03 Juni 2020

The Faceless Court

The authority of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the veritable Supreme Court of the European Union, has come under attack.  In May 2020, the German Constitutional Court challenged the authority of the ECJ by holding that the Luxembourg court had acted beyond its mandate by allowing the quantitative easing measures issued by the European Central Bank. This controversial decision has sparked a heated debate over the EU constitutional crisis. Some fear of a domino effect will take place as courts from other member states including Poland and Hungry may soon follow in Germany’s footsteps to stand up to the ECJ.  

While many remain fixated on how the German decision has triggered the EU constitutional crisis, the public may have overlooked a more fundamental problem that has long beset the legitimacy of the ECJ—its own institutional failures.  In my article “The Faceless Court” published in 2016, I expound a number of institutional challenges facing the Luxembourg court.

The problem begins with the judicial selection process.  EU judges are, in effect, appointed by their own member states. However, the high judicial salaries and lack of procedural safeguards for EU judicial appointments attract political appointees.  The short tenure of the judges further hampers the productivity of judges.  Although EU judges serve renewable six-year terms, I found that over 42% of the sampled judges served no more than six years.  Besides, the French language requirement hampers the performance of some judges who do not have proficiency in the language.  For these reasons, some appointed judges are not competent to perform their duties and rely heavily on their law clerks, formally called the référendaires. 

Référendaires form part of a hidden workforce within the Court. Their names are never mentioned in any judgments, nor does the Court publicize their profiles. Nonetheless, they play an indispensable role in the Court’s decision-making process.   In February 2015, I used LinkedIn to hand-collect the background data on 177 current and former référendaires.  Based on this sample, I found that référendaires are drawn from a very closed social network.  

Compared with the diverse nationalities of EU judges, the backgrounds of référendaires are relatively homogeneous. The requirement of French as a working language significantly limits the pool of eligible candidates for référendaires. Over 42% of référendaires at the Court of Justice were citizens of Belgium, France, and Luxembourg. At the level of the General Court the percentage is only slightly higher, at 49%. On the other hand, référendaires from the Nordic, common law, and ex-socialist countries were underrepresented. Indeed, at the General Court, there was only one référendaire from a Nordic country and two from common law countries. 

Using the country of origin as a crude proxy for the legal tradition in which a référendaire is bred, I found that 79% of référendaires at the Court of Justice and 83% at the General Court were educated at law schools located in France, Belgium, or Luxembourg.  Indeed, the three schools with the highest number of graduates working as référendaires are all located in French-speaking countries: College of Europe (23.6%), Université Panthéon-Assas (10.3%), and Université Panthéon-Sorbonne (9.7%).  The leading former employer of these référendaires is the Court itself (16.9%), as many référendaires used to work as linguists or researchers in the Court, subsequently followed by the European Commission (13.6%).  

The inefficiency of the référendaire labor market has resulted in less competition, leading many référendaires to stay longer in their positions at the Court.  Based on the sample of seventy-four current référendaires, on average, référendaires serve for more than seven years at the Court.  In fact, more than 31% had served for over a decade. In particular, one référendaire from the Court of Justice had served for more than twenty-two years, and one from the General Court had performed duties beyond twenty-six years, longer than the longest-serving judge in the Court’s history. 

Due to the relatively close social network and the difficulty of finding French-speaking candidates who are well-versed in EU law, Commission officials become an important source of talent. In my sample, 30% of current référendaires from the General Court previously worked for the Commission. The percentage at the Court of Justice is lower; 7% of current référendaires held past positions at the Commission. Indeed, Commission officials have the opportunity to seek secondments at the Court, while maintaining their ranking within the Commission. For example, the Legal Service, the in-house department within the Commission that regularly represents the Commission in front of the Court, began to send secondees to the Court in the 1980s. 

Based on these worrying findings, I proposed to the Court that there are three critical aspects in need of reform. First, the EU needs a unified policy for judicial appointments instead of continuing its current fragmented approach in nominating EU judges. Additionally, more careful consideration should be afforded to the optimal structure of judicial careers (e.g., compensation, tenure, exit options), which directly influences judicial selection and the behavior of judges.   

