According to the generally accepted understanding, judicial activism arises when a court behaves improperly, straying beyond the limits of the judicial function and acting like a legislature.
It is convincing that in the great majority of the cases the Court of Justice of the European Union fulfils the roles assigned to it by the founding treaties of the European Union without any excess, but there are decisions which may be characterized as activist, be they necessary or useful for the proper functioning of the European legal system, and there are decisions (refusing or avoiding to decide) which may be qualified as manifestations of judicial passivism.
Judicial passivism is defined in the narrow sense of the term, i.e., when the court clearly refuses or avoids to decide the case before it, or does not answer the question legitimately referred to it. In the jurisprudence of the CJEU, such cases arise when the Court systematically waits for the withdrawal of the action, exceeds the reasonable time of the proceedings, or does not answer the question raised in the preliminary ruling procedure by the national court. The inadmissibility of questions referred by national courts may be perceived as passivism when the qualification of ‘not a court or tribunal’ in the sense of Article 267 TFEU is questionable, or when the scope of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is defined too narrowly. Cases may arise – at least in theory – in which the Court, while it would be in a position to act, defers the question to the EU or the Member State’s legislator or to the national judge to decide, with the not entirely convincing qualification of the act under scrutiny in annulment proceedings as ‘not an act for the Article 263 TFEU’. The label ‘judicial passivism in a broad sense of the term’ is used when the Court sticks to its position in a questionable manner (conservatism as passivism), steps back from its earlier position, narrowing the scope of EU law expressly or implicitly overruling its former decision, or it introduces new conditions with the same result (retreat).
It has been demonstrated that the Court systematically opposed the Member States, the Commission and the parties in the main proceedings, arguing in favour of inadmissibility of referrals for preliminary questions − the Court avoided, in a large number of cases, the temptation of judicial passivism. On the other hand, the Court’s increased rigour in the preliminary ruling procedures is detectable in recent years. The Court took a less benevolent approach towards the qualification of the referring body as ‘court or tribunal’; the questions proved to be ‘hypothetical’ more often than before, and more importantly, the lack of sufficient information regarding the factual and regulatory context led more easily to inadmissibility.
The driving forces behind the passivism of the Courts of the European Union are the ‘reasonableness’ of the judiciary in a time of crisis of the European integration, self-defence against the overburden of case-law and against unnecessary pressure from the public, in order to maintain the health of the management of justice and a certain ‘path-dependence’ as far as the traditional theoretical foundations of European integration are concerned.