Friday, 29 August 2014

(Progressively formed) res iudicata all'italiana: or how EU law's supremacy can deactivate final judgments (C-213/13)

In its Judgment in Impresa Pizzarotti, C-213/13, EU:C:2014:2067 the CJEU followed the Opinion of AG Wahl (EU:C:2014:335, commented here) and determined that, on a proper construction of the applicable public procurement directives, where the main object of a contract is the execution of a work corresponding to the requirements expressed by the contracting authority (in the case at hand, the building of a new city of justice in Bari), that contract constitutes a public works contract and is not, therefore, covered by the exclusion applicable to public service contracts for the acquisition or rental, by whatever financial means, of land, existing buildings or other immovable property or concerning rights thereon, even if it contains an undertaking to let the work in question.
 
From the strict perspective of procurement law, the Impresa Pizzarotti Judgment is straightforward and clarifies the fact that a decisive influence of the contracting authority in the design of the works to be carried out suffices to trigger the application of the procurement rules (paras 39-52). Hence, in the case at hand, the lack of tender for the contract which implementation Pizzarotti intended rendered it illegal and, under the applicable remedies Directives, excluded any legal value to such contract for the future lease of buildings still to be constructed.
 
In my view, however, the case raises a second issue that may be much more relevant. As part of the convoluted litigation that led to the referral to the CJEU, the Italian Consiglio di Stato had recognised certain rights to Pizzarotti under the applicable Italian administrative law provisions. However, giving effect to those rights would result in a situation contrary to EU law, given the (unfulfilled) obligation to tender the contract for the lease of the buildings to be constructed. The difficulty of avoiding the breach of EU law derived from the fact that the previous ruling of the Consiglio di Stato had become final and had the force of res iudicata
 
In those circumstances, however, the Consiglio di Stato indicated to the CJEU that its own case-law made provision for an exceptional "progressively formed res iudicata" that would allow it to "supplement the original operative part of one of its judgments by an implementation decision" (para 27 or, rectius, disregard its finality?) and asked whether it was appropriate to do so under the circumstances of the case.
 
The CJEU reacted in the only possible manner and, after stressing the importance of the principle of res iudicata and its belonging to the procedural autonomy of Member States, did not let the opportunity of relishing a capriccio all'italiana in the form of progressively formed res iudicata.

