A million dollar question, literally: Can DPAs fine a controller directly on the basis of the GDPR, or do they need to wait for national laws?

by Gabriela Zanfir-Fortuna

The need to discuss the legal effect of the GDPR emerged as there are some opinions in the privacy bubble informing that it will take at least a couple of years before the GDPR will de facto have legal effect at national level, after the moment it becomes applicable in 2018. The main argument for this thesis is that national parliaments of the Member States will need to take action in a way or another, or that national governments will need to issue executive orders to grant new powers to supervisory authorities, including the power to fine.

This post will bring forward some facts emerging from EU primary law and from the case-law of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) that need to be taken into account before talking about such a de facto grace period.

The conclusion is that, just like all EU regulations, the GDPR is directly applicable and has immediate effect from the date it becomes applicable according to its publication in the EU Official Journal (in this case, 25 May 2018), with no other national measures being required to give it effect in the Member States (not even translations at national level). While it is true that it contains provisions that give a margin of appreciation to Member States if they wish to intervene, most of the articles are sufficiently clear, detailed and straightforward to allow direct application, if need be ( for instance, if a Member State is late in adjusting and adapting its national data protection law).

1) EU regulations enjoy “direct applicability”: the rule is that they are “immediately applicable” and they don’t need national transposition

First and foremost, it is a fact emerging from the EU treaties that EU Regulations enjoy direct applicability, which means that once they become applicable they do not need to be transposed into national law.

This rule is set out in the second paragraph of Article 288 of the Treaty on the European Union, which states that:

“A regulation shall have general application. It shall be binding in its entirety and directly applicable in all Member States.”

On the contrary, according to the third paragraph of Article 288 TFEU, directives “shall be binding, as to the result to be achieved, upon each Member State to which it is addressed, but shall leave to the national authorities the choice of form and methods.”

Therefore, as the CJEU explained in settled case-law, “by virtue of the very nature of regulations and of their function in the system of sources of Community law, the provisions of those regulations generally have immediate effect in the national legal systems without it being necessary for the national authorities to adopt measures of application” (see Case C-278/02 Handlbauer2004, §25 and Case 93/71 Leonesio, 1972, §5) and in addition they also “operate to confer rights on individuals which the national courts have a duty to protect” (Case C-70/15 Lebek, 2016, §51).

However, the CJEU also ruled that “some of their provisions may nonetheless necessitate, for their implementation, the adoption of measures of application by the Member States” (Case C-278/02 Handlbauer2004, §26; C-403/98 Monte Arcosu, 2001, §26). But this is not the case of sufficiently clear and precise provisions, where Member States don’t enjoy any margin of manoeuvre. For instance, the Court found in Handlbauer that “this is not the case as regards Article 3(1) of Regulation No 2988/95 which, by fixing the limitation period for proceedings at four years as from the time when the irregularity is committed, leaves the Member States no discretion nor does it require them to adopt implementation measures” (§27).

Therefore, whenever an EU regulation leaves the Member States no discretion, nor does it require them to adopt implementation measures, the provisions of that regulation are directly and immediately applicable as they are.

2) EU regulations’ direct applicability is not depending on any national measure (not even translation published in national official journals)

The CJEU explained as far back as 1973 that for EU regulations to take effect in national legal systems of Member States there is not even the need to have their texts translated and published in the national official journals.

Asked whether the provisions of a Regulation can be “introduced into the legal order of Member States by internal measures reproducing the contents of Community provisions in such a way that the subject-matter is brought under national law”, the Court replied that “the direct application of a Regulation means that its entry into force and its application in favour of or against those subject to it are independent of any measure of reception into national law” (Case 34/73 Variola, 1973, §9 and §10). AG Kokott explained that such measures include “any publicity by the Member States” (Opinion in C-161/06 Skoma-lux, §54) in an Opinion that was substantially upheld by the Court in a judgment stating that the publication of a regulation in the Official Journal of the EU in an official language of a Member State is the only condition to give it effect and direct applicability in that Member State (Judgment in Case C-161/06).

The Court concluded in Variola that “a legislative measure under national law which reproduces the text of a directly applicable rule of Community law cannot in any way affect such direct applicability, or the Court’s jurisdiction under the Treaty” (operative part of the judgment). The Court also explained in Variola that “by virtue of the obligations arising from the Treaty and assumed on ratification, Member States are under a duty not to obstruct the direct applicability inherent in Regulations and other rules of Community law. Strict compliance with this obligation is an indispensable condition of simultaneous and uniform application of Community Regulations throughout the Community” (Case 34/73 Variola, 1973, §10).

3) National authorities could impose administrative penalties directly on the basis of a provision of a Regulation, where necessary 

The Court dealt with the question of national authorities imposing administrative fines directly on the basis of the provisions of an EU regulation in Case C-367/09 Belgish Interventie en Restitutie Bureau  on the interpretation of provisions from Regulation 2988/95.

After recalling its case-law on direct applicability of EU regulations (§32), including the exemption that some provisions of a Regulation necessitate for their implementation the adoption of measures of application (§33), the CJEU found that in that specific case national authorities cannot impose fines directly on the basis of Articles 5 and 7 of Regulation 2988/95 because “those provisions merely lay down general rules for supervision and penalties for the purpose of safeguarding the EU’s financial interests (…). In particular, those provisions do not specify which of the penalties listed in Article 5 of Regulation No 2988/95 should be applied in the case of an irregularity detrimental to the EU’s financial interests nor the category of operators on whom such penalties are to be imposed in such cases” (§36).

Therefore, the Court did not question the possibility of a national authority to impose fines directly on the legal basis provided by a regulation. The CJEU went directly to analyse the content of the relevant provision and found that fines could not be imposed because of the general character of that provision, which required additional measures to be adopted both at Member State and at EU level (were the provisions more clear, the authorities could have directly issued fines on the basis of the regulation).

One look at Article 83 GDPR and one can easily tell that this is not the case of that provision – it is clear who imposes fines, for what, against whom, on what criteria and what is the maximum amount for each category of fines. Neither is it the case of Article 58 on the powers of supervisory authorities. Article 83 GDPR allows Member States some discretion only if they wish to provide specific rules for fining public authorities (paragraph 7) and only if their legal system does not provide for administrative fines – in this case, the states are allowed to apply Article 83 in such a manner that the fine is initiated by the competent supervisory authority and imposed by competent national courts (paragraph 9).

4) Conclusion: beware of the GDPR from day 1

The GDPR, like all EU regulations, is directly applicable and has immediate effect in the legal order of Member States by virtue of its publication in the Official Journal of the EU and the conditions of applicability in time expressed therein, no additional national measures being required to give it effect.

While there are provisions that give Member States a margin of appreciation and a discretion to implement national measures, most of the provisions are sufficiently clear and precise to be applied as they are.

Of course there will be national data protection laws that will specify additional rules to the GDPR, giving effect to that margin of appreciation. But the national laws that will complement an EU regulation, such as the GDPR, are valid only as long as “they do not obstruct its direct applicability and do not conceal its [EU] nature, and if they specify that a discretion granted to them by that regulation is being exercised, provided that they adhere to the parameters laid down under it” (CJEU, Case C‑316/10 Danske Svineproducenter Justitsministeriet, §41).

As always, here is the fine print (or the caveat) whenever we are discussing about the interpretation of EU law: only the CJEU has the authority to interpret EU law in a binding manner.

(Note: The author is grateful to dr. Mihaela Mazilu-Babel, who provided support with preliminary research for this post)

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