by Dr. Nikos Lavranos LLM, Secretary General of EFILA*
During 2015 it became clear that the European Commission was under mounting pressure from the European Parliament (EP), Trade Ministers of several EU Member States, anti-ISDS NGOs and the media to propose more “reforms” of the investor-State dispute settlement (ISDS) system that is contained in CETA and envisaged to be included in TTIP as well.
EFILA decided to establish a Task Force – consisting also of non-EFILA members – to analyse the final proposal for a so-called “International Court System” (ICS), which the European Commission formally adopted on 12 November 2015 and transmitted it to the US as a basis for further negotiations within the context of the TTIP negotiations.
During the debate in the European Parliament and among several Trade Ministers of EU Member States one key issue pointing towards a “solution” and which was continuously repeated was the creation of a permanent investment court consisting of publicly appointed judges. It was argued that in contrast to the current system of ad hoc arbitration consisting of party-appointed arbitrators, which has been characterized as “private”, behind closed doors dispute resolution, which biased towards the investor, a permanent investment court with judges would ensure fairer and better adjudication of investment disputes. Another related key issue, which was considered important for a “solution” was the creation of an appeal mechanism. Again the rather simplified characterization that ISDS disputes have no appeal possibility and are completely beyond the control of national courts, was used as a justification for the need of an appeal mechanism.
The European Commission had to incorporate these points otherwise a ratification of TTIP by the EP and the Member States would seem rather illusory. Having had significant experience as a disputing party in the WTO, which happens to include the Appellate Body as a permanent (quasi)judicial body, it was a small step for the European Commission to copy and paste many of the WTO dispute settlement elements into its ICS proposal.
The structure of the 60-pages EFILA Task Force analysis is as follows:
Chapter 1 analyses not only the ICS proposal as such, but also the process that preceded the proposal. This is important in order to understand the political context in which this proposal is embedded. It critiques certain aspects of the ICS proposal and raises a number of issues which the Task Force considers should be addressed in developing the ICS proposal further.
Chapter 2 provides an extensive overview of the already existing forms of appeal and annulment of investment awards. It also highlights the reform efforts in this regard by the PCA and the ICSID Secretariat. This overview provides a detailed picture of the status quo (including both the mechanisms and methods of operation), from which the ICS proposal departs. This analysis also draws critical attention to features or elements of the current system of ISDS which could be addressed in developing the ICS proposal.
Chapter 3 turns towards the WTO dispute settlement system by first explaining the features of the appeal system and then by examining to what extent this system could successfully be transplanted into the ICS and the limitations in so-doing.
Finally, Chapter 4 wraps up this analysis by providing some general conclusions as to matters which require consideration by the Contracting Parties in developing the ICS proposal further. In particular, the issues highlighted concern the methods of selection of the judges (and the implications of a move towards a system whereby the Respondent maintains, but the Claimant is deprived of, a role), the size of the pool of candidates for the two-tiered system, the relationship between the ICS and the CJEU and how the ICS will operate in the wider context of resolution of investor-state disputes under other instruments.
The conclusions of the Task Force report can be summarized as follows:
- The paper concludes that the ICS proposal is, first and foremost, a bold move to appease the EP and the public opinion in many EU Member States, which are critical against TTIP generally, and in particular against including any type of ISDS. The ICS proposal attempts to make the inclusion of an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism in TTIP politically acceptable, while at the same time trying to address the perceived shortcomings of the existing ISDS.
- The paper notes that – in contrast to the public perception – mechanisms for limited review of investment arbitration awards are already in place, such as the ICSID annulment mechanism and the setting aside procedure for non-ICSID awards by national courts. These mechanisms – while not perfect – provide useful corrective tools.
- The analysis of the WTO dispute settlement mechanism illustrates that caution should be exercised in simply transplanting it to investor-state disputes. The reason is that WTO law is structurally different from investment law, serves different purposes and has different users.
