Regulatory competition in a post-Brexit EU


Dr. Chris Thomale, University of Heidelberg, has kindly provided us with the following thoughts on the possible consequences of Brexit for European private international law.

Hitherto, academic debate is only starting to appreciate the full ambit and impact a Brexit would have on the European legal landscape. Notably, two important aspects have been neglected, despite their crucial importance in upcoming negotiations about withdrawal arrangements between the EU and the UK under Art. 50 section 2 TEU: First, the vital British interest to leave in force the fundamental freedom of establishment. Second, a possible revival of regulatory competition of corporate laws among remaining Member States, once UK Limited Companies and Limited Liability Partnerships were to lose their EU or EEA status.

As Hess and Requejo-Isidro are correct in pointing out, Brexit will directly hit the UK judicial market. Brussels Ibis and its ancillary instruments will cease to apply. It remains yet to be seen if and to what extent new bilateral or multilateral agreements with Member States will make up for this suspension of EU free movement of judgments. This includes an accession to the Lugano Convention, which in itself is due to be reformed. In the meantime, negotiations will have to be based on a default position, according to which not only EU secondary law on jurisdiction and enforcement but notably mutual trust with regard to its application by UK courts will be suspended. The latter aspect cannot be emphasized enough: British insolvency proceedings in particular have been displaying tendencies to find a Centre of Main Interest of companies and entire global corporate groups inside the UK, often based on hardly understandable factual assertions and the most laconic reasonings given by UK courts (see, e.g. the Nortel case).

The mentioned expansionist aspect of the UK judicial market neatly ties in with a similar regulatory export of corporate forms. Under the aegis of Art. 49 seqq. TFEU and Art. 31 seqq. of the EEA Agreement, UK companies profit from being recognised throughout the EEA in their original British legal form of establishment, regardless of their actual place of management. This privilege has been incentivizing a common form of legal arbitrage: Investors establish a Ltd or LLP in the UK, while doing business anywhere else inside the EEA, thereby being able to circumvent mandatory rules applying at their state of business such as laws on co-determination, minimum capital, or mandatory insurance requirements. Such setups will not be available anymore once the UK were to leave the EEA. Putting it bluntly, from the moment UK effectively leaves the EU and the EEA, British companies operating e.g. in France or Germany will be subject to the corporate laws of their administrative seat. For these countries follow the ‘real seat’ theory, i.e. a conflict of company laws rule that designates the substantive law of the administrative seat as the applicable company law. UK companies not having to show any registration as, say, a Société à responsabilité limitée at their real seat, by default will immediately be treated as partnerships, entailing, inter alia, unlimited shareholder liability. In order to avoid this, UK companies operating inside the EU will be well advised to reincorporate, i.e. convert into a EU legal form, which better serves their economic interests.

However, will the UK simply let them go? Once Brexit becomes effective, the Directive 2005/56/EC on cross-border mergers will not apply anymore; neither will rulings rendered by the CJEU in Cartesio or Vale. Restrictions may be put into place, similar to those displayed by British authorities in Daily Mail, when corporate mobility required consent by UK Treasury. This may induce a corporate exodus from the UK while its EU membership is still active. Still, leaving UK company forms behind represents only one side of the deal. A second uncertainty rests with the question, exactly which new legal forms UK companies operating abroad will choose instead. Will they go for an Irish Private Company Limited by Shares, a Dutch Besloten vennootschap met beperkte aansprakelijkheid or a German Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung? We could witness a revival of regulatory competition within the EU. However, even before that, Member States’ interests in the Art. 50 section 2 TEU withdrawal negotiations, regarding the question of preserving or abolishing freedom of establishment between the UK and the EU, will be influenced by their individual prospects and ambitions in such regulatory competition. At this point, there is no telling, who will win the race nor whether it will lead to the top of legal reform or to the bottom of deregulation. Be this as it may, exciting days have found us – not only for game theorists.