Drug Labeling Case Marks First EU High Court Ruling in Irish

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, the top EU court handed down a ruling in the first case it has heard in the Irish language.

A cyclist passes a closed bar in Dublin, Ireland, last October. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — When Peadar Mac Fhlannchadha walked into a pharmacy to pick up medicine for his dog, he was not expecting to start a five-year legal battle over pharmaceutical labeling, culminating in the first Irish language case before the European Union’s high court. He just wanted his 10-year-old dog Samhain to feel better. 

On Wednesday, the European Court of Justice found that Ireland must require the labels for pet medication to be written in both English and Irish, the country’s two official EU languages. The five-judge panel handed down their ruling on St. Patrick’s Day, including a version in Irish.  

Upon discovering the labeling on the medication for his dog was only written in English, Fhlannchadha, a native Irish speaker and Irish language advocate, brought a complaint to the Irish Ministry for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in 2016. 

Both Irish and English are official languages in Ireland, and in recent years there has been a strong push to revive the Irish language. It has been possible to bring cases to the court in Irish since Ireland joined the bloc in 1973, but until 2020 none had been brought. 

The ministry argued it was too costly to enforce a 2001 EU Directive requiring pharmaceutical labels to be written in all of a country’s official languages. Around 40% of the Irish population speaks some Irish. Nearly all speak English. 

The resistance was compounded by an upcoming regulation, set to go into effect in 2022, that would scrap the requirement that member states require labels in all of their official languages. 

The Luxembourg-based Court of Justice held Wednesday that the current regulations are binding even if they would be changed in the future. 

“The member states’ obligation arising from a directive to achieve the result envisaged by that directive and their duty to take all appropriate measures, whether general or particular, to ensure the fulfilment of that obligation is binding on all the authorities of member states,” the ruling states.

A magistrate for the court, Advocate General Michal Bobek, wrote in a nonbinding opinion in January that the legal questions involved in the case “generate a genuine EU law constitutional polyphony.” He found that Ireland wasn’t obliged to require bilingual labeling.

“The court has consistently dismissed the idea that, as a matter of EU law, there must be absolute equality of all official languages,” he wrote. 

In Wednesday’s judgment, however, the court’s First Chamber disagreed.

It ruled the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union “precludes a national court of a member state from disregarding the obligation imposed on that state to transpose a directive on the ground that that transposition is purportedly disproportionate as it might prove costly or serve no purpose on account of the forthcoming application of a regulation intended to replace that directive.”

Fhlannchadha, the Irish language activist who brought the case, said in January after the magistrate’s opinion was issued that he was glad the court took up the case.

“We are delighted that our case is being heard by the European Court of Justice, the first case in the Irish language,” he told Euronews at the time.

Irish became an official EU language in 2005. Starting in 2022, it will be a working language of the 27-member state political and economic union. 

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