Open Europe Blog

It’s not shaping up to be a great month for the UK government with respect to the EU – a pretty poor showing at the European elections, a looming defeat over the Spitzenkandidaten process and now, just to top it off, a troublesome legal opinion from the European Council legal service.

The FT and Reuters overnight reported on a leaked legal opinion from the European Council legal service which looks at the new rules on proprietary trading and the structural reform of the European banking sector published in January.

As a reminder, these proposals are the offspring of the Liikanen report and we covered them in detail here.

The wider political importance of these reforms relates once again to how much control the UK can retain over how to structure, regulate and, by extension, supervise its own banking sector (which, lets not forget, it continues to backstop alone) in light of further eurozone integration, which it cannot be part of. And whether the EU can be flexible enough to accommodate this.

The legal opinion, which Open Europe has seen, is a blow to the UK because it focuses on the specific article of the legislation which allows the UK and other member states which already have reforms aimed at overhauling or ring fencing their banking sector in place (such as the Vickers reforms).  The opinion notes that:

“The derogation mechanism established in Article 21 of the proposed Regulation is not compatible with the legal basis of the proposal, with the nature of the proposed instrument as defined in the TFEU and with the general institutional principles established in the Treaties.”

There are a number of justifications for this judgement given (these are the arguments of the council legal service not OE):

  • Firstly, any derogation under the single market article (Art 114) should be “temporary” according to the treaty. Since the derogation seems to be permanent it falls foul of the treaty here.
  • Secondly, allowing for exemptions here breaks Article 288 of the EU treaties because it stops the “general application” of a regulation across all member states. It also falls foul of the “uniform application” of regulations across member states.
  • Thirdly, the legal service does not buy into the justification for the derogation, suggesting that the costs of changing legislation to meet EU rules would not be prohibitively high. This sets it apart from previous instances where objective justification has been given. Furthermore, the use of the derogation is reliant on member states making an application and does not rely solely on the Commission.
  • Fourthly, the derogation only applies to countries where similar legislation has been passed before 29/01/14 – the opinion stresses that no justification is given for such a date and calls for more explanation. This cut-off date also means the exemption applies differently to certain countries which happen to already have passed their own legislation. On top of this, it only applies to certain credit institutions.
  • Finally, since the exemption essentially allows national law to take precedence, it questions the primacy of EU law.

The legal services suggest a number of remedies including: allowing the derogation for a specific temporary time period, clearer justification for the cut-off date, adopting the legislation as a directive rather than regulation (allowing for greater national flexibility) or dumping the derogation altogether.

As we noted previously, the target adoption date for these rules is January 2016 and there are plenty of negotiations still to come, as such this opinion, while a blow to the UK, is the not the end of the discussion by any stretch. As the remedies suggest, there are options open to the UK and others for adjusting these rules.

Furthermore, there are plenty of other controversies in the rules, such as how to properly define proprietary trading and how all the technical standards are defined. This one will run for some time still.

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