Second, the Court should reconsider the use of the French language as its main working language. The difficulty of the French language and its imposition as a working language has prohibited many EU countries from finding suitable candidates to serve at the Court. Equally important, but oftentimes ignored, is the fact that French also artificially reduces the size of the labor market for référendaires, resulting in an unintended outcome wherein Francophones have a disproportionate influence over the shaping of EU law. English is the obvious alternative. As a foreign language, English is more widely spoken than French in Europe, and has functioned well as the official working language in other EU institutions including the Commission. 

Last but not least, the recruitment, management, and governance of référendaires should command more attention from EU policymakers. The secondment program from the Commission to the Court raises issues of conflict of interest, and it is questionable whether such a scheme should be allowed to continue.  Now that almost four years have passed since the publication of my article,  all these suggestions appear to have fallen on deaf ears.  

In his classic “Why People Obey the Law”, Tom Tyler finds that people’s assessment of legitimacy does not depend on obtaining favourable outcomes, but is more strongly influenced by the procedural justice.  The institutional defects I identified in my study raise serious concern about the procedural justice at the EU’s highest court:  Is each member state adequately represented through their appointed judges in Luxembourg?  Do certain member states gain disproportionate influence over the court through their comparative advantage in the French language and French legal tradition? Does the revolving door between the Commission and the Court affect the impartiality of the court’s decision-making process?   

Without proactively addressing these questions, the institutional defects I highlighted above will continue to lay the foundations for future challenges, leading to further erosion of respect for the ECJ.  The German judges are the first to defect, but more could follow suit soon. 

SUGGESTED CITATION  Zhang, Angela Huyue: The Faceless Court, VerfBlog, 2020/6/03, https://verfassungsblog.de/the-faceless-court/, DOI: 10.17176/20200603-133733-0.


  1. Chiara Zilioli Do 4 Jun 2020 at 15:47 - Reply

    It seems that the main issue for criticizing the court is the use of French, which is presented as the sole working language of the Court : this is simply incorrect. The second criticism is that there is a legitimacy issue with the composition of the Court, while (i) there is one judge appointed by each country (two each for General Court) and (ii) a suitability check is undertaken at EU level before the judges are appointed (art 255 TFEU).
    Further deepening would help the soundness of the analysis.

  2. V. Wendt Fr 5 Jun 2020 at 08:33 - Reply

    Eine sehr treffende Analyse. Es ist in der Tat für die gesamte rechtliche Entwicklung der EU äußerst problematisch, dass der EuGH sehr stark in der französischen Rechtstradition verhaftet ist. Die Rechtsanwender in den Mitgliedsstaaten sind angesichts der Viefalt der möglichen Fallkonstellationen, die sich in einem gemeinsamen Rechtsraum ergeben können, in einem hohen Maße darauf angewiesen, nicht nur eine Entscheidung zu einem bestimmten Sachverhalt, sondern Erkenntnisse über die dahinterstehende Dogmatik zu bekommen. Tatsächlich sind EuGH-Urteile – wie es der französischen Rechtstradition entspricht – häufig nicht mehr als bloße Mitteilungen der Entscheidungen, die allenfalls eine floskelhafte Begründung beinhalten. Auf diese Weise wird ein echter Austausch über grundlegende Rechtsfragen – gerade auch über die eigene (nationale) Rechtstradition hinaus – ungemein erschwert. Darüber hinaus führt ein solcher Entscheidungsstil – was vielleicht auch im Fall des PSPP-Urteils des BVerfG eine nicht zu vernachlässigende Rolle spielt – dazu, dass ein Austausch von Argumenten und Betrachtungsweisen zwischen dem EuGH und den nationalen Gerichten schlichtweg nicht stattfindet. Angela Zhang ist daher uneingeschränkt zuzustimmen, dass es einer „Öffnung“ des EuGH bedarf, und zwar sowohl hinsichtlich der Arbeitssprache als auch hinsichtlich der Entscheidungskultur.

  3. Henri de Waele Fr 5 Jun 2020 at 19:48 - Reply

    V. Wendt, Sie schreiben „Tatsächlich sind EuGH-Urteile – wie es der französischen Rechtstradition entspricht – häufig nicht mehr als bloße Mitteilungen der Entscheidungen, die allenfalls eine floskelhafte Begründung beinhalten.“ Stützen Sie das auf empirische Analysen? Es ist fraglich ob Sie in den letzten Jahren tatsächlich noch Urteile des Gerichtshofs gelesen haben. Und: „ein Austausch von Argumenten und Betrachtungsweisen zwischen dem EuGH und den nationalen Gerichten [finden] schlichtweg nicht statt“ – Sie mögen vielleicht die Taricco-Saga nachschauen.

