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By Joel Dahlquist (Uppsala University and  The Arbitration Station Podcast)

As the first arbitral awards involving Spain’s reforms of the renewable energy industry are coming in, we are also seeing the first challenges of such awards. Some of these awards are rendered under the ICSID Convention, which means that any annulment proceeding must be brought to an ad hoc annulment committee established in accordance with the ICSID Convention. Many other arbitrations, however, are heard outside of the ICISD system. In these cases, the challenge must be brought to the domestic courts at the place of arbitration.

One example of the latter is the case Novenergia v. Spain, which was heard under the SCC Rules, with the legal seat in Stockholm. The tribunal rendered its award in February this year, ordering Spain to pay compensation of € 53,3 million for a breach of the Energy Charter Treaty’s (“ECT”) fair and equitable treatment clause.

Spanish media last week reported that the Svea Court of Appeal had “annulled” the arbitral award. This is not correct. In fact, the challenge case has only begun. Instead, the decision that the reports referred to was a procedural one: the Svea Court decided, upon request from Spain, to stay any enforcement of the award. This means that the investors cannot enforce the award, at least not in Sweden, while the challenge is pending (or until the Court reverses its order).

In the main part of its submission to the Svea Court, the Spanish government advances several arguments to support its request that the Court set aside the arbitral award. Most notably, the state argues that the arbitral tribunal exceeded its jurisdiction in hearing the case. The primary grounds for this claim are based on the recent Achmea decision by the European Court of Justice (“ECJ”).

In Spain’s view – and this was advanced also immediately after the Achmea decision, when Spain unsuccessfully asked the arbitral tribunal to reconsider its award, which was rendered just before Achmea – the arbitral tribunal did not have jurisdiction, because the arbitration clause of the ECT is incompatible with EU law. Spain claims that Article 26 of the ECT is not valid in intra-EU relations, based on the ECJ’s Achmea reasoning. As a primary ground, Spain claims that it has not agreed to arbitrate under the ECT in arbitrations brought by investors from other EU member states (Novenergia is incorporated in Luxembourg). In the alternative – if the Court finds that Article 26 does contain an offer from Spain to arbitrate – Spain argues that this offer is invalid; otherwise the ECT would allow EU member states to develop a parallel procedural system to try cases that should be properly tried within the EU judicial system.

Another noteworthy aspect of the challenge is that Spain expressly encourages Svea Court of Appeal to refer the case to the ECJ by way of a preliminary reference under Article 267 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Spain made this request in the alternative, i.e. if the Svea Court were to find that Article 26 of the ECT is applicable. If that is the case, Spain argues, the ECJ must be consulted. Although Swedish courts are relatively reluctant to ask for preliminary references, there is a case to be made that the ECJ did not sufficiently address the status of the Energy Charter Treaty in the Achmea decision, which only concerned intra-EU bilateral investment treaties, and not multilateral treaties, such as the ECT, to which the EU is also a party. A clarification on how the ECT fits into the post-Achmea regime would therefore be welcome.

Spain also advanced other grounds as to why the Novenergia award should be set aside, but for the wider audience of international lawyers it is clear that the EU law related aspects are the most interesting. With this development, we have now entered a new stage in the post-Achmea debate: the area of domestic courts. For example, Poland has also made a similar argument in its challenge against another arbitral award seated in Stockholm. Thus, a court in an EU member state will soon have to decide what implications the Achmea decision has for arbitrations that are legally seated within that EU member state. It is safe to say that we will hear more from these cases.

For more details on this and other investment arbitrations affected by the Achmea decision, see this recent report from Investment Arbitration Reporter.

Follow Joel at @joeldahlquist .