 (right to property, freedom to conduct a business); ECJ, Case T-593/11, Al-Chihabi v. Council, ECLI:EU:T:2015:249, Judgment of 30 Apr.l 2015, para. 38 (right to defense). The analysis of essence is often conflated with that of proportionality. See e.g., ECJ, Case T-245/15, Klymenko v. Council, ECLI:EU:T:2017:792, Judgment of 8 Nov. 2017, para 208 (right to property); ECJ, Case T-215/15, Mykola Yanovych Azarov v. Council, ECLI:EU:T:2017:479, Judgment of 7 July 2017, para. 75 (right to property); ECJ, Case T-149/15, Sirine Bent Zine El Abidine Ben Haj Hamda Ben Ali v. Council, ECLI:EU:T:2017:693, Judgment of 5 Oct. 2017, para. 160 (right to property); ECJ, Case T-720/14, Rotenberg v. Council, ECLI:EU:T:2016:689, Judgment of 30 Nov. 2016, para. 169 (right to property, right to privacy, and freedom to conduct a business).

100 See e.g., ECJ, Case C-134/15, Lidl GmbH & Co. KG v. Freistaat Sachsen, ECLI:EU:C:2016:169, Judgment of 26 Aug. 2016, per Bobek AG, para. 31 (freedom to conduct a business); ECJ, Case C-300/11, ZZ, ECLI:EU:C:2013:363, Judgment of 18 July 2013, para. 51 (Charter art. 47); ECJ, Case C-170/13, Huawei Technologies Co., ECLI:EU:C:2014:2391 Judgment of 20 Nov. 2014, per Wathelet AG, at para. 66 (Charter art. 47).

101 See e.g., ECJ, Joined Cases 584, 93 & 595/10 P, Commission v. Kadi (Kadi II), ECLI:EU:C:2013:518, Judgment of 18 July 2013, paras. 101, 134; ECJ, Case T-545/13, Fahed Mohamed Sakher Al Matri v. Council, ECLI:EU:T:2016:376, Judgment of 30 June 2016, para. 130; ECJ, Case T-593/11, Fares Al-Chihabi v. Council, ECLI:EU:T:2015:249, Judgment of 30 Apr. 2015 para. 38; ECJ, Case C-348/12, Council v. Kala Naft, ECLI:EU:C:2013:776, Judgment of 28 Nov. 2013; ECJ, Case C-280/12, Council v. Fulmen and Mahmoudian, ECLI:EU:C:2013:775, Judgment of 28 Nov. 2013. But note that reference to essence was not made in similar sanctions cases where the same rights were in issue. See e.g., ECJ, Case C-630/13, Anbouba v. Council, ECLI:EU:C:2015:247, Judgment of 21 Apr. 2015; ECJ, Case C-176/13, Council v. Bank Mellat, ECLI:EU:C:2016:96, Judgment of 18 Feb. 2016.

102 See e.g., ECJ, Case C-249/13, Khaled Boudjlida v. Préfet des Pyrénées-Atlantiques, ECLI:EU:C:2014:2032, Judgment of 25 June 2014, per Wathelet AG, para. 57 of the Opinion (rights of defense).

103 See ECJ, Case C-279/09, DEB Deutsche Energiehandels- und Beratungsgesellschaft mbH v. Bundesrepublik Deutschland, ECLI:EU:C:2010:811, Judgment of 22 Dec. 2010, para 60.

104 See ECJ, Case C-170/13, Huawei Technologies, ECLI:EU:C:2015:477, Judgment of 16 July 2015, para. 59 (Charter art. 17(2), 47).

105 See e.g., Digital Rights Ireland, Joined Cases 293 & 594/12, discussed in Section F; ECJ, Case C-18/16, K. v. Staatssecretaris van Veiligheid en Justitie, EU:C:2017:680, Judgment of 14 Sept. 2017, para. 35 (right to liberty under Charter art. 6); Schwarz, supra note 96 (Charter art. 8).

106 ECJ, Case C-4/11, Bundesrepublik Deutschland v. Kaveh Puid, ECLI:EU:C:2013:244, Judgment of 14 Nov. 2013, at para 49 of the Opinion.

107 ECJ, Case C-129/14, Zoran Spasic, ECLI:EU:C:2014:586, Judgment of 27 May 2014, para. 88 of the Opinion. Jääskinen AG identified the core of ne bis in idem as including the following: (i) The prohibition of proceedings initiated after a final conviction or acquittal (ii) in the area of general criminal law (iii) by the authorities of the same Member State (iv) concerning the same acts (v) having the same legal status in view of the interest protected under the applicable national law (vi) provided that there has been no fundamental defect in the first proceedings and (vii) that there is no new evidence. On the basis of that definition, he came to the conclusion that Article 54 CISA did not breach the essence of ne bis in idem.

