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Engaging the Fundamentals: On the Autonomous Substance of EU Fundamental Rights Law

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 March 2019


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Some years back, Philip Alston argued that processes of globalization, such as the privatization of state functions and the deregulation of private power, while purportedly value-neutral, have “acquired the status of values in and of themselves.” The market is increasingly seen as “the most efficient and appropriate value-allocating mechanism.” As a consequence, human rights become subjected to a litmus test of their “market-friendliness.” As Alston puts it:

In the world of globalization, a strong reaction against gender and other forms of discrimination, the suppression of trade unions, the denial of primary education or health care, can often require not only a showing that the relevant practices run counter to human rights standards but also a demonstration that they are offensive to the imperatives of economic efficiency and the functioning of the free market … In at least some respects the burden of proof has been shifted—in order to be validated, a purported human right must justify its contribution to a broader, market-based “vision” of the good society.

Lisbon vs. Lisbon Part I: Engaging the Fundamentals
Copyright © 2013 by German Law Journal GbR 


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7 Pursuant to TEU art. 2, the European Union is an economic and political union.Google Scholar

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13 Explanations Relating to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, art. 51, 2007 O.J. (C 303) 17. The Court of Justice of the European Union's (CJEU) post-Charter case law suggests that the Court favors a wide interpretation of EU Charter article 51, according to which the Charter must be complied with whenever national legislation falls “within the scope” of EU law, meaning that “the applicability of European Union law entails applicability of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Charter.” See also Åklagaren v. Fransson, CJEU Case C-617/10, para 21.Google Scholar

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26 Waldron, Jeremy, A Right-Based Critique of Constitutional Rights, 13 Oxford J. Legal Stud. 18, 29 (1993).Google Scholar

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29 Griffin, James, On Human Rights 174 (2008).Google Scholar

30 Dworkin, Ronald, Is Democracy Possible Here? 32–33 (2008).Google Scholar

31 See id. at 36, 4345.Google Scholar

32 Flaminio Costa v. E.N.E.L., CJEU Case C-6/64, 1964 E.C.R. I-585, para. 5 [hereinafter Flaminio Costa].Google Scholar

33 See Williams, supra note 19, at 111.Google Scholar

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36 Id. at 102.Google Scholar

37 Id. at 104.Google Scholar

38 I cannot dwell on the theoretical implications of this approach to fundamental rights here, but to give an– admittedly rather simplistic—example: An alleged violation of the fundamental right to freedom of expression is assessed in relation to the fundamental boundaries of a concrete legal-political order. These boundaries are reflected in the legal-political order's embedded understanding of, say, “public morals” or “public order.” If the claim is successful, it transforms these very fundamental boundaries and issues in a new self-understanding of what the polity takes freedom of expression to be about.Google Scholar

39 On the maximum/minimum standard conundrum, see Leonard Besselink, Entrapped by the Maximum Standard: On Fundamental Rights, Pluralism and Subsidiarity in the European Union, 35 Common Mkt. L. Rev. 629 (1998). See Matej Avbelj, European Court of Justice and the Question of Value Choices (Jean Monnet Working Paper 06/04, 2004), available at; see also infra, part D.Google Scholar

40 See Internationale Handelsgesellschaft v. Einfuhr und Vorratsstelle für Getreide und Futtermittel, CJEU Case C-11/70, 1970 E.C.R. I-1125 [hereinafter Internationale Handelsgesellschaft].Google Scholar

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42 On the CJEU's circular reasoning in bootstrapping the principles of supremacy and direct effect in Van Gend en Loos and Costa, see generally Hans Lindahl, The Paradox of Constituent Power: The Ambiguous Self-Constitution of the European Union, 20 Ratio Juris 485 (2007).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

43 See Internationale Handelsgesellschaft, CJEU Case C-11/70 at 3.Google Scholar

44 See Weiler, supra note 35, at 117.Google Scholar

45 Weiler's assessment that defending the constitutional identity of the state and its core values turns out in many cases to be a defense of some hermeneutic foible adopted by five judges voting against four. See, e.g., J.H.H. Weiler, In Defence of the Status Quo: Europe's Constitutional Sonderweg, in European Constitutionalism Beyond The State 7, 17 (J.H.H. Weiler & Marlene Wind eds., 2003). I am grateful to Dimitry Kochenov for having raised this issue with me.Google Scholar

46 This asymmetry is ultimately rooted in the broader institutional problem; namely that the EU lacks political institutions with a sufficient range of competences to carve out a constitutional tradition that would not have to fall back on its market origins.Google Scholar

