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Forty-four years and counting

Henry Rodgers tells the full story of Italy’s foreign language lettori and their historic fight against discrimination

On May 30 1989, a date that foreign language lecturers in Italian universities have come to call Pilar Allué Day, the EU Court of Justice (CJEU) issued its sentence in a reference for preliminary ruling case taken by Spanish national Allué against her employer.

Employed as a foreign language lecturer (lettore) at the Università degli studi di Venezia, Allué had contested an Italian law under which she and her Lettori colleagues could be employed on one-year contracts with the possibility for up to five renewals. As no such limit to the duration of employment applied to Italian nationals, the Court found it to be discriminatory. It was a simple, open and-shut case, which merely required Italy to convert the annual Lettori contracts into indefinite-term ones, with remuneration linked to the pay scale of Italian teaching staff. But Pilar Allué Day is not celebrated as the date on which this right was won. May 30 1989 is historic for altogether different reasons: it denotes the starting point from which to measure the duration of Italy’s non-compliance with the Lettori discrimination sentences of the CJEU.

The non-compliance persists to the present day despite three subsequent favourable rulings in a line of litigation which stems directly from the 1989 ruling. As such, it is the longest-running breach of the freedom of movement on record. Italy interpreted the 1989 Allué ruling as condoning annual contracts while rendering illegal the limit on the number of renewals. Allué herself contested Italy’s restrictive misreading. The 1993 ruling in Allué 2 clarified that the earlier ruling meant that non-national teaching staff had a right to the open-ended contracts enjoyed by Italian nationals.

In 1995 Italy legislated for open-ended contracts. But, to cut the cost to the universities, the law simultaneously demoted the Lettori to the category of non-teaching, technical and administrative staff crucially removed the parameter of Italian teaching faculty as a basis for determining salaries and the financial settlements for the backdated reconstruction of careers due under Allué.

As Guardian of the Treaties of the European Union, the European Commission is empowered to take infringement proceedings against member states for breaches of the Treaties, and by extension the case law of the CJEU. Based on documentation from 6 representative universities the Commission took an infringement case against Italy for non-implementation of the Allué jurisprudence. The Court in its eventual sentence found for the Commission in 2001. For non-implementation of the 2001 ruling the Commission subsequently took an enforcement action, Case C-119/04, against Italy.

In a demonstration of how seriously it viewed the persistent discrimination against Lettori the Commission asked the Court to impose a daily fine of €309,750 on Italy. The case was referred to a Grand Chamber of 13 judges for decision. None of the 13 judges of the Grand Chamber had presided in the Allué cases of 1989 and 1993. However, Enrico Traversa, who was agent for the Commission’s Legal Service, has pleaded in all of the successful Lettori cases, addressed the Court, arguing that a daily fine of EUR 309,750 was warranted because of the duration and gravity of the discrimination.

Meanwhile In March 2004 Italy had enacted a last minute law which provided for the reconstruction of Lettori careers with reference to the minimum parameter of part-time researcher or better conditions won in the local Italian courts. Thus, although it found Italy guilty of discrimination at the deadline given for compliance, the Court took the view that the provisions of the law could remedy the discrimination and waived the daily fine.

The threat of fines removed, Italy subsequently failed to implement the March 2004 law. The universities continued to withhold the settlements and contractual conditions that the Court had deemed satisfactory. Many Lettori now took and won cases for the settlements before the local courts, but this recourse to local justice was cut off by the most brazen of Italy’s attempts to evade the rulings of the CJEU: the Gelmini law of 2010.

The Gelmini law retrospectively interpreted the March 2004 law, placing limits on the settlements due to Lettori. Anthony Green, a Lettore at the University of Bari, set up and has moderated Lettori since the turn of the century. Never was the mood in the exchanges on this e-group as grim as after the enactment of this law. A feeling took hold that Italy would outwit the rule of EU law whatever the measures taken. By now Allué had retired without ever having worked under the parity of treatment conditions to which her CJEU victories entitled her. On the annual commemorations of Pilar Allué Day, colleagues with gallows humour gauge their chances of working under a non-discriminatory contract before they too retire.

A question which could arise is why, given their mistreatment by their university employers, have the Lettori chosen to remain in Italy? Citizens of almost all EU member states, teaching the languages and culture of their home countries, they invariably give similar answers. Married in many instances to Italian citizens, their children often educated at the very universities which discriminate against them, they are integrated into Italian society to a degree which renders breaking these links difficult. Professional considerations too play a part. Over their careers Lettori have remained highly committed to their work, with many making noteworthy contributions to university teaching.

EU law: The Allué Line of Litigation

EU Court of Justice: It is the pinnacle institution of the EU, with supremacy over all the courts of the member states. Located in Luxembourg, it has 27 Judges – one per member state. Normally the Court sits in chambers of 3 to 5 judges, with the Grand Chamber presiding in particularly important cases. Reference for preliminary ruling cases and infringement cases make up the bulk of the Court’s workload.

References for Preliminary Rulings: These are essentially questions sent by the local courts of the member states of the EU on the compatibility of national law with EU law. Both the Allué cases come under this heading.

Infringement Proceedings: These are taken by the European Commission, as Guardian of the Treaties, for perceived breaches of EU law. Should a member state fail to implement an infringement ruling against it, the Commission is empowered to open a follow-on enforcement case and ask for the imposition of pecuniary penalties against the member state in breach.

Complainant: Though not technically party to the proceedings in infringement cases, complainants enjoy certain important procedural rights, such as the right to lodge documents with the Commission and to hold meetings with the case officers. The quality of the evidence submitted by complainants is crucial for the success of the proceedings, as is a thorough knowledge of how the Commission interprets the pertinent case law.

Legal Service: Agents of the Legal Service represent the Commission before the CJEU. The language of the infringement proceedings is that of the defendant member state. As one commentator rather caustically put it, member states enjoy the privilege of being prosecuted in their own languages.

Lettori victories before the CJEU

  • Pilar Allué and Carmel Mary Coonan v Università degli studi di Venezia. 30 May 1989
  • Pilar Allué and Carmel Mary Coonan and others v Università degli studi di Venezia and Università degli studi di Parma. 02 August 1993
  • Commission of the European Communities v Italian Republic. 26 June 2001
  • Commission of the European Communities v Italian Republic. 18 July 2006

Henry Rodgers teaches at “La Sapienza” University of Rome. He is a founder member of Asso.CEL.L, an official complainant in the European Commission’s infringement proceedings against Italy. As a Lettore, his research interests lie in the field of genre analysis and the design of relevant career specific courses for students of the Faculties of Jurisprudence, Economics and Political Science.

Images courtesy of Laurent ANTONELLI and Robert Angelo Barone
Henry Rodgers
Henry Rodgers
Henry Rodgers teaches at “La Sapienza” University of Rome. He is a founder member of Asso.CEL.L, an official complainant in the European Commission’s infringement proceedings against Italy. As a Lettore, his research interests lie in the field of genre analysis and the design of relevant career specific courses for students of the Faculties of Jurisprudence, Economics and Political Science.
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