108 ECJ, Case C-216/18 PPU, Minister for Justice and Equality, ECLI:EU:C:2018:586, Judgment of 25 July 2018, para. 48.

109 This was confirmed in ECJ, Case C-619/18, Commission v. Poland, ECLI:EU:C:2018:1021, Judgment of 17 Dec. 2018, para. 21. Cf. Schrems, Case C-362/14 discussed infra in this section. That judgment identifies other aspects of the essence of Article 47 Charter. It follows that the ECJ sees the essence of Article 47 Charter as including the essence of separate sub-rights encompassed by that provision. See further the cases referred to infra note 110.

110 ECJ, Case C-650/13, Delvigne v. Commune de Lesparre Médoc and Préfet de la Gironde, ECLI:EU:C:2015:363, Judgment of 4 June 2015, at para. 114 of the Opinion.

111 ECJ, Case C-131/12, Google Spain v. AEDP, ECLI:EU:C:2014:317, Judgment of 13 May 2014.

112 ECJ, Case C-580/13, Coty Germany GmbH v. Stadtsparkasse Magdeburg, ECLI:EU:C:2015:485, Judgment of 16 July 2015.

113 Id. at para. 35. This has been the approach of the Court in other cases involving conflicts between intellectual property rights and other rights: See ECJ, Case C-70/10, Scarlet Extended, ECLI:EU:C:2011:771, Judgment of 24 Nov. 2011, paras. 48, 49; ECJ, Case C-360/10, Sabam, ECLI:EU:C:2012:85, Judgment of 16 Feb. 2012, paras. 46, 47. In both cases, Article 17 Charter had to be balanced with Article 16 thereof, protecting the freedom to conduct business.

114 Coty Germany GmbH, Case C-580/13, at para. 40.

115 Id. at para 39.

116 ECJ, Joined Cases 569 & 570/16, Bauer, ECLI:EU:C:2018:871, Judgment of 6 Nov. 2018. See, to the same effect, ECJ, Case C-684/16, Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften, ECLI:EU:C:2018:874, Judgment of 6 Nov. 2018.

117 ECJ, Joined Cases 402 & 415/05 P, Kadi & Al Barakaat International Foundation v. Council and Commission, ECLI:EU:C:2008:461, Judgment of 3 Sept. 2008, paras. 357–358 (the inquiry on the substance of the right appears to have been conflated with the proportionality inquiry). In subsequent sanctions cases, the Court identified as part of the essence of effective judicial protection the right of the person concerned to obtain a judgment ordering annulment, whereby the contested measure is retroactively erased from the legal order and is deemed never to have existed, and declaring that the listing of his name was vitiated by illegality. See ECJ, Case C-584/10, Commission v. Kadi, ECLI:EU:C:2013:518, Judgement of 18 July 2013, para. 134; ECJ, Case C-239/12 P, Abdulrahim v. Council and Commission, ECLI:EU:C:2013:331, Judgment of 28 May 2013 paras. 67–84.

118 See e.g., in relation to the right to judicial protection, ECJ, Case C-222/84, Johnston v. Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, ECLI:EU:C:1986:206, Judgment of 15 May 1986. See also ECJ, Case C-294/83, Les Verts, EU:C:1986:166, Judgment of 23 Apr. 1986.

119 Apart from the cases mentioned in the main text, see e.g., ECJ, Case C-601/15 PPU, N., ECLI:EU:C:2016:84, Judgment of 15 Feb. 2016, para. 52 (concerning detention as a restriction on the right to liberty and security protected by Article 6 of the Charter). In that case, the Court implied that a regime that would impose detention irrespective of the personal conduct of an individual would impair the very substance of the right to security. ECJ, C-314/13, Peftiev, ECLI:EU:C:2014:1645, Judgment of 12 June 2014 (right to judicial protection). In that case, the ECJ implied that conferring absolute discretion to national authorities whether to authorize the release of funds subject to economic sanctions for the payment of legal services would run counter to the essence of the right to judicial protection. Cf. ECJ, Joined Cases 92 & 93/09, Volker und Markus Schecke GbR and Hartmut Eifert v. Land Hessen, ECLI:EU:C:2010:662, Judgment of 9 Nov. 2010, (right to personal data); ECJ, Case C-544/10, Deutsches Weintor v. Land Rheinland-Pfalz, ECLI:EU:C:2012:526, Judgment of 6 Sept. 2012 (right to carry out a trade or occupation). In these cases, the ECJ did not expressly examine whether the essence of the right was affected and moved directly to applying proportionality.

120 Digital Rights Ireland, Joined Cases 293 & 594/12. For commentary, see among others, Maja Brkan, The Concept of Essence of Fundamental Rights in the EU Legal Order: Peeling the Onion to its Core, 14 Eur. Const. L. Rev. 332–68 (2018).

121 Directive 2006/24/EC, of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 March 2006 on the Retention of Data Generated or Processed in Connection with the Provision of Publicly Available Electronic Communications Services or of Public Communications Cetworks and Amending Directive 2002/58/EC, 2006 O.J. (L 105) 54.

