Published in research.vub., 6.11.2023

Those of us involved in academic writing, specifically with legal writing, are all too familiar with the problem: there is no EU-specific citation style. All our books, articles or other contributions follow one of the main US or British styles: Harvard-style, Chicago-style, Oxford-style (OSCOLA) etc. There simply is no European equivalent to replace, or even particularise and complement, them.

This is not a matter of (European) pride (although, in a way it also is, see below). It is mostly a practical matter. All the above citation styles have common law (US and British) in mind. They include detailed instructions on how to cite US legal instruments, bills etc in their various stages of effect, but they certainly do not live up to the same standards of attention to detail when it comes to the EU law-making particulars.

Nowhere else is this more evident than in automated citation software. All relevant tools (I use Zotero and EndNote) have numerous fields covering extensively all common law law-making details but none whatsoever for its EU equivalents (to say nothing of any Member-State particularities). The only thing left for us therefore to do is to improvise each time, either affecting the style itself (possible only to “power users”) or to wait until the last minute prior to submission, “break the link” with the software, and correct by hand (which immediately deprives the software of one of its most important functionalities).

The situation is not getting better, it is getting only worse. All of the above refer to legal acts. I have said nothing so far about case-law. There too we have a problem, with all these style guides and software tools giving us very little help when it comes to referencing European case law, be it from the courts in Luxembourg, Strasbourg, or in Member States. The above style guides, expectedly, do not give us any specific guidance as to citing these decisions, some courts have gone ahead and issued their own guidelines anyway, and whatever automated fields (in Zotero, Endnote and the like) already exist for case law are simply not relevant. Consequently, we unavoidably have to follow the improvisation pattern described above (manual entry just before submission, with provisional storing of citation details in whatever unrelated fields anybody chooses). However, things are going to get worse when the ECLI identifier will become ubiquitous. I imagine that soon all EU case law citation work will have to be done by hand, the difficulty of this task undermining the widespread use of the ECLI system itself.

(Only while searching online for any ECLI updates did I become aware of the ELI, that has apparently only recently come into effect. Within the above context, I think it will only add to our troubles as regards EU law referencing.)

I claimed above that this is not a matter of European pride but of practicality. Perhaps this is not entirely true. Other than the obvious paradox of analysing EU and Member-State law following “American Psychological Association (APA) Style, 7th edition”, any “Brussels effect” that anyone would be willing to acknowledge is undermined in this manner. One cannot talk about the influence of EU law worldwide if the “technicalities” supporting it have not been sorted out. The law is not a static, self-producing mechanism, it is a process nurtured by legal practitioners, law schools and legal scholars. All of them have to excel, if EU law is reach any level of global standard. All of them have to be afforded with the tools to accomplish this. If the basics are missing (an EU style guide, or enough research money to law schools – but that is an entirely different matter) then the whole (imagined) edifice will at some point crumble.

What could be done? The solution is simple and fairly obvious, to me at least: an EU style guide needs to be devised, to be followed by all European legal scholars and publishers. (My own preference would be for a footnote-reference instead of an author-date one, because of the flexibility afforded by it and because if one has to cite more than two sources at once these parentheses at the end of a sentence can get really long.) Once finalised, this style would then have to be transposed into the digital environment as well, with relevant fields appearing in the automated referencing software tools that are by now widely used also in the European academic community.

Obviously, we do not need to reinvent the wheel while carrying out the above exercise. Whatever is good enough as regards general scholarship (books, book chapters, articles, reports etc.) for established styles such as Chicago or Oscola (or Harvard, if that becomes the case) could be followed in an EU style guide as well. Basically, it is on EU law and case law (as well as, on texts coming from Strasbourg) where our efforts need to focus. Even under this assumption, however, this is by no means an easy feat; agreement in the analogue world would have to be followed by adaptations in the digital world.

Who could undertake this task? I believe that the obvious candidate would be the EU Publications Office. It already caters for the internal referencing needs of the EU, it is therefore in a unique position (and, I would imagine, has the necessary resources) to undertake this task. Its institutional role would also warrant that the style guide would be followed by all and kept up to date, as appropriate (it is not by chance that all of the American style guides have completed several editions already).

Citations and style guides may sound trivial to many, but they are anything but. If the work of colleagues is the lifeblood of academics, one having to stand on the shoulders of giants, citations are the veins that carry it through and show us the way. EU law is gaining daily in depth and complexity (and, one would argue, relevance), and an EU-specific citation style is long overdue.