It is therefore up to our Institution to learn all the possible lessons from the experience of managing the pandemic and to consolidate, in a sustainable way, what it has achieved in terms of its functioning and its relations not only with national courts but also with public opinion throughout the European Union.
In 2021, the Court and its staff have had to contend with continuing health measures and restrictions designed to stem the successive waves of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite this, the Court’s staff has been able to ensure continuity in its activities in service of European justice by drawing on the lessons learned and the new habits acquired since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 through the use of remote working and communication techniques. In this context, the Institution can be proud that the efforts made to design and implement a videoconferencing system allowing for remote hearings before both courts, with simultaneous interpretation, were rewarded with the European Ombudsman’s Award for Good Administration in the category Excellence in Innovation/Transformation.
The year 2021 was also marked by a significant partial renewal of the Court of Justice, with the arrival of nine new Members. While my peers did me the great honour of demonstrating their continued confidence in me by re-electing me President, Judge Bay Larsen was elected Vice-President following the departure of Ms Silva de Lapuerta. The General Court also welcomed five new judges in 2021.
The year also saw an increase in the number of cases brought before the two courts (1 720 in 2021, compared with 1 584 in 2020) as well as in the number of cases closed (1 723 in 2021, compared with 1 540 in 2020). The diversity and impact of the decisions delivered – whether on the rule of law, the environment, personal data protection, social protection or aid granted to address the health crisis – show the extent to which the Institution’s work is at the heart of contemporary realities and has a concrete impact on the lives of EU citizens and businesses. Several challenges emerge from this picture.
First, the current situation requires that the Court strengthen its efforts to create closer links with citizens by encouraging greater transparency in its operations. With this in mind, a trial project is under way to broadcast the oral hearings of the Grand Chamber by web streaming. The huge growth in the use of digital technologies was key to the remarkable success achieved in managing the health crisis and the Court’s response to the physical restrictions imposed in connection with the pandemic. Technical know-how has developed and we have seen the digital barrier broken: the way the world operates has changed. Through these technological and societal developments, the time has therefore come to make the Court accessible to the whole of Europe.
Second, the Institution will continue its reflection on how to achieve a rebalancing of the workload between the Court of Justice, composed of one judge per Member State, and the General Court, which, since September, has two judges per Member State.
Third, we are seeing a widespread tendency to challenge the authority of judicial decisions and, in some Member States, to question the European integration project and its founding values and principles. This trend calls for constant vigilance regarding the quality of the Court’s decisions and how those decisions are explained to the public, and on ensuring the transparency of its activities. This is essential to ensure that European justice is correctly perceived and understood, in all circumstances, as serving exclusively to safeguard and uphold the rule of law.
It is therefore up to our Institution to learn all the possible lessons from the experience of managing the pandemic and to consolidate, in a sustainable way, what it has achieved in terms of its functioning and its relations not only with national courts but also with public opinion throughout the European Union. These objectives will be pursued in 2022, the year in which the Court celebrates its 70th anniversary, through a number of projects, events and activities.