Welcome to Austria?

Photo by rashid khreiss on Unsplash

Willkomen (welcome) to Austria? Not if you’re Italian or someone travelling across the Austro-Italian frontier last weekend.

Why? The dramatic escalation of Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreaks in Italy is the short answer.

The Austrian Government is very nervous about this and took emergency action by, arguably, suspending free movement provisions – if only briefly. On Sunday 23 February 2020, the Austrian authorities refused entry to its territory of a train coming from Italy for several hours. The Italian railway authorities had informed their Austrian counterparts that at least two of the passengers were exhibiting signs of a fever. The Austrians were taking no chances. The train was eventually permitted to cross the frontier.

The crisis is far from over with controls between Austria and Italy being currently considered by the Government in Vienna to deal with this public health issue.

A link to an article about this incident can be found below:

https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-austria-briefly-halts-trains-from-italy-over-covid-19-concerns/a-52493063

What are the legal implications of an EU member state suspending freedom of movement rules?

Italy and Austria are both member states of the European Union and free movement of persons is a key provision or fundamental freedom of the EU’s Single Market. Both countries are also part of the Schengen Agreement (from which the UK opted out whilst in the EU) which allows visa free travel between participating states. This Agreement has seen the abolition of frontier controls, to a a greater or larger extent, in many parts of Europe.

The imposition of frontier controls between EU member states is not a measure which is considered lightly.

Freedom of movement is a right which is fundamentally based on a person holding EU citizenship (or being related to a person who has citizenship). As Article 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) which establishes the concept of citizenship states:

Citizenship of the Union is hereby established. Every person holding the nationality of a Member State shall be a citizen of the Union. Citizenship of the Union shall be additional to and not replace national citizenship.

Article 21 TFEU declares in the following terms:

Every citizen of the [European] Union shall have the right to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States, subject to the limitations and conditions laid down in the Treaties and by the measures adopted to give them effect.”

These freedom of movement provisions would be meaningless and ineffective if EU citizens faced discrimination on the grounds of their nationality in the host member state. Article 18 of the TFEU prohibits discrimination on the grounds of nationality (see Case 197/84 Steinhauser v City of Biarritz).

According to Article 45(5) TFEU, the free movement provisions can be derogated from i.e. disregarded on the following grounds:

  • Public security
  • Public policy
  • Public health

For its part, the Italian Government has since publicly stated that it will not be reintroducing frontier controls as an emergency measure to combat the spread of the Coronavirus:

https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/news/italy-refuses-to-suspend-schengen-agreement-amid-coronavirus-outbreak/

Attempts by member states to derogate or withdraw from the free movement provisions will not be automatically approved and the affected individuals will always be able to challenge such restrictions in the national courts or, ultimately, before the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) (see, for example, Cases 115-116/81 Adoui & Cornaille; Case 41/74 Van Duyn v Home Office; Case 36/75 Rutili v Minister of Interior).

In 2009, Geert Wilders, the far right Dutch politician was refused entry to the UK because the British Government argued that his presence in the country could undermine public safety by harming race and cross-community relationships. Wilders had made a short film, Fitna, which was highly critical of Islam. He had intended to present a showing of his film at the Westminster Parliament.

Please see a link below to an article in The Guardian about the incident involving Wilders’ attempted visit to the UK:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/feb/12/far-right-dutch-mp-ban-islam

The freedom of movement as originally given to EU (EEC) citizens in the Treaty of Rome had an emphasis on permitting free movement of workers and other economically active individuals. This was perhaps understandable given the labour shortages in certain EU/EEC member states immediately after the Second World War. The postwar economies of France and Belgium, in particular, benefited from hundreds of thousands of economic migrants coming from their partner state, Italy.

Although the UK was not, at this point, a member state, it faced many of the same challenges as the Six EU/EEC Founding Members, but British recruitment of labour would centre on the former (and existing) colonies of its Empire e.g. from the Caribbean (the so called ‘Windrush Generation’).

