International commercial courts: should the EU be next? – EP study building competence in commercial law


By Erlis Themeli, Xandra Kramer, and Georgia Antonopoulou, Erasmus University Rotterdam (postdoc researcher, PI, and PhD candidate ERC project Building EU Civil Justice)

Previous posts on this blog have described the emerging international commercial and business courts in various Member States. While the primary aim is and should be improving the dispute resolution system for businesses, the establishment of these courts also points to the increase of competitive activities by certain Member States that try to attract international commercial litigation. Triggered by the need to facilitate business, prospects of financial gain, and more recently also by the supposed vacuum that Brexit will create, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium in particular have been busy establishing outlets for international commercial litigants. One of the previous posts by the present authors dedicated to these developments asked who will be next to enter the competition game started by these countries. In another post, Giesela Rühl suggested that the EU could be the next.

A recently published study of the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI Committee) on Building Competence in Commercial Law in the Member States, authored by Giesela Rühl, focuses on the setting up of commercial courts in the Member States and at the EU level with the purpose of enhancing the enforcement of commercial contracts and keeping up with the judicial competition in and outside Europe. This interesting study draws the complex environment in which cross-border commercial contracts operate in Europe. From existing surveys it is clear that the laws and the courts of England and Switzerland are selected more often than those of other (Member) States. While the popularity of these jurisdictions is not problematic as such, there may be a mismatch between the parties’ preferences and their best available option. In other words, while parties have clear ideas on what court they should choose, in reality they are not able to make this choice due to practical difficulties, including a lack of information or the costs involved. The study recommends reforming the Rome I and Rome II Regulations to improve parties’ freedom to choose the applicable law. In addition, a European expedited procedure for cross-border commercial cases can be introduced, which would simplify and unify the settlement of international commercial disputes. The next step, would be to introduce specialised courts or chambers for cross-border commercial cases in each Member State. In addition to these, the study recommends the setting up of a European Commercial Court equipped with experienced judges from different Member States, offering neutrality and expertise in cross-border commercial cases.

This study takes on a difficult and complicated issue with important legal, economic, and political implications. From a pure legal perspective, expanding – the  already very broad – party autonomy to choose the law and forum (e.g. including choosing a non-state law and the possibility to choose foreign law in purely domestic disputes) seems viable but will likely not contribute significantly to business needs. The economic and political implications are challenging, as the example of the Netherlands and Germany show. In the Netherlands, the proposal for the Netherlands Commercial Court (NCC) is still pending in the Senate, despite our optimistic expectations (see our previous post) after the adoption by the House of Representatives in March of this year. The most important issue is the relatively high court fee and the fear for a two-tiered justice system. The expected impact of Brexit and the gains this may bring for the other EU Member States should perhaps also be tempered, considering the findings in empirical research mentioned in the present study, on why the English court is often chosen. A recently published book, Civil Justice System Competition in the EU, authored by Erlis Themeli,  concludes on the basis of a theoretical analysis and a survey conducted for that research that indeed lawyers base their choice of court not always on the quality of the court as such, but also on habits and trade usage. England’s dominant position derives not so much from its presence in the EU, but from other sources.

The idea of a European Commercial Court that has been put forward in recent years and is promoted by the present study, is interesting and could contribute to bundling expertise on commercial law and commercial dispute resolution. However, it is questionable whether there is a political interest from the Member States considering other pressing issues in the EU, the investments made by some Member States in setting up their own international commercial courts, and the interest in maintaining local expertise and keeping interesting cases within the local court system. Considering the dominance of arbitration, the existing well-functioning courts in business centres in Europe and elsewhere and the establishment of the new international commercial courts, one may also wonder whether a further multiplicity of courts and the concentration of disputes at the EU level is what businesses want.

That this topic has a lot of attention from practitioners, businesses, and academics was evident at a very well attended seminar (Rotterdam, 10 July 2018) dedicated to the emerging international commercial courts in Europe, organized by Erasmus University Rotterdam, the MPI Luxembourg, and Utrecht University. For those interested, in 2019, the papers presented at this seminar and additional selected papers will be published in an issue of the Erasmus Law Review, while also a book that takes a European and global approach to the emerging international business courts in being prepared (more info here). At the European Law Institute’s Annual Conference (Riga, 5-7 September 2018) an interesting meeting with vivid discussions of the Special Interest Group on Dispute Resolution, led by Thomas Pfeiffer, was dedicated to this topic. An upcoming conference “Exploring Pathways to Civil Justice in Europe” (Rotterdam, 19-20 November 2018) offers yet another opportunity to discuss court specialisation and international business courts, along with other topics of dispute resolution.