- Generally, it can be concluded that the ICS proposal clearly breaks with the current party-appointed, ad-hoc ISDS as provided for in practically all BITs and FTAs. The main result is that it deprives claimants of any role in the appointment of the judges, while giving the respondent States the exclusive authority to do so, albeit in advance of a particular case. The appointment of the judges by the Contracting Parties raises several problems, which the ICS proposal does not sufficiently address.
- The pre-selection of the TFI and AT judges by the Contracting Parties carries the inherent risk of selecting “pro-State” individuals, in particular since they are paid by the States (or rather their tax payers) alone. Apart from this danger, it remains doubtful whether a sufficient number of appropriately qualified individuals with the necessary expertise can be found. This is particularly true since many professionals currently working in arbitration may be excluded on the basis that they could be considered to be biased. The pool of TFI and AT judges would seem to be limited to academics, (former) judges and (former) Governmental officials. That might not be sufficient to guarantee the practical experience and expertise needed and/or independence from the State.
- The standard of impartiality and independence of the judges is highly subjective, and their independence on a practical level is not assured by the proposed text. Also, the system of challenging TFI judges and AT members can be further criticised for envisaging that the presiding judge will decide the challenge against one of his own colleagues on the bench, rather a decision being made by an independent outside authority.
- The system of determination of Respondent (in the case of the EU or Member States), in particular the binding nature of that determination, which is done by the EU and its Member States alone, creates significant disadvantages for the claimant and does not allow the ICS tribunals to correct any wrong determinations. This could result in cases being effectively thrown out because of a wrong determination of the Respondent.
- Since the ICSID Convention is not applicable to the EU, the recognition and enforcement of
ICS decisions remains limited to the EU and the US. The proposal also fails to clarify the difficulties elated to the New York Convention 1958.
- The ICS proposal does not address the difficult legal situation between the CJEU and other international courts and tribunals. There is no reason to believe that the CJEU would be more positive towards the ICS as compared to its outright rejection of the European Court of Human Rights when it comes to the potential interpretation or application of EU law. Also, the CJEU’s consistent rejection of any direct effect of WTO AB panel reports – even those that have been approved by the DSB and after the implementation deadline has lapsed – raises doubts as to the legal effects of ICS decisions within the European legal order.
- In sum, the suggested creation of a two-tier (semi)permanent court system would give the Contracting Parties a significantly stronger role in the whole dispute settlement process – potentially at the expense of both the investor/claimant and the authority of the ICS. In particular, the appeal possibility carries the risk of burdening small and medium investors by increasing the potential length of the proceedings and costs.
- While the US position towards the ICS proposal remains unclear for the time being, it also remains unclear how the ICS proposal could be multilateralized. Indeed, the perceived shortcomings of the current ISDS system is based on the fact that more than 3,000 BITs/FTAs are in place, which have been concluded by practically all countries in the world. The ICS proposal – limited to TTIP and perhaps extended to CETA – does not change that. The way the UNCITRAL Transparency Rules of 2014 are incrementally applied by way of an opt-in system established by a separate international treaty could be a possible way forward.
- As the TTIP negotiations between the US and the EU are now focusing on the ICS proposal, this is a perfect moment to further improve the proposal by addressing the matters identified in this analysis.
- Finally, the US and the EU should also consider whether it would not be more preferable to modify and improve existing systems, such as turning the ICSID annulment procedure into a full appeal mechanism.
This in-depth analysis is very timely and arguably one of the first ones following the formal adoption of the ICS proposal by the European Commission last November.
The EFILA Task Force paper raises many issues and provides some answers, but certainly leaves many problems untouched. At the EFILA Annual Conference which will take place on 5 February in Paris, the last panel will specifically discuss this report. All members of the investment arbitration community are welcome to (still) register for the conference or to submit their constructive comments to Dr. Nikos Lavranos, LLM, Secretary General of EFILA, at: firstname.lastname@example.org