Given the relatively surrealist reasoning to which the CJEU is forced by the naivety of the Consiglio di Stato's referral, it is worth reproducing it almost in full:
53      [...] the referring court asks, in essence, whether it may decide that a ruling which it has made which has led to a situation which is incompatible with the EU legislation on public works contracts is ineffective.
54      [...] in the absence of EU legislation in this area, the rules implementing the principle of res judicata are a matter for the national legal order, in accordance with the principle of the procedural autonomy of the Member States, but must be consistent with the principles of equivalence and effectiveness (see, to that effect, the judgment in Fallimento Olimpiclub, C‑2/08, EU:C:2009:506, paragraph 24 and the case-law cited).
55 In its request for a preliminary ruling, the referring court indicates that, according to its case-law, it may, under certain conditions, supplement the original operative part of one of its judgments by implementation decisions, that possibility giving rise to what it terms ‘progressively formed res judicata’.
56 If — and it is for the referring court to ascertain whether this is the case — the conditions for applying that procedure are met in respect of the decision in Judgment No 4267/2007, a decision which is mentioned in paragraph 15 of this judgment and which — according to the order for reference — alone has the force of res judicata in the present case, it is for that court, having regard to the principle of equivalence, to make use of that procedure, favouring, from among ‘the numerous different possibilities of implementation’ which it states may be used in respect of that decision, the solution which, in accordance with the principle of effectiveness, ensures compliance with the EU legislation on public works contracts.
57      [...]
58 On the other hand, if the referring court is led to the view that the correct application of that legislation conflicts, having regard to the applicable domestic rules of procedure, with its Judgment No 4267/2007 or with its decisions of 15 April and 3 December 2010 implementing that judgment, attention should be drawn to the importance, both in the legal order of the European Union and in national legal systems, of the principle of res judicata. In order to ensure both stability of the law and legal relations and the sound administration of justice, it is important that judicial decisions which have become definitive after all rights of appeal have been exhausted or after expiry of the time-limits provided for in that connection can no longer be called into question (judgments in Kapferer, C‑234/04, EU:C:2006:178, paragraph 20; Commission v Luxembourg, C‑526/08, EU:C:2010:379, paragraph 26; and ThyssenKrupp Nirosta v Commission, C‑352/09 P, EU:C:2011:191, paragraph 123).
59 Therefore, EU law does not require a national court to disapply domestic rules of procedure conferring finality on a judgment, even if to do so would make it possible to remedy a domestic situation which is incompatible with EU law (see, to that effect, the judgments in Eco Swiss, C‑126/97, EU:C:1999:269, paragraphs 46 and 47; Kapferer, EU:C:2006:178, paragraphs 20 and 21; Fallimento Olimpiclub, EU:C:2009:506, paragraphs 22 and 23; Asturcom Telecomunicaciones, C‑40/08, EU:C:2009:615, paragraphs 35 to 37; and Commission v Slovakia, C‑507/08, EU:C:2010:802, paragraphs 59 and 60).
60 Accordingly, EU law does not require a judicial body automatically to go back on a judgment having the authority of res judicata in order to take into account the interpretation of a relevant provision of EU law adopted by the Court after delivery of that judgment.
61 That analysis cannot be undermined by the judgment in Lucchini (C‑199/05, EU:C:2007:434), cited by the referring court: it was in a highly specific situation, in which the matters at issue were principles governing the division of powers between the Member States and the European Union in the area of State aid, that the Court found, in essence, that EU law precludes the application of a provision of national law, such as Article 2909 of the Italian Civil Code, which seeks to lay down the principle of res judicata, in so far as the application of that provision would prevent the recovery of State aid which was granted in breach of EU law and which has been found to be incompatible with the common market in a decision of the European Commission which has become final (see, to that effect, the judgment in Fallimento Olimpiclub, EU:C:2009:506, paragraph 25). However, issues of that nature, relating to the division of powers, do not arise in the present case.
62 That said, if the applicable domestic rules of procedure provide the possibility, under certain conditions, for a national court to go back on a decision having the authority of res judicata in order to render the situation compatible with national law, that possibility must prevail if those conditions are met, in accordance with the principles of equivalence and effectiveness, so that the situation at issue in the main proceedings is brought back into line with the EU legislation on public works contracts.
63 In that regard, it should be emphasised that that legislation contains fundamental rules of EU law in that it is intended to ensure the application of the principles of equal treatment of tenderers and of transparency in order to open up undistorted competition in all the Member States (see, to that effect, the judgments in Commission v Portugal, C‑70/06, EU:C:2008:3, paragraph 40; Michaniki, C‑213/07, EU:C:2008:731, paragraph 55; Commission v Cyprus, C‑251/09, EU:C:2011:84, paragraphs 37 to 39; and Manova, C‑336/12, EU:C:2013:647, paragraph 28).
64 In the light of the foregoing, the answer to the second question is that, to the extent that it is authorised to do so by the applicable domestic rules of procedure, a national court — such as the referring court — which has given a ruling at last instance, without a reference having first been made to the Court of Justice under Article 267 TFEU, that has led to a situation which is incompatible with the EU legislation on public works contracts must either supplement or go back on that definitive ruling so as to take into account any interpretation of that legislation provided by the Court subsequently (C-213/13 at paras 53-64, emphasis added).
In my view, given the consequences that an infringement of EU law by the domestic courts can have and the ensuing potential for State liability claims (see Traghetti del Mediterraneo, C-173/03, EU:C:2006:391], Member States would be quite foolish not to adopt the concept of (progressively formed) res iudicata all'italiana, at least for instances of subsequent violation of EU law. Unless they take legal certainty and predicatability seriously, that is!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

CJEU fuels joint application of Arts 102 & 106(1) TFEU to suppress unequal conditions of competition (C-553/12P)

In its Judgment in Commission v DEI, C-553/12 P, EU:C:2014:2083, the CJEU has (further) clarified the threshold of competitive distortion required in the application of Arts 102 and 106(1) TFEU to State measures concerned with public undertakings or undertakings with special or exclusive rights.
 
This Judgment goes beyond the precedent in MOTOE, C-49/07, EU:C:2008:376 (and others cited therein) in the trend of lowering the threshold of competitive distortion required in the declaration of incompatibility of State regulation with EU competition rules. The step forward fundamentally consists in decoupling the issue of "unequal conditions of competition" from the push of the State towards abuse of a dominant position through regulation, and in recognising (not as an obiter dictum) that the creation of "unequal conditions of competition" in favour of public undertakings or undertakings with special or exclusive rights suffices to find an infringement of Articles 106(1) and 102 TFEU [provided, of course, that the "public mission exception" of Article 106(2) TFEU is not applicable, which was not considered in the case].
 
