By Sébastien Thomas
In its judgment of 17 December 2015, Spain a.o./Commission, the General Court once again annulled a Commission decision dealing with a fiscal State aid scheme on the grounds that the Commission did not sufficiently establish that the scheme in question conferred a selective advantage to its beneficiaries.
Strikingly, the General Court’s judgment was very much inspired by two of its previous judgments – albeit in another composition – in the cases Autogrill España and Banco Santander . In those cases, the General Court found that for the condition of selectivity to be satisfied, a category of undertakings which are exclusively favoured by the measure at issue must be identified in all cases and found that “the mere finding that a derogation from the common or ‘normal’ tax regime has been provided for cannot give rise to selectivity” . This is especially the case when the measure at issue does not exclude, a priori, any category of undertakings from taking advantage of it. 
Without entering into the merits of these two judgments, against which the Commission has brought separate appeals, the General Court’s judgment in the Spanish Tax Lease (STL) case deserves special attention, for it contains also interesting developments on the links between the separate notions of advantage and selectivity, and the need for the Commission and for the EU courts to pay special attention to the identification of the correct beneficiary when dealing with State aid schemes involving multiple layers of actors. Continue reading
By Wessel Geursen
The free movement of capital provision of Art. 63 TFEU applies ratione loci ‘worldwide’: to both capital movements within EU’s internal market and to movements from the internal market to third countries (and vice versa). Or perhaps almost worldwide, since the question arises whether the free movement of capital also applies to the British, Danish, Dutch and French Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs), which are not part of the internal market but associated with the EU?
In 2011, the CJEU decided in Case C-384/09 Prunus that Art. 63 TFEU also applied to the OCTs as if they were third countries; they are not third countries, since they áre part of the EU Member States (such as the Caribbean island of Curacao which is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, both constitutionally as under public international law; under EU-law, Curacao is an OCT).
Now, only three years later, the CJEU has decided otherwise in joined cases C-24/12 and C-27/12 X BV and TBG Limited. It came to the conclusion that not Art. 63 TFEU applies to the OCTs, but that a special capital movement provision which is contained in the OCT Association Decision applies in relation to the OCTs. This latter provision liberalises – in my view – ‘less’ than Art. 63 TFEU, since it ‘only’ applies to ‘direct investments in companies’, whereas Art. 63 TFEU also applies to (at least) 12 other categories of capital movements, such as investments in immovable property.
“De nos jours, il est difficile d’échapper au monde du football. Le football intéresse pratiquement tout le monde, même l’administration fiscal.” This deep sigh introduces Advocate General Kokott’s opinion (not yet available in English) in Sabou, and it seems to me that the Advocate General feels just as enthusiastic about this sport as I tend to do. To both our luck, the decision handed down last Tuesday only marginally touches upon the sport itself (I hope that the esteemed football-aficionados among our readers will forgive me and nonetheless bear with me), and rather quickly turns towards the topic of mutual assistance among Member States authorities on direct taxation under Directive 77/799; more specifically, the extent to which EU fundamental rights need to be respected in the process of requesting and receiving such assistance. For the Court, EU fundamental rights apply in principle, but do not have much impact in practice due to the rules of EU law at issue. Continue reading
We have covered on this blog the remarkable Åkerberg Fransson decision (see here and here), in which the Court essentially held that the scope of application of EU fundamental rights was identical to that of the scope of application of EU law itself. The Texdata case – apart from some internal market law aspects we will subsequently cover as well – can mostly be seen as a confirmation of that case law. This is remarkable because the setting in the case is less contentious than in Åkerberg Fransson, but the Court seems to be willing to use already this early opportunity to confirm and emphasize that Åkerberg Fransson is the law and here to stay. The case concerns a requirement in Austrian company law which creates – based on Article 12 of Eleventh Council Directive 89/666/EEC – a system of automatic penalty payments for the failure of a capital company in another Member State with a branch in Austria to submit certain accounting documents within a nine-month period. The Court was called to examine the compatibility of this system with the Directive, with the freedom of establishment and with the principle of effective judicial protection and the rights of defence as enshrined in Articles 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and 6 (2) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
While I cannot go into every detail of the case for the present post, I will first cover the scrutiny by the Court under the requirements of the Directive, which helps to understand the details of the Austrian regime of sanctions; I will then briefly address aspects of the freedom of establishment; and last but not least I will focus on the scope of fundamental rights review exercised by the Court. Continue reading
Today’s decision by the Grand Chamber in C-617/10 Åkerberg Fransson is a landmark decision on the scope of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, EU constitutional law, and the relationship between national and EU law in general. As I explained in an earlier post, it was not clear, until today, whether the Charter had the same scope of fundamental rights protection as under the ‘old’ regime of fundamental rights protection ensured by the CJEU. The CJEU dealt with the issue head on stating that article 51 (1) of the Charter ‘confirms the Court’s case-law relating to the extent to which actions of the Member States must comply with the requirements flowing from the fundamental rights guaranteed in the legal order of the European Union’ (para. 18).
