Brussels doubts

7 Apr

Here’s a bear trap of an an error that I’ve stepped right into myself in the past.

“A headline was wrong to describe the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner as an ‘EU rights watchdog’. The Council of Europe is not part of the EU, but a separate organisation with a wider membership.”

It flies the same flag and plays the same anthem as the European Union, but the Council of Europe is not to be confused – if you can help it – with the European Council or the Council of the European Union, both of which are EU bodies. It also has a commissioner, who is not to be confused with an EU commissioner from the European Commission. The whole thing can be a nightmare if you’re having to rush through copy written by someone who isn’t a specialist.

The two most dangerous words to read in European news copy are “council” and “court”, at which point it’s a good idea to stop dead and think: which one?

  • Council of the European Union. Part of the EU; can be usefully thought of as the “upper house” of the European Parliament.  Often known as “the council of ministers”, which can help to alleviate confusion.
  • European Council. Part of the EU, this is the high-level direction-setting forum attended by all the EU’s heads of government and other notables, led currently by Herman van Rompuy. Powerful, newsworthy and influential.
  • Council of Europe. Not part of the EU: set up in 1949 and conceived from the start as a notional “United States of Europe”, unlike the EU, which has largely evolved step-by-step from various free trade blocs. Anything the Council of Europe does is therefore not EU policy. And “Brussels” won’t do in this case as headline shorthand – the Council of Europe is based in Strasbourg. (Yes, the European Parliament, which is part of the EU, also sits in Strasbourg: the possibilities for confusion are everywhere.)
  • European Court of Justice. The highest court in the EU. Addresses matters of law that are formulated in EU treaties and given effect in national legislatures, usually when a case is referred to it  by a national court. Not to be confused with…
  • European Court of Human Rights. Not an EU institution, but the most high-profile body of the Council of Europe. It exists to rule on matters arising under the European Convention on Human Rights, passed in 1950 and signed by all 47 member states of the Council. Stories about “article 8 rights to privacy” or “article 10 rights to expression” – much in evidence in the current debate on UK press regulation – refer to articles of the human rights  convention, and are therefore not “stories about the EU”.

I don’t know why I find this so difficult – perhaps because of years of subliminal exposure to undifferentiated tabloid bludgeoning about “Brussels” and “Europe”. Anyway, I’m now almost as cautious about editing EU news as I am about pre-trial crime stories.

UPDATE: As Estelle Wolfers notes in her comment below, there has been a further wrinkle in the EU court system since 2009 and the Lisbon Treaty; there is now a two-court system. As she says, “the Court of Justice of the European Union” – the now-correct phrase – “encompasses both the Court of Justice (ex-ECJ) and the General Court (ex-Court of First Instance)”. Proceed with more caution than ever.

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5 Responses to “Brussels doubts”

  1. Estelle Wolfers April 9, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    Modern (post-Lisbon) usage is strictly ‘the Court of Justice’ not ‘the European Court of Justice’ and ‘the Court’ not ‘the ECJ’ for short, although many people still refer to ‘the ECJ’—notably its judges and Advocates General! The expression ‘the Court of Justice of the European Union’ encompasses both the Court of Justice (ex-ECJ) and the General Court (ex-Court of First Instance).

  2. Picky April 12, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

    I dunno. I agree wholeheartedly that the various institutions of the European Union could fairly be described as Byzantine (or could be if we let Turkey in) but really it’s not acceptable for a newspaper of The Guardian’s pretensions to forget that the ECHR is not an EU organ, given the number of times it’s been pointed out, and given that this is a fact of political significance: the ECHR is too important for us to allow it to share the rubbishing that (sometimes deservedly) comes the way of the EU.

    • Estelle Wolfers April 12, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

      I’ve said in the past that if I’m present when a politician gets it wrong, I’m going to whack them over the head with my heaviest law text – which, coincidentally, is an EU law one.

      • Picky April 12, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

        Spot on. Please arrange pix.

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