Such decoupling is particularly clear in the plea submitted by the Commission (which the CJEU will accept, bit by bit, in its Judgment), whereby it argued that
35 [...] when Article [102 TFEU] is applied in conjunction with Article [106(1) TFEU] to situations where there is inequality of opportunity between economic operators, and thus distorted competition which stems from a State measure, that State measure in itself constitutes an infringement [...] It is therefore sufficient to prove that the measure indeed created inequality of opportunity by favouring the privileged public undertaking and thereby affected the structure of the market by allowing that undertaking to maintain, strengthen or extend its dominant position to another, neighbouring or downstream market, for example by preventing new competitors from entering that market (C-553/12 P, at para 35).
There are some passages in the Commission v DEI Judgment that are worth highlighting:
46 [...] infringement of Article [106(1) TFEU] in conjunction with Article [102 TFEU] may be established irrespective of whether any abuse actually exists. All that is necessary is for the Commission to identify a potential or actual anti‑competitive consequence liable to result from the State measure at issue. Such an infringement may thus be established where the State measures at issue affect the structure of the market by creating unequal conditions of competition between companies, by allowing the public undertaking or the undertaking which was granted special or exclusive rights to maintain (for example by hindering new entrants to the market), strengthen or extend its dominant position over another market, thereby restricting competition, without it being necessary to prove the existence of actual abuse.
47 In those circumstances, it follows that [...] it is sufficient to show that that potential or actual anti-competitive consequence is liable to result from the State measure at issue; it is not necessary to identify an abuse other than that which results from the situation brought about by the State measure at issue (C-553/12 P, at paras 46-47, emphasis added).
These very clear statements of the sufficiency of identifying the creation (or perpetuation) of "unequal conditions of competition" are further developed later in the Judgment:
57 [...] if inequality of opportunity between economic operators, and thus distorted competition, is the result of a State measure, such a measure, be it legislative, regulatory or administrative, constitutes an infringement of Article [106(1) TFEU] read in combination with Article [102 TFEU] (C-553/12 P, at para 57, emphasis added).
In my view, by switching from a language concerned with potential abuses of a dominant position by the public undertaking or undertaking with special or exclusive rights, to a more clearly-spelled (and simple) focus on "unequal conditions of competition", the CJEU has fuelled the enforcement of these provisions against State action that perpetuates the dominant position of former monopolies and/or twarts the effectiveness of liberalisation measures. Hence, it should be welcome. In my view, this case can trigger much stronger enforcement in areas such as public procurement, where the continued award of contracts to a former monopoly on the basis of pre-existing rights surely ressembles the factual background of Commission v DEI.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Something to feel proud of

I just came back from my holidays and found my copy of V Kosta, N Skoutaris and V P Tzevelekos (eds), The EU Accession to the ECHR (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2014). The book is the reworked compilation of some of the papers presented at a conference in Brussels in November 2012, plus other interesting contributions. I also contribute a chapter on corporate fair trial rights  and competition law enforcement that was already available through SSRN. In the words of the editors:
Article 6 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) provides that the EU will accede to the system of human rights protection of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Protocol No 9 in the Treaty of Lisbon opens the way for accession. This represents a major change in the relationship between two organisations that have co-operated closely in the past, though the ECHR has hitherto exercised only an indirect constitutional control over the EU legal order through scrutiny of EU Member States. The accession of the EU to the ECHR is expected to put an end to the informal dialogue, and allegedly also competition between the two regimes in Europe and to establish formal (both normative and institutional) hierarchies.

In this new era, some old problems will be solved and new ones will appear. Questions of autonomy and independence, of attribution and allocation of responsibility, of co-operation, and legal pluralism will all arise, with consequences for the protection of human rights in Europe.

This book seeks to understand how relations between the two organisations are likely to evolve after accession, and whether this new model will bring more coherence in European human rights protection. The book analyses from several different, yet interconnected, points of view and relevant practice the draft Accession Agreement, shedding light on future developments in the ECHR and beyond. Contributions in the book span classic public international law, EU law and the law of the ECHR, and are written by a mix of legal and non-legal experts from academia and practice.
Looking at the contents of the book, I am truly impressed. And it seems that I am not the only one:
"This book will be essential reading for all those interested in the future judicial and legal organisation of Europe. The editors, the contributors and the publishers are all to be warmly congratulated on a splendid achievement in legal scholarship" From the foreword by Francis G Jacobs.
This is definitely something to be proud of. I hope other research projects will be similarly succesful. 