Some of the most important decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) about free movement were about removing the barriers which prevented foreign (EU/EEC) nationals working or providing services in another member state (see Case 59/85 Netherlands v Reed (workers); Case 2/74 Reyners v Belgium (services); & Case 246/89 Commission v UK (Nationality of Fishermen) (establishment)).

Under the original Treaty of Rome (now to be found in the TFEU), EU citizens could take advantage of the free movement provisions by going to other member states to receive services: education, health and tourism (see Case 286/82 Luisi v Ministero del Tesero) – and many did just that.

Later, the CJEU would cement these rights by permitting family members of workers to claim entitlement to the free movement provisions of the Treaty of Rome.

That said, the freedom of movement provisions really only began to take on the dimensions of European citizenship as recently as the early 1990s after the stormy passage of the Maastricht Treaty (or the Treaty on European Union).

Underpinning the rights of free movement for individuals which are contained in primary legislation (the European Treaties) and decisions of the CJEU is the Citizens’ Directive (Directive 2004/38). This Directive really spells out (in a concrete way) the rights which EU citizens enjoy, namely, entry, residency, exit and the right to pursue employment opportunities in other member states.

Directive 2004/38 (Articles 4-14) also updated the older Directive 1612/68 (Articles 1-5) which guaranteed equal treatment and non-discrimination in employment to EU nationals residing and working in another member state.

Conclusion

The EU’s freedom of movement rules for its citizens and their dependants is a part of its fundamental law. A member state which derogates or withdraws from these rights does not do so for flimsy or superficial reasons. The TFEU does permit member states to suspend free movement provisions, but such action is always subject to the threat of possible legal action by the affected individuals; fellow member states and enforcement action by the European Commission.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 25 February 2020

Club rules (or the Hotel California syndrome)

Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash

Just in case you were in any doubt about the status of British membership of the EU, I’ve got a shock announcement to make:

Brexit is still not finished business and this country remains very much a member state with all the legal obligations this status entails.

The UK was supposed to leave the EU by 31 October 2019, but the British Prime Minister was forced by the Westminster Parliament to seek an extension as a result of the EU Withdrawal (No. 2) Act 2019. (aka the Benn Act). Parliament had passed this legislation in order to prevent the UK crashing out of the EU without a proper divorce or withdrawal agreement.

That brings me on to a recent development which highlights this situation perfectly.

Yesterday, Sky News reported that the European Commission is to take infringement proceedings against the UK for breach of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU).

Every EU member state must nominate an individual to the Commission. The UK has failed to do this and the Commission has deemed this failure as a breach of the TEU.

You can see the press release issued by the Commission concerning infringement proceedings against the UK by clicking on the link below:

https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/api/files/document/print/en/ip_19_6286/IP_19_6286_EN.pdf

A link to the Sky News story can be found below:

http://news.sky.com/story/eu-legal-case-against-uk-over-failure-to-name-commissioner-11861369

When the European Council agreed to extend the period by which the UK would remain a member state, it explicitly stated:

“This further extension cannot be allowed to undermine the regular functioning of the Union and its institutions. Furthermore, it will have the consequence that the United Kingdom will remain a Member State until the new withdrawal date, with full rights and obligations in accordance with Article 50 TEU, including the obligation to suggest a candidate for appointment as a member of the Commission.”

A link to the Decision of the European Council of 28 October 2019 in this regard can be found below:

https://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/XT-20024-2019-REV-2/en/pdf

This is like Groundhog Day: the UK thought that Brexit would be concluded before the date of the European Parliament elections on 23 May 2019. The Government of former Prime Minister Theresa May miscalculated and the country had to hold these elections in accordance with our EU membership obligations.

It would seem that there’s still plenty of life in the Greek politician and economist, Yannis Varoufakis’ statement likening the EU to the Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!”

The basic line is that, when you’re a member of the club, you obey the rules until you leave; if you can …

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 15 November 2019