The seal product cases (III): CJEU confirms GC and AG analysis of the concept ‘regulatory act’ in article 263 TFEU

The Grand Chamber today dismissed the appeal by the seal hunters to annul the basic regulation prohibiting the marketing of seal products on the EU internal market. As expected, the CJEU held that the seal hunters lacked standing to challenge a legislative act. This does not mean that the seal hunters will not prevail in the end (although I doubt it), as they have also challenged the Commission implementing Regulation, which will enable them to challenge the basic Regulation too (the decision of the GC in that case can be found here and my comments are here). What makes the judgment worth mentioning here though, is the more general relevance of the Grand Chamber’s interpretation of the concept of a ‘regulatory act’. This concept was introduced with the Lisbon Treaty and was intended to make it easier to challenge EU legal acts which were not of a legislative nature.

 In today’s ruling the CJEU confirms the interpretation given to regulatory acts by the GC and AG Kokott earlier. To make things a bit easier to understand I have put the new part of article 263 TFEU in bold below and underlined the parts that make clear that regulatory acts are easier to challenge than ‘acts’ which are not addressed to them:

 Any natural or legal person may, under the conditions laid down in the first and second paragraphs, institute proceedings against an act addressed to that person or which is of direct and individual concern to them, and against a regulatory act which is of direct concern to them and does not entail implementing measures.

 The CJEU begins its analysis by noting that it will interpret article 263 TFEU by taking into account ‘not only […] its wording and the objectives it pursues, but also its context and the provisions of European Union law as a whole’ as well as the ‘origins of a provision’ of EU law (para 50). The CJEU then emphasizes the difference between privileged applicants, semi-privileged applicants, and non-privileged applicants (paras 52-54). It continues by noting that certain parts of the wording of article 263 TFEU (‘acts’ in general) have remained unchanged by Lisbon and therefore are not to be interpreted any differently (para 56). The concept of ‘acts’ therefore ‘covers acts of general application, legislative or otherwise, and individual acts’. Natural or legal persons must therefore show direct and individual concern if they wish to have standing.

The Court then continues to interpret the Lisbon innovation of ‘regulatory act’. The obvious difference in terms of standing is that a natural or legal person no longer has to be individually concerned which, following the Plaumann formula, is an almost insurmountable hurdle for individuals to take. The CJEU first uses a contrario reasoning to stipulate that ‘regulatory acts’ cannot possibly imply that all ‘acts’ of general application are ‘regulatory acts’:

 As regards the concept of ‘regulatory act’, it is apparent from the third limb of the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU that its scope is more restricted than that of the concept of ‘acts’ used in the first and second limbs of the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU, in respect of the characterisation of the other types of measures which natural and legal persons may seek to have annulled. The former concept cannot, as the General Court held correctly in paragraph 43 of the order under appeal, refer to all acts of general application but relates to a more restricted category of such acts. To adopt an interpretation to the contrary would amount to nullifying the distinction made between the term ‘acts’ and ‘regulatory acts’ by the second and third limbs of the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU.

 The Court then continues to point out the intention of the drafters of the Treaty which amended the text of article 263 TFEU and the origins of the modification:

 59      Further, it must be observed that the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU reproduced in identical terms the content of Article III-365(4) of the proposed treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. It is clear from the travaux préparatoires relating to that provision that while the alteration of the fourth paragraph of Article 230 EC was intended to extend the conditions of admissibility of actions for annulment in respect of natural and legal persons, the conditions of admissibility laid down in the fourth paragraph of Article 230 EC relating to legislative acts were not however to be altered. Accordingly, the use of the term ‘regulatory act’ in the draft amendment of that provision made it possible to identify the category of acts which might thereafter be the subject of an action for annulment under conditions less stringent than previously, while maintaining ‘a restrictive approach in relation to actions by individuals against legislative acts (for which the “of direct and individual concern” condition remains applicable)’ (see, inter alia, Secretariat of the European Convention, Final report of the discussion circle on the Court of Justice of 25 March 2003, CONV 636/03, paragraph 22, and Cover note from the Praesidium to the Convention of 12 May 2003, CONV 734/03, p. 20).

 This is undoubtedly correct from the point of view of democratic legitimacy; a certain level of deference by courts is thereby maintained in relation to challenges by individuals of acts adopted as the result of a legislative procedure in which two institutions with the highest democratic legitimacy (EP and Council) are involved. This is thus fully in accordance with the distinction made in the Lisbon Treaty between legislative acts and non-legislative acts (art. 289 TFEU). For a bit more background to this issue, you may want to see my earlier blog posts on the subject here and here. In relation to the substantive arguments in the seal product cases, there is more info here.