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Happy holidays!

I am closing the blog down for a while, as I am off for some holidays soon. Thank you for reading during this last semester and I hope you will stay in touch after the break. Happy Summer to everyone!

“Hanging Boy” (c) Robert Doisneau.
 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

... and Cut! Lights Out for the €274mn Spanish "Ciudad de la Luz" Film Studios (T-319/12)

In its Judgment of 3 July 2014 in Spain v Commission (Ciudad de la Luz), joined cases T-319/12 and T-321/12, EU:T:2014:604 (not available in English), the General Court (GC) reviewed Commission's Decision (2012) 3025 final and assessed the compatibility of a Spanish support scheme for the development of the Ciudad de la Luz film studios (a project initially promoted by the late Luis Garcia Berlanga) with the rules on State aid in Articles 107-109 TFEU.
The GC found the aid to be incompatible with the internal market and confirmed the obligation of the Valencia Regional Government to divest its €274mn stake in the film studios, where it originally invested in 2000. The Judgment raises some interesting points on the application of the market investor test to the development of this sort of culture-related facilities.
 
Firstly, at paras 38 to 45, the GC rejects any obligation of the European Commission to take into consideration average returns in a given sector, particularly where they are affected by a lack of data or there are concerns about their reliability. The GC clarifies, following the Judgment in Westdeutsche Landesbank Girozentrale v Commission [joined cases T-228/99 and T-233/99, EU:T:2003:57] that the average return is one amongst many factors that the Commission may take into account when assessing the likelihood that a private investor would undertake a given publicly-sponsored project. 
 
Nonetheless, the Commission is not bound to use it and, in any case, its assessments could not be limited to such an average return analysis. Indeed, the "utilization of the average rate of return in the sector concerned does not relieve the Commission of the obligation to make a complete analysis of all relevant elements of the transaction and its context, including the situation of the company and the market, in trying to check whether the recipient undertaking has benefitted from an economic advantage which it would not have obtained under normal market conditions" (para 45, own translation from Spanish).
 
Secondly, at paras 48 to 50, the GC grants very low probative value to the existence of independent consulting studies and viability plans commissioned by the public authority prior to its investment. The GC acknowledges that the existence of independent reports may serve as an indication of the public investment having been made in comparable terms to those of a private transaction.

However, the GC also clarifies that the "jurisprudence does not in any way support that the existence of such reports is in itself sufficient to consider that the beneficiary of that measure has not benefited from an economic advantage within the meaning of Article 107, paragraph 1 (...) the Member State concerned can not rely on the findings of reports of independent consultancy firms without offering itself an adequate response to the issues that a prudent investor would have considered in the context of the case" (para 50, own translation from Spanish, emphasis added).
 
Thirdly, the GC clearly upholds the method followed by the European Commission to estimate the cost of capital and the expected internal rate of return. Strikingly, although maybe not suprising for a country and a region that undertook too many loss-making infrastructure projects in the last decade (shamefully, for instance, the Castellon Airport), the Commission rightly found that "the net present value was negative for any cost of capital of between 5% and 6%. For all costs of capital higher than 10%, the net present value was sharply negative and relatively stable. In view of the results [and the information available to the public authority], according to which the cost of capital was of 16.66% in 2000 and 14.9% in 2004, it could have effectively concluded with a high degree of certainty that the project was not profitable" (para 61, own translation from Spanish).
 
Fourthly and  in a rather colourful way, in paras 87 to 95, the GC engages in an assessment of the economic data included in the works of a Spanish university professor [not named by the GC, but the works are those of P Fernandez, and mainly its paper: The Equity Premium in 150 Textbooks (Date posted: September 14, 2009; Last revised: November 26, 2013)]. In my view, the detailed discussion that the GC entertains about the use of those equity premium estimates is an example of the degree of financial sofistication that the Court can reach--but, equally, of the possible excess in the detail of the review, if compared with the literal tenor of Art 263(2) TFEU.
 
Fifthly, the GC also engages in a largely useless exercise concerned with the incorporation or not of additional sources of revenue in the Commission's assessments. In its Decision, the Commission had only taken into account the revenue from film making activities. Spanish authorities wanted to add the expected revenue from hotel and commercial exploitation of the premises. The GC, in paras 125 to 139, sorts out the issue in a Solomonic way. First, it finds that the Commission should have incorporated the additional revenue in its assessment. However, it then rejects the arguments of the appellants on the basis