Constitutional crunch as Italy judges nix ECJ lettori ruling

Jude Kirton-Darling

ROME - A Member of the European Parliament’s Petitions Committee, Jude Kirton-Darling, has strongly criticised the European Commission’s impotence towards asserting authority after the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation has broken EU law in order to uphold their institutional “contempt for the rights” of foreign nationals teaching in the corrupt Italian University system.

The continued controversy over the unequal treatment of foreign lecturers in the Italian university system has slowly festered in the background of the political scene. Nepotism, or protectionism of the complex political/academic class, is rife in the Italian system and has been described as “unacceptable discrimination", by UK Minister for Europe and the Americas, Sir Alan Duncan.

In 1980 such discrimination was part of Italian law as Art 28, DPR 382 stating that lettori salaries could not be higher than that of assistant professors. In the years that follow lettori were re-deployed on annual contracts renewable for 5 years, which was later ruled unconstitutional by the Italian Constitutional Court. Later the European Court of Justice ruled other such discriminations illegal in the Italian system in 1989, 1993, 1997, 2001, 2006, and 2008.

The first major case against this system was in 1989 and since then discrimination against foreign professors, taking the form of lesser opportunities and lower pay and pensions, has been well documented in the courts since then.

The European Parliament found in 2010 that “blatant discrimination on grounds of nationality was revealed on numerous occasions in the case of foreign language teachers (‘lettori’) in Italy, who have been struggling for decades against discriminatory treatment with respect to security of tenure, career development, pensions and social security” which, in theory, should have been addressed by Supreme Court of Italy.

The Italian legal system is subservient to the European Court of Justice in accordance with the terms of membership in the European Union. Their court system must act in within European law which mandates clearly against the discrimination of foreign workers as addressed specifically in the 6 ECJ rulings. Marginal reforms have been made within the Italian system yet, functionally, little change has occurred.

The 2008 ECJ ruling is a case of discrimination against a Belgian National. In 2011 in the Florentine Court of Appeal duly implemented the principles laid down by the ECJ in 2008.

However, in July 2017, the case was re-heard by a full house of judges in the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation. As this case concerned EU law, the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to pass a verdict on it and should have passed it up to the European Court of Justice, as required by the terms of EU Treaty. Instead, the Italian Supreme Court decided to rule beyond its legal jurisdiction and openly defied prior verdicts of the European Court of Justice.

Ms Kirton-Darling’s full statement is as follows:

“The decision by the Italian Supreme Court is totally unacceptable. The court has shown contempt for the rights of the foreign lecturers who have come to Italy to teach and to contribute to Italian society, by sanctioning discrimination against them. At a time when the EU is working to secure the rights of its citizens in the UK after Brexit, it must also show the same determination to protect the rights of its citizens within the EU. It is difficult to understand why the Commission has not taken strong action to ensure the primacy and respect of EU law, which is their responsibility as a 'guardian of the Treaties'.”

David Petrie, Chairman of the Association of Foreign Lecturers in Italy has stated in a letter published in the Financial Times on 11 July 2017 that the Italian Supreme Court “overruled the ECJ and in so doing asserted its supremacy over the Luxembourg court.” “This challenge, Petrie says, “wreaks havoc on the entire European project by sending out the message to protectionist states that they need not follow the rules of the Treaty they signed up to but can cherry pick on which ECJ rulings they like and overturn those they do not”.


David Petrie