Remember the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray is caught in a time loop and relives the same day over and over again? Well, that’s a bit how the Court must have felt when being asked this question by the Landesgericht Bozen:
“Does the interpretation of Articles 18 and 21 TFEU preclude the application of provisions of national law, such as those at issue in the main proceedings, which grant the right to use the German language in civil proceedings pending before the courts in the province of Bolzano only to Italian citizens domiciled in the Province of Bolzano, but not to nationals of other EU Member States, whether or not they are domiciled in that province?”
Bickel and Franz, anyone? The case here is slightly different. It is based on a compensation claim raised in civil proceedings by a German citizen who claims to have been injured during a skiing accident by a Czech citizen in the Province of Bolzano. But still, the differences only go so far. Let us briefly remember the gist of Bickel and Franz, as the Court also reminds us (also, it is a great tongue-twister for having a competition with your co-workers in case you are having a rather less productive afternoon in the office):
“[A] citizen of the European Union, who is a national of a Member State other than the Member State concerned, is entitled, in criminal proceedings, to rely on language rules such as those at issue in the main proceedings on the same basis as the nationals of the latter Member State, and, therefore, may address the court seised in one of the languages provided for by those rules […]” (para 20)
It seems pretty safe to say that most EU lawyers would not have understood the Bickel and Franz reasoning to be limited to criminal proceedings – why would the nature of the proceedings have a bearing on this if the language regime in the province of Bolzano applies to all kinds of proceedings in the same fashion? Well, that is, however, exactly what the Corte suprema di cassazione seemed to have suggested previously in the proceedings (paras 12-13). So the Court has to somewhat state the obvious, holding that of course its reasoning applies to “all judicial proceedings brought within the territorial entity concerned, including civil proceedings” (para 20).
It is kind of fun to read the Court shifting in its style between being pedagogic and trying to hide its annoyance. It explains thus to the referring court, the Landesgericht Bozen (who is presumably happy to hear that), that to decide otherwise would cause less favourable treatment for German-speaking EU citizens travelling and staying in the Province of Bolzano compared to German-speaking Italian nationals living in that province (para 21). Turned towards the Italian government (and indirectly of course towards the Corte suprema di cassazione), the Court refutes the “same argument […] put forward by the Italian government in the case which gave rise to the judgment in Bickel and Franz” which already then had been dismissed: There is a good reason to grant these rights to EU citizens, because it enables them to adequately exercise their rights of defence in proceedings (para 22). Also, proceedings in German would not encumber proceedings in terms of organisation and time limits. This argument had in any way already been “expressly contradicted by the referring court”, since all that was needed to conduct proceedings in German and Italian was already available at the local courts (para 24). Aims of a purely economic nature such as extra costs for such proceedings could also not be brought forward to justify restrictions of a fundamental freedom granted by the Treaty (para 25).
And on this note, before you are off to read the case, let us wish you a great week-end from the blog. I know for sure what will be on my movie list this weekend…