Europe’s Highest Court Hears Its First Case in Irish Language

The European Court of Justice has now heard cases in all 24 official EU languages after taking up the case of an Irish language advocate who wants pet medicine labels to be printed in both English and Irish.

A cyclist passes a closed bar in Dublin, Ireland, on Oct. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

(CN) — “Ní in éagmais saincheisteanna atá an cás idir lámha.” That’s Irish for: “There is no shortage of issues invoked in the present case.”

This was the opening sentence in the first opinion ever issued in the Irish language at the European Court of Justice, the European Union’s highest court. The magistrate’s opinion was read aloud Thursday in the high court, some 50 years after Ireland joined the bloc and about 15 years after Irish became one of the EU’s official languages.

With this new case in Irish, the EU top court now has heard cases in all 24 of the bloc’s official languages, a court spokesman said.

The court is examining a lawsuit brought by an Irish language advocate who wants labels for pet medicine in Ireland to be written in both English and Irish. That advocate, Peadar Mac Fhlannchadha, is also a dog owner.

In issuing a nonbinding advisory opinion on Thursday, Advocate General Michal Bobek wrote that the legal questions involved in the case “generate a genuine EU law constitutional polyphony.” Advocates general offer legal advice on cases before the court’s judges. The court will issue a ruling in the matter in the coming months.

In 2016, Mac Fhlannchadha sued the Irish Ministry for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to get the Irish language included on pet medicine labels. He argued that under EU law, veterinary medicine labels must be written in all official languages in an EU state.

Irish and English are both official languages in Ireland, where there is a strong push to revive the Irish language. There are newspapers, radio stations and schools dedicated to preserving the language. Nearly 40% of Irish say they speak their traditional language, though its use is customary only in pockets of the island. In 2005, Irish became an official EU language.

The High Court of Ireland agreed with the complainant, but it also noted that a new EU rule is set to take effect in January 2022 that scraps the requirement for pet medicine labels to be written in all official languages in an EU state.

Uncertain how it should proceed and interpret EU law on the matter, the High Court asked the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice to weigh in and provide it with guidance on how it should enforce the EU’s pet medicine labeling rules, especially considering the pending change in regulations.

In his opinion, Bobek said the case brought up a number of vexing legal questions for the EU and its transnational system of laws.

At its heart, though, is the question of how much discretion national courts have in interpreting how to enforce EU laws. Bobek proposed they enjoy a lot of discretionary power and he suggested the Irish court rule how it sees fit on Mac Fhlannchadha’s complaint.

“The principles of effectiveness of EU law and of effective judicial protection cannot be interpreted as imposing upon national courts any (senseless) automaticity,” Bobek wrote.

He added: “There is nothing intrinsically unlawful in the fact that, despite an applicant formally acting within his rights and his claims being well founded, in very exceptional cases (and I place emphasis on very exceptional cases), he may not obtain the form of relief that he sought.” (Parentheses in original.)

Bobek also suggested the High Court does not need to order Ireland’s pet medicine labels to be written in Irish. He argued that while “multilingualism has been a core principle of the European Union … it has also been recognized that language policy involves making choices which are, at times, also politically and socially delicate.”

He said EU courts “have consistently adopted a rather cautious, diplomatic and pragmatic approach with regard to languages” and have not been “overly rigid” in imposing language requirements.

“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 its defense, the Irish government argued that making pharmaceutical companies print labels in Irish might lead some to remove their products from Ireland. Government lawyers also contended that the complainant speaks English and was not hurt by the absence of labels in Irish.

As a solution, Bobek proposed the High Court declare the Irish laws out of line with the EU’s directive on pet medicine labels but not take further action.

“On the one hand, it records the possible infringement invoked and provides some form of moral satisfaction to the applicant,” Bobek said, “while perhaps opening up the potential for him to claim damages for any harm incurred should the conditions for state liability be satisfied.”


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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