European Commission loses patience with intransigent Italy over non-implementation of 2006 CJEU enforcement ruling

The long-running discrimination case around non-national university teaching staff (Lettori) in Italy may now, finally, be heading to a conclusion. But as Henry Rodgers explains, the result may yet be a bittersweet one
Press Association

By Henry Rodgers

Henry Rodgers has published extensively on discrimination against Lettori. He teaches English at "la Sapienza" University Rome.

30 Sep 2021

The European Commission has announced the opening of infringement proceedings against Italy over the non-implementation of a 2006 European Court of Justice (CJEU) enforcement ruling, the fourth ruling condemning discrimination against non-national university teaching staff (Lettori) in a direct line of litigation dating back to 1987.

In the 2006 case the Commission had asked the Court to impose a daily fine of €309,750 on Italy, a measure of how seriously it viewed the country’s persistent refusal to grant the Lettori parity of treatment with Italian workers.

The fine was averted by the introduction of a last-minute law awarding the Lettori a reconstruction of career from the date of first employment with reference to the minimum economic parameter of part-time researcher or more favourable parameters won before the Italian courts.

The threat of fines removed, Italy subsequently failed to implement the law and make the settlements with Lettori which the Court had deemed satisfactory. The results of a recent national survey of the universities show that as of April 2021 only a small minority of Italian universities had actually implemented the 2006 ruling.

In the course of preliminary pilot proceedings, Italy, under pressure from the Commission enacted Legge Europea 2017 and a follow-on Interministerial Decree in 2019 to give it practical effect.

Following a well-established pattern of inadequate implementation of CJEU case law, the blueprint contract provided for in the 2019 Decree sought to claw back benefits awarded to the Lettori in the 2006 ruling, most noticeably limiting the economic parameter for reconstruction of career to the minimum one of part-time researcher and excluding the majority of retired Lettori from entitlement to settlements due.

"With a gallows humour, colleagues nearing retirement calculated whether a resolution might arrive in time to allow them finally experience parity of treatment, if only for the few remaining years of their teaching careers"

Given that the litigation for parity of treatment began in the 1980s, the resultant age profile of Lettori means that a significant percentage of the category have by now retired. As a direct consequence of the discriminatory remuneration they received over the course of their working lives, they now receive monthly pensions the income from which would leave them well below the poverty line in their home countries.

The infringement proceeding has tiered procedural phases. In the majority of instances infringements are remedied by Member States over the course of the proceedings so as to avoid eventual referral of the cases to the CJEU by the Commission. Were the Lettori case to go all the way to the Court for trial, it would prolong resolution of the case by a further three years.

Asso.CEL.L, a Lettori union I co-founded, is a complainant in the Commission’s proceedings against Italy. As such it is in regular contact with Brussels, furnishing on-the-ground evidence of discrimination which might otherwise escape the Commission services.

Our national Census of working conditions in Italian universities, conducted in cooperation with FLC-CGI, Italy’s largest trade union, has clearly been influential in the Commission’s decision to open infringement proceedings.

Although members are happy that the impasse has now ended and that the evidence we supply as complainants has credence with the Commission services, news of the opening of the infringement case was met with mixed feelings.

With a gallows humour, colleagues nearing retirement calculated whether a resolution might arrive in time to allow them finally experience parity of treatment, if only for the few remaining years of their teaching careers.

That existing arrangements permit a state of affairs whereby non-national workers can be deprived of their Treaty rights to parity of treatment for the whole of their working lives was the subject of a recent European parliament question to the Commission by MEP Clare Daly and co-signed by seven other Irish MEPs.

"Beyond the circle of the Irish MEPs the need for an ethic of reciprocation in Member State relations with the EU has been gaining traction among parliamentarians. Hungarian deputies Adam Kosa and Andrea Bocksor have questioned the Commission on why the discrimination has been allowed to persist given the clear-cut rulings of the CJEU condemning it"

The signatories pointedly noted that although Italy has received the largest share of the Covid Recovery Fund and its universities receive generous EU funding, it has not seen fit to reciprocate and, in the case of the Lettori, award non-national citizens rights which should be automatic under the Treaty.

Beyond the circle of the Irish MEPs the need for an ethic of reciprocation in Member State relations with the EU has been gaining traction among parliamentarians. Hungarian deputies Adam Kosa and Andrea Bocksor have questioned the Commission on why the discrimination has been allowed to persist given the clear-cut rulings of the CJEU condemning it.

Sabine Verheyen, Adrian Vasquez Lazara, Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, respectively Chairs of the European Parliament’s Committees on Education and Culture, Legal Affairs, and Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, have all been in supportive correspondence with Asso.CEL.L.

To cut the cost and number of beneficiaries of the landmark 1993 Lettori victory before the CJEU, Italy subsequently legislated for the employment of a new category of linguistic experts to perform the same duties as Lettori and in effect to eventually replace them. Thus, with the passage of time the Lettori category will become extinct.

Given the lengthy legal history there are valid grounds for the opinion that the Italian intransigence has been deliberate all along and based on a view that the eventual extinction of the category would free it of its obligations to the Lettori.

The opening of the infringement proceeding is a statement of the Commission’s intent to hold Italy to account. 

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