    • V. Wendt Mo 8 Jun 2020 at 16:01 - Reply

      Sehr geehrter Herr Waele,
      entgegen ihrer Vermutung lese ich fast täglich EuGH-Urteile, da mein Arbeitsgebiet in hohem Maße europarechtlich geprägt ist. Daher meine ich durchaus, dass ich mir eine Meinung dazu bilden kann, ob der Stil von EuGH-Urteilen für die Rechtspraxis hilfreich ist. Aber vielleicht überzeugt Sie die Stellungnahme von Lars Klenk, der sich erst in jüngster Zeit in seiner Dissertation ausführlich mit der Rechtsprechung des EuGH befasst hat, mehr. Herr Klenk schrieb vor kurzem in der FAZ u.a. Folgendes: „All diese Entwicklungen führten dazu, dass viele Entscheidungen des Gerichtshofs immer weniger Akzeptanz fanden. Die Rechtswissenschaft kam in der Folge nicht umhin, sich verstärkt den methodischen Defiziten der Judikate zu widmen. Offenbar wurde damit nicht nur, dass einige seiner Urteile rechtlich kaum begründbar waren. Ebenso mehr in den Fokus der Diskussionen geriet, dass die Luxemburger Richter entweder nicht willens oder nicht in der Lage sind, ihre Urteile ausreichend zu begründen. Waghalsige juristische Interpretationen begründen sie viel zu häufig wahlweise überhaupt nicht, äußern reine Leerformeln oder beschränken sich auf vage und vieldeutige Aussagen. Das lässt einen auch als Freund der EU bestenfalls ernüchtert und schlimmstenfalls frustriert zurück, so wie es wahrscheinlich jüngst den Richtern des Bundesverfassungsgerichts erging.“

      • Jacques Ziller Di 9 Jun 2020 at 15:46 - Reply

        In der Stellungnahme Herrn Klenks in der FAZ vom 21.05.2020 bespricht er vor allem da Dassonville Urteil: 11 Juli 1974!
        Dass auche EU-rechtler die Rechtsprechung des EUGH kritisieren liegt auf der Hand, wie eben Deutsche Staatrechtslehrer die Rechtsprecung des BVerfG und des BVerwG kritisieren, französische die des Conseil constitutionnel und des Conseil d’Etat.Das ist ja der Beruf der Akademiker.
        Um eine nachhaltige Kritik an der Rechtsprechung des EUGH zu liefern sollte mann dies auch mit der Rechtsprechung andere höchsten Gerichte vergleichen.

        Das Problem, das ein grossteil der Lehre aus internrechtlicher Abstammung in Deutschland und man einem anderen Land haben ist die Funktionale Auslegung, die vom EUGH gefolgt wird, die mit Art. 31 des Wiener Übereinkommen über das Recht der Verträge übereinstimmt, nich aber mit der klassischen Dogmatik.Es gibt aber viele Rechtsordnungen wo, vor allem eben im Verwaltungs- bzw. Verfassungsrecht Funktional ausgelegt wird, und das heist nicht, dass deren Richter schlechte Juristen sind.

        • V. Wendt Sa 13 Jun 2020 at 10:48 - Reply

          Sehr geehrter Herr Ziller,

          ich habe das Zitat von Herrn Klenk nicht ausgewählt, um die Richter am EuGH abzuwerten, sondern weil darin die Frustration zum Ausdruck kommt, die in den „Kreisen deutscher Juristen“ nicht selten (natürlich nicht von allen und auch nicht im Hinblick auf alle Entscheidungen) in Bezug auf den Stil der Entscheidungen des EuGH geäußert wird. Nur um diesen Stil der Entscheidungen geht es mir auch. Ich vermag EuGH-Entscheidungen häufig nicht zu entnehmen, wie das Gericht zu seiner Entscheidung gekommen ist, mit welchen Argumenten es sich auseinandergesetzt hat und aus welchem Tatbestandsmerkmal es seine Rechtsauffassung ableitet. Das mag an mir liegen, aber ich denke, dass ich damit nicht ganz alleine stehe. Mir ist durchaus bewusst, dass EuGH-Entscheidungen äußerst akribisch vorbereitet werden. Nur kommt das im Urteilstext eben oft nicht zum Ausdruck, was nach meinem Empfinden sowohl der Rechtsentwicklung als auch dem Ansehen des EuGH – völlig unnötig – schadet.