 In the end the CJEU dismissed the appeal in its entirety. There are also some interesting comments by the CJEU in relation to the application of the Charter and in particular the right to an effective remedy and a fair trial (art. 47 Charter). The CJEU there basically points out that a challenge of the basic regulation is always possible through the implementation of the Regulation either by Member States or by EU institutions. It is a nice crash course in the law of EU remedies and the relationship between national and EU courts. This reasoning is set out in paragraphs 90 to 106 and is a highly recommendable read with the CJEU concluding that ‘the protection conferred by Article 47 of the Charter does not require that an individual should have an unconditional entitlement to bring an action for annulment of European Union legislative acts directly before the Courts of the European Union’ nor ‘that fundamental right [or] the second subparagraph of Article 19(1) TEU require that an individual should be entitled to bring actions against such acts, as their primary subject matter, before the national courts or tribunals’ (paras 105-106). This quite bold statement is no doubt open to criticism, but it seems that considering the CJEU’s case law, only Treaty amendments can change this. In any event, the seal traders will likely have standing in their challenge of the implementing Commission Regulation in which case they will get the opportunity to challenge this basic Regulation as well (see the CJEU’s explanation in para 93).


  1. Matthijs (@Maupertus)

    The interesting point is the case is very much the fact that the Court selectively uses the travaux from the Future of Europe Convention. Although it is relatively clear that the Seal Traders are acting against a legislative act that in the eyes of trias politica could not be struck down lightly, the Court wanders into the realm of the regulatory act by carefully picking its path.
    The problem is that the regulatory act is the appendix of a new categorisation of acts (legislative, delegated and implementing) that should have taken place had the Constitution been adopted. When all ‘innovations’ from that process made it into the Lisbon Treaty, that system of qualifications was left out as the terms used reeked of Federalism. (Mainly the word ‘European Law’). The Court now has to come to grips with a term that has no basis in the Treaty.
    If it truly applied the Traveaux, it would have come to the conclusion that Regulatory Acts were meant to deal with those cases in which the applicant would have to break a law before it could ask for the review of an European Act (UPA, Jego Quere cases). There never was a real discussion on whether or not there should be a limit based on ‘general application’ due to the new qualification system, yet is was clear that these acts would usually be certain specific acts by the Commission in a highly delegated capacity. The discussion at the Convention also made it clear that Legislative acts were still to be only open for review in highly specific cases.
    Although the end result would be the same, the Court(s) is/are clearly cherry picking and the exercises in linguistics are hardly helpful.
    Furthermore, the article 47 Charter reasoning keeps being amazingly circular in reasoning. The fact that the Union has stated that it is based on the rule of law in Article 19 TEU and the fact that the CJEU has oft repeated that there is a “Complete System of Remedies” based on Article 19 does not logically mean that the system is therefore compliant with Article 47.

  2. Laurens Ankersmit

    Thanks for your comment Matthijs.

    I don’t really understand your criticism though. Are you suggesting the term regulatory act should be interpreted even more narrowly? That seems at odds with your criticism on the system of legal remedies within the EU.

    • Matthijs (@Maupertus)

      Well, the point actually is that it is a hard criticism to make. I do not agree with a stricter approach to standing, however I also do not agree with the curious legal reasoning by the Court in this case. Really I wish the Court would accept the fact that the regulatory has become a fiction and just give a reasonable interpretation that would work better. However, as can be seen from the discussion during the Convention for the Future of Europe, the Court itself is for a very narrow interpretation.
      Conclusion, doubly damned and in the foreseeable future there will be no widening of standing criteria. I just wish that the idiotic dance about regulatory acts would end. Cases like Inuit give false hope and continue unclarity.

  3. Xandra Reintjes

    Thank you both for the article and comments. I also read Advocate General Wathelet’s Opinion in another case (C-133/12P) and thought his broader interpretation was very “reasonable” indeed. However, I’m afraid that this was just a bridge too far in terms of the balance of powers in the EU with the idea of “trias politica” in the background as well (and perhaps even the Court’s case load)… The Conclusion of Wathelet is not available in English, but the relevant part in French is as follows:

    “26. Selon l’ordonnance du Tribunal du 6 septembre 2011, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami e.a./Parlement et Conseil (T‑18/10, non encore publiée au Recueil), tout acte de portée générale ne peut être qualifié d’«acte réglementaire» au sens de l’article 263 TFUE. Il en irait ainsi des actes législatifs.

    27. Partant de ce constat, et dans la mesure où le traité de Lisbonne a utilisé, à l’article 289, paragraphe 3, TFUE, un critère purement procédural pour définir les actes législatifs (5), le Tribunal a circonscrit les actes réglementaires aux seuls actes de portée générale qui ne sont pas adoptés par une procédure législative.

    28. Ladite ordonnance du Tribunal a fait l’objet d’un pourvoi (6). Si la Cour ne s’est pas encore prononcée, l’avocat général Kokott confirme dans ses conclusions l’interprétation du Tribunal (7).

    29. Si je peux partager plusieurs arguments d’ordre historique ou d’ordre textuel avancés par l’avocat général Kokott, je ne pense pas qu’il puisse être induit de l’utilisation des termes «actes législatifs», au premier alinéa de l’article 263 TFUE, un sens contraire, au sein des actes de portée générale, à l’expression «acte réglementaire» du quatrième alinéa de cet article. En effet, l’opposé d’un acte législatif n’est pas nécessairement l’acte réglementaire, mais serait plutôt l’acte d’exécution, dénomination expressément utilisée à l’article 291 TFUE (8).