47 See Nold, J., Kohlen- und Baustoffgroßhandlung v. Comm'n, CJEU Case C-4/73, 1974 E.C.R. I-491.Google Scholar

48 See TEU, supra note 6, at art. 6.Google Scholar

49 See, e.g., Leonard Besselink, The Protection of Fundamental Rights post-Lisbon: The Interaction Between the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the European Convention on Human Rights and National Constitutions, in Reports Of The Fide Congress Tallin 1, 10–16 (2012), available at Scholar

50 According to its Preamble, the EU Charter “reaffirms … the rights as they result, in particular, from the constitutional traditions and international obligations common to the Member States, the Treaty on the European Union, the Community Treaties, … and the case-law of the Court of Justice of the European Communities and of the European Court of Human Rights.” E.U. Charter preamble, available at Scholar

51 For different accounts of the problems involved in defining a “common minimum standard” of protection where rights conflict across jurisdictional boundaries, see Aida Torres Perez, Conflicts Of Rights In The European Union: A Theory of Supranational Adjudication (2009). See also Besselink, supra note 49, at 39, 46.Google Scholar

52 See, e.g., Alec Stone Sweet, On the Constitutionalisation of the Convention: The European Court of Human Rights as a Constitutional Court 6 (Yale L. Sch. Fac. Scholarship Series Paper 71, 2009). Stone Sweet, however, believes that this approach results in higher standards of protection across the board. For a critical assessment in the area of the protection of freedom of religion, see Daniel Augenstein, Normative Fault-Lines of Transnational Human Rights Jurisprudence: National Pride and Religious Prejudice in the European Legal Space, 2 Global Constitutionalism 469 (2013).Google Scholar

53 See Open Door & Dublin Well Woman v. Ireland, ECHR App. No. 14234/88, [1992] Eur. Ct. H.R. 68 [hereinafter Open Door]; Grogan, CJEU Case C-159/90 at 24.Google Scholar

54 See Open Door, ECHR App. No. 14234/88, at para. 19.Google Scholar

55 Id. at paras. 54, 65.Google Scholar

56 Id. at para. 68; see also Vo v. France, ECHR App. No. 53924/00, 2004-VIII Eur. Ct. H.R. 82 (concluding that “the issue of when the right to life begins comes within the margin of appreciation … [because] there is no European consensus on the scientific and legal definition of the beginning of life”). In a more recent case, the majority of the Court avoided finding the Irish prohibition of abortion in direct violation of Article 8 ECHR by emphasizing the freedom of movement Irish women have under EU law to seek abortions in third countries. See A, B & C v. Ireland, ECHR App. No. 25579/05, 2010 Eur. Ct. H.R. 2032.Google Scholar

57 See Grogan, CJEU Case C-159/90.Google Scholar

58 Id. at para. 19.Google Scholar

59 Id. at para. 20.Google Scholar

60 See Open Door, ECHR App. No. 14234/88 at para. 53.Google Scholar

61 See Grogan, CJEU Case C-159/90 at para. 20.Google Scholar

62 According to the Court's rather obscure reasoning in Josemans, an activity (specifically, marketing of Cannabis products in the Netherlands) cannot be considered a service under EU law if it is prohibited in all Member States. See Josemans v. Burgemeester van Maastricht, CJEU Case C-137/09, 2010 E.C.R. I-13019.Google Scholar

63 Grogan, CJEU Case C-159/90 at para. 21.Google Scholar

64 For a more detailed discussion of the implications of this contingency for fundamental rights protection in the EU legal order, see Mark Dawson & Elise Muir, Hungary and the Indirect Protection of EU Fundamental Rights, 14 German L.J. 1959 (2013).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

65 Weiler, supra note 35, at 117.Google Scholar

66 See, e.g., Besselink, supra note 39, at 647.Google Scholar

67 Paul Craig & Grainne de Burca, EU Law: Text, Cases and Materials 371 (5th ed. 2011).Google Scholar

69 See, e.g., Hoechst AG v. Comm'n, CJEU Cases 46/87 & 227/87, 1989 E.C.R. 2859, para. 17 (illustrating that the CJEU refused to extend the protection of Article 8 ECHR to business premises “because there are not inconsiderable divergences between the legal systems of the Member States in regard to the nature and degree of protection afforded”). The required “commonality” was later supplied by the European Court of Human Rights in Niemietz v. Germany, ECHR App. No. 13710/88, 251 Eur. Ct. H.R. (ser. A) (1992), and the CJEU changed its approach accordingly. See, Roquettes Frères SA v. Directeur général de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes, CJEU Case C-94/00, 2002 E.C.R. I-9011.Google Scholar