  4. Jacques Ziller Sa 6 Jun 2020 at 09:19 - Reply

    I know Angela Huyue Zhang’s article, which I found interesting. It needs however to be looked at in a comparative manner and making comparisons would show that the CJEU can be criticized from the points she is underlining but would still come of far better than many other Supreme or Constitutional courts, to start with the German FCC.

    Let’s go back to the issue at stake:

    On the one side a ruling of the Second Chamber of the German Federal Constitutional court in the Weiss case, i.e. a text that has been signed by seven German judges out of eight (we don’t know the opinion of the eight judge, and it is not the first time she does not issue an individual opinion, which is her absolute right). The federal constitutional judges in Germany are elected by the Parliament (Bundestag) for half of them and the Federal Council (Bundesrat, composed of members of the federated states‘ governments) for the other. They need to have passed the exam which allows to be a judge, an attorney or a civil servant (Zweites Staatsexamen). In practice many of them are law professors, other have been judges on German courts. Their task is to decide if German public authorities‘ laws, regulations, decisions or judgements are in conformity with the German constitution.There are also Refendare working with them, many of them assistant professors or full professors in German Universities, few coming from the bar. They all speak and write in German, which is Germany’s language.

    On the other side we have a ruling in the same case (Weiss) adopted by 15 judges coming from 15 different EU member States, and the conclusions of an advocate general, coming from a sixteenth member state – which go into the same direction. By the way, the German judge was sitting in the Grand Chamber in Weiss; the French judge not. All judges and advocate generals speak at least two or three, if not four languages – including the French, Belgian and Luxembourg juges/AGs. They are supported not only by référendaires, but also by an very knowledgeable team of legal experts from the different member States who work in the Court’s documentation centre and prepare notes on the legal state of the artrelevant to the case at stake in the different member states as well as in the Council of Europe law and sometimes in third States.

    If anybody is able to explain why 7 German judges know EU law better than 15+1 European ones, you are welcome. The FCC’s judges explain in points 126 and 127 why the European judges make a mistake in applying EU law. So they know EU law better than EU judges…

    The question of French is absolutely pointless, as anyway English is not „the“ official language or the EU, and contrary to what the author of the post implies, it is not easier for a non native speaker to master legal English than legal French. Legal English is an extremely difficult language, and it very often differs in the UK, the US, Australia, Canada etc. often in the use of terms, and very often in the meaning attached to them.

  5. Lars Sa 6 Jun 2020 at 12:41 - Reply

    @ Jacques Ziller
    Legal French and legal English may be equally difficult. But I think there is no doubt that there are many more lawyers in the EU which are proficient in (legal) English than in (legal) French. English is the global second language. All internationally relevant journals on EU law are in English. This extremely popular blog is partly in English.

    And contrary from what was implied in another comment, from my knowledge French is still the working language for the judges at the ECJ. Thus, the pool of people from which the ECJ can recruit its members is more limited if French is the main working language instead of English.

    The requirement of French also raises issues of equality. Countries where French is an official language – France, Belgium, Luxembourg – can recruit candidates from all its EU lawyers. Countries, where that is not the case, cannot. Especially in eastern European countries the rate of people who are proficient in French is extremely low. Thus, for these countries it is difficult to find any suitable candidates at all.

    Granted, English is also easier to fulfill for Irish people than for the rest of the EU. But the inequality is not nearly as severe as it is with French, since any lawyer who likes to work on cross-border cases needs to be proficient in legal English, regardless from which country he or she comes from.

  6. Jean-Guy Giraud So 7 Jun 2020 at 16:41 - Reply

    The ECJ is less an „ivory tower“ than it might look at first sight. As soon as the seventies, it has initiated – and still manages today – an unformal „dialogue“ with national juges at all levels and in particular with Presidents and members of Supreme Courts .In this framework, EU judges meet regularly with their national counterparts to discuss current and general legal issues so as to promote mutual understanding and personnal contacts. In this respect at least, EU judges are not „faceless“ nor isolated in the european judiciary world but members of a cooperative network at the service of EU law.

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