    30. Par ailleurs, pour qualifier les actes qui ne sont pas législatifs, le traité FUE n’utilise pas le mot «réglementaire», mais parle, à l’article 297, paragraphe 2, TFUE d’«actes non législatifs».

    31. En tout état de cause, cette interprétation, loin d’être soutenue de façon unanime dans la doctrine, ne me semble pas répondre aux préoccupations qui ont conduit à la modification de l’article 230 CE. Le paradoxe le plus emblématique à cet égard réside sans aucun doute dans le fait que, à suivre l’interprétation restrictive proposée par le Tribunal, l’affaire Unión de Pequeños Agricultores/Conseil (9) se solderait de nouveau par l’irrecevabilité du pourvoi, alors même qu’elle a provoqué la réforme.

    32. Par ailleurs, l’on ne peut croire, comme certains auteurs favorables à l’interprétation restrictive le pensent, que la question préjudicielle constitue toujours un mécanisme suffisant pour assurer une protection juridictionnelle effective. Si cela était le cas, il n’y aurait pas eu de raison de modifier l’article 230 CE, dont les inconvénients subsisteront par définition si l’on considère que les actes législatifs sont exclus du quatrième alinéa de l’article 263 TFUE.

    33. Certains affirment, toutefois, que l’article 19, paragraphe 1, second alinéa, TUE aurait comblé les lacunes existantes. Il n’en est rien. Cet article n’est en effet que la consécration formelle d’un principe énoncé, dans les mêmes termes, par la Cour elle-même dans son arrêt Unión de Pequeños Agricultores/Conseil, précité (10). L’article 19, paragraphe 1, second alinéa, TUE n’a donc rien ajouté au droit existant. De nouveau, si cela avait été le cas, la modification de l’ancien article 230 CE était inutile.

    34. Enfin, selon moi, le devoir de coopération loyale ne peut aller jusqu’à imposer aux États membres de créer un accès au juge national alors qu’il n’y a pas d’acte étatique en cause. Il est d’ailleurs étonnant de voir que, parmi ceux qui invoquent l’article 19, paragraphe 1, second alinéa, TUE pour mettre à la charge des États l’obligation d’assurer la protection juridictionnelle effective des particuliers, certains n’hésitent pas à évoquer, d’un autre côté, l’absence de recours nationaux contre les actes législatifs étatiques dans une majorité d’États membres pour légitimer pareille absence au niveau de l’Union. N’y a‑t‑il pas un paradoxe à considérer normal que le traité n’autorise pas les particuliers à agir contre les actes législatifs de l’Union au motif qu’une majorité d’États ne l’autoriseraient pas contre leurs propres lois, tout en imposant à ces mêmes États de le faire, fût-ce de manière indirecte, pour les actes de l’Union?

    35. Il ne m’apparaît, par ailleurs, pas raisonnable de considérer que la protection juridictionnelle deviendrait effective parce qu’il serait théoriquement possible, pour un particulier, d’interroger son administration nationale sur l’applicabilité d’un acte législatif de l’Union à sa situation personnelle, et ce dans l’espoir de recevoir une réponse qu’il pourrait attaquer devant un juge qui pourrait à son tour déclencher la procédure préjudicielle. Comment ne pas douter de l’effectivité réelle de telles constructions théoriques fondées sur l’existence d’un acte qui n’a d’autre raison d’être que de pouvoir être attaqué et apparaîtrait ainsi purement artificiel? En outre, qu’en serait-il si l’autorité nationale s’abstenait de répondre?

    36. Rappelons que la Cour a jugé qu’une protection juridictionnelle effective n’était pas garantie lorsqu’un particulier n’avait d’autre choix que d’enfreindre le droit pour amener l’autorité nationale compétente à prendre un acte d’exécution qui le conduirait à devoir se défendre devant un juge qui pourrait poser une question préjudicielle (11). Quelles raisons justifieraient qu’il en aille différemment lorsque l’autorité nationale ne doit, en principe, adopter aucun acte?

    37. L’interprétation de l’article 263, quatrième alinéa, in fine, TFUE, excluant les actes législatifs, me paraît donc trop restrictive et ne pas répondre aux raisons qui ont motivé la modification de l’article 230, quatrième alinéa, CE.

    38. Ce constat me conduit par conséquent à privilégier une autre interprétation de l’acte réglementaire au sens de l’article 263, quatrième alinéa, in fine, TFUE. Selon moi, l’acte réglementaire devrait être interprété comme étant un acte de portée générale, qu’il soit législatif ou non.”

  4. Matthijs (@Maupertus)

    I commend the A-G for his guts to write paragraph 38, however the Court has made it very clear that it feels it is necessary to keep a distinction between the terms used in the article. There is a deeply ingrained resistance in the judiciary of the Union to acknowledge the fact that there is the need for a more formal approach to what can only be described as EU Administrative Law, even though Academia has been describing and studying it for years in areas outside of the scope of mere inter-institutional interaction. Thank you for the case Xandra, very interesting read.

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