70 See Omega Spielhallen-und Automatenaufstellungs-GmbH v. Oberbürgermeister der Bundestadt Bonn, CJEU Case C-36/02, 2004 E.C.R. I-9609.Google Scholar

71 Id. at para. 34.Google Scholar

72 Id. at para. 37.Google Scholar

73 Id. at para. 39.Google Scholar

74 Pursuant to the CJEU's ERT ruling, Member States are bound by EU fundamental rights when they claim national public policy exceptions to EU fundamental freedoms. Elliniki Radiophonia Tileorasse AE v. Dimotiki Etaria Pliroforissis, CJEU Case C-260/89, 1991 E.C.R. I-2925 [hereinafter ERT]. Whereas the following examples focus on ERT-type situations, the broader conceptual point—that EU fundamental rights are rendered determinate and consistent in relation to the internal market as the fundamental boundary of the European polity—arguably also applies to cases in which the CJEU reviews the fundamental rights compatibility of EU law itself.Google Scholar

75 Stephen Weatherill, From Economic Rights to Fundamental Rights, in The Protection of Fundamental Rights in the EU After Lisbon 11, 25 (Sybe de Vries, Ulf Bernitz & Stephen Weatherill eds., 2013).Google Scholar

76 ERT, CJEU Case C-260/89 at para. 43.Google Scholar

77 Eugen Schmidberger, Internationale Transporte und Planzüge v. Republik Österreich, CJEU Case C-112/00, 2003 E.C.R. I-5659.Google Scholar

78 Id. at para. 77.Google Scholar

79 Id. at para. 82.Google Scholar

80 As Brown comments, “Using the language of prima facie breach or restriction of economic rights suggests that, even if the restriction is ultimately justified, it remains something which is at its heart ‘wrong,’ but tolerated. This sits rather uneasily with the state's usually paramount constitutional obligation to protect human rights.” Christopher Brown, Case C-112/00, Eugen Schmidberger, Internationale Transporte und Planzüge v. Austria, Judgment of 12 June 2003, Full Court, 40 Common Mkt. L. Rev. 1499, 1508 (2003).Google Scholar

81 Internationale Handelsgesellschaft, CJEU Case C-11/70 at 1134.Google Scholar

82 Int'l Transp. & Workers’ Fed'n v. Viking Line ABP, CJEU Case C-438/05, 2007 E.C.R. I-10779 [hereinafter Viking]; see also Laval un Partneri Ltd. v. Svenska Byggnadsarbetareförbundet, CJEU Case C-341/05, 2007 E.C.R. I-11767.Google Scholar

83 That is, it imposes obligations on public authorities to protect fundamental rights in the relationships between non-state actors. This indirect horizontal protection of fundamental rights needs to be distinguished from the direct application of human rights standards in the private sphere via EU legislation. See, e.g., Mangold v. Helm, CJEU Case C-144/04, 2005 E.C.R. I-9981; Kücüdeveci v. Swedex GmbH & Co. KG, CJEU Case C-555/07, 2010 E.C.R. I-365.Google Scholar

84 Viking, CJEU Case C-438/05 at para. 57.Google Scholar

85 Alicia Hinarejos, Laval and Viking: The Right to Collective Action Versus EU Fundamental Freedoms, 8 Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 714, 725 (2008).Google Scholar

86 Turkey, Demir v., ECHR App. No. 34503/97, 2008 Eur. Ct. H.R. 1345.Google Scholar

87 Nicol, supra note 21, at 324.Google Scholar

88 Article 15(2) of the EU Charter provides that “[e]very citizen of the Union has the freedom to seek employment, to work, to exercise the right of establishment and to provide services in any Member State.” Pursuant to Article 45 of the EU Charter: “[E]very citizen of the Union has the right to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States.”Google Scholar

89 Besselink, supra note 49, at 19.Google Scholar

90 Alston, supra note 1, at 442.Google Scholar

91 Douglas-Scott, supra note 8, at 681.Google Scholar

92 Besson, Samantha, The European Union and Human Rights: Towards a Post-National Human Rights Institution?, 6 Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 323, 323 (2006).Google Scholar

93 See Williams, supra note 19, at 283–313.Google Scholar

94 Weiler, Joseph H. H., The Transformation of Europe (1991), reprinted in The Constitution of Europe 10, 89 (Joseph H. H. Weiler ed., 1999).Google Scholar

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