The scope of EU fundamental rights protection and the influence of the Charter of Fundamental Rights on this scope is a much discussed topic among EU constitutional lawyers. As is well-known, the recognition of fundamental rights as part of the general principles of EU law by the Court is not new. Already in the cases of Stauder and Internationale Handelsgesellschaft, handed down in 1969 and 1974 respectively, the Court recognized fundamental rights as part of the general principles of EU law. It did so to anticipate challenges to the primacy of EU law by national constitutional courts and the Court therefore took great care in stressing the autonomous nature of EU fundamental rights protection. This means that the Court has maintained authority in determining the content of EU fundamental rights protection and thus remained the ultimate interpreter of EU law. However, before the coming into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, there was no EU catalogue of rights formally binding on the EU as such. Rather, the Court drew inspiration from international treaties and national constitutions, whilst at the same time maintaining the autonomy of the EU rights standard. With the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty the Charter of Fundamental Rights has also become formally binding on the EU. This means there now is a binding catalogue of rights at the EU level.
A contentious issue is whether the Charter of Fundamental Rights alters the scope of the EU fundamental rights standard laid down in previous case-law of the Court. In its case law, the Court has held that fundamental rights recognized as general principles of EU law apply not only to the acts of the EU institutions but also to the acts of Member States in certain circumstances. Generally, Member States have to act in accordance with fundamental rights recognized at the EU level ‘whenever they act within the scope of EU law’. In the case-law of the Court this includes at least two situations. First, Member States are bound by the EU rights standard where the implement and enforce EU law. Second, the Member States are also bound by the EU rights standard where they derogate from EU law provisions (see cases such as Schmidberger, and ERT). However, when precisely a Member State acts within the ‘scope of EU law’ is not entirely clear. The dividing line between situations within the scope and those outside the scope of EU law often appears arbitrary, as was pointed by AG Sharpston in the case of Zambrano.
Member States are obliged to take all necessary measures to ensure fulfillment of their obligations under EU law according to article 4(3) TEU. This includes taking all legislative and administrative measures appropriate for ensuring collection of VAT in conformity with the obligations imposed on Member States by the EU VAT Directive (Directive 2006/112/EC) and its predecessors (amongst which the Sixth Directive, 1977/388/EEC). One may ask whether national legislation, by which a national court is effectively prohibited to judge in certain long-lasting VAT disputes in favour of the tax authorities, complies with the Member State’s obligation to collect VAT. In the case Belvedere Construzioni Srl (Case C-500/10) this was under discussion vis-à-vis the principle of resolving judicial proceedings in tax matters within reasonable time under Article 6(1) of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Somewhat hidden is furthermore the problem whether tax authorities can directly invoke an EU directive to set aside national law to the disadvantage of a taxpayer.
What is the case? Well, Italy has introduced a decree by which (in essence) courts have to conclude tax disputes automatically if the first actions in the dispute have been lodged more than ten years before the date of entry into force of the decree (at the 26th of May 2010) and if two courts have already decided in favour of the tax payer. By introducing the decree, Italy aimed to comply with the obligation to resolve judicial proceedings in tax matters within reasonable time under Article 6(1) of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. According to the decree, the referring court in the case at hand has to conclude the VAT dispute between Belvedere Construzioni Srl and the Italian tax authorities automatically in favour of Belvedere Construzioni Srl. However, the referring court calls into question the conformity of the decree with EU-law.