122 See Digital Rights Ireland, Joined Cases 293 & 594/12 at para. 47. The Court held that the discretion of the EU legislature may prove to be limited depending on a number of factors, including, in particular, the area concerned, the nature of the right at issue guaranteed by the Charter, the nature and seriousness of the interference, and the object pursued by the interference. Although those factors could be derived by an analysis of the case law, it is rare that the Court refers to them explicitly.

123 Id. at para. 48.

124 Id. at para. 39.

125 Id. at para. 40.

126 See id. at para. 69.

127 See Joined Cases 104/89 & 37/90, Mulder II, 1992 E.C.R. I-3061.

128 Tele2 Sverige AB, Case C-203/15.

129 Directive 2002/58/EC, Concerning the Processing of Personal Data and the Protection of Privacy in the Electronic Communications Sector, 2002 O.J. (L 201) 31, 7.

130 Tele2 Sverige AB, Case C-203/15. at para. 101.

131 Tele2 Sverige AB, Case C-203/15. at para. 99 [emphasis added].

132 Schrems, Case C-362/14.

133 Schrems, Case C-362/14 at para. 94.

134 Schrems, Case C-362/14 at para. 95. The ECJ held that the very existence of effective judicial review is of the essence of the rule of law.

135 See Tele2 Sverige AB, Case C-203/15 at paras. 155–57 of the Opinion. The Advocate General opined that, since the legislation in issue did not permit the acquisition of knowledge of the content of the electronic communications as such, there was no violation of essence.

136 Schrems, Case C-362/14 at para. 177.

137 Schrems, Case C-362/14 at paras. 213–15.

138 ECJ, Joined Cases 596 & 597/16, Di Puma, ECLI:EU:C:2018:192, Judgment of 20 Mar. 2018.

139 ECJ, Case C-524/15, Menci, ECLI:EU:C:2018:197, Judgment of 20 Mar. 2018.

140 Id. at para. 43.

141 Note also that in ECJ, Case C-258/14, Florescu, ECLI:EU:C:2017:448, Judgment of 13 June 2017, para. 55, the ECJ found that the essence of the right to property was not violated because the restrictions in issue did not call into question “the very principle of the right to a pension.”

142 ECJ, Case C-64/16, Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses, ECLI:EU:C:2018:117, Judgment of 27 Feb. 2018, para. 36.

143 ECJ, Case C-34/09, Zambrano v. Office national de l’emploi, ECLI:EU:C:2011:124, Judgment of 8 Mar. 2011.

144 Id. at para 42.

145 See e.g., Case C-434/09, McCarthy, 2011 E.C.R. I-3375; Case C-256/11, Dereci and Others, 2011 E.C.R. I-11315; ECJ, C-86/12, Alokpa and Moudoulou, ECLI:EU:C:2013:645, Judgment of 10 Oct. 2013.

146 Dereci, Case C-256/11 at para. 66.

147 See ECJ, Case C-133/15, Chavez-Vilchez, ECLI:EU:C:2017:354, Judgment of 10 May 2017; ECJ, Case C-82/16, K.A. and Others, ECLI:EU:C:2018:308, Judgment of 8 May 2018.

148 ECJ, Case C-304/14, CS, ECLI:EU:C:2016:674, Judgment of 13 Sept. 2016.

149 ECJ, Joined Cases 411 & 493/10, N.S. v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, ECLI:EU:C:2011:865, Judgement of 21 Dec. 2011.

150 Melloni, Case C-399/11.

151 N.S., Joined Cases 411 & 493/10 at paras. 78–80.

152 Id. at para. 81.

153 Id. at para. 82.

154 Id. at para. 86.

155 Confirmed in ECJ, Case C-4/11, Puid, ECLI:EU:C:2013:740, Judgment of 14 Nov. 2013, para 30.

156 The case came in the aftermath of M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece, App. No. 30696/09 (Jan. 21, 2011),, where the ECtHR had found that, in light of deficiencies in asylum procedures in Greece, by returning the applicant there, the Belgian authorities had exposed him to detention and living conditions that were in breach of Article 3 of the Convention. In R (on the application of EM (Eritrea)) v. Secretary of State for the Home Department [2014] UKSC 12 (UK), the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom offered a softer interpretation of the judgment in NS, but it is doubtful whether it accords with the ECJ’s intention. For a more extensive discussion of those cases and subsequent case law, see Takis Tridimas, Competence, Human Rights, and Asylum: What Price for Mutual Recognition?, in The Division of Competences in the EU Legal Order—A Post-Lisbon Assessment 151–70 (Sacha Garben & Inga Goevare eds., 2017).

157 Melloni, Case C-399/11.

158 Id., paras. 56–57.

159 See supra Section C.

160 See supra Section C.

161 Randy E. Barnett, Why Popular Sovereignty Requires the Due Process of Law to Challenge “Irrational or Arbitrary” Statutes, 14 Geo. J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 355, 357 (2016).

* Professor of European Law, the Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London; Professor and Nancy A. Patterson Distinguished Scholar, Penn State Law.

** PhD Candidate and Visiting Lecturer in European Law, King’s College London.


The Essence of Rights: An Unreliable Boundary?

  • Takis Tridimas and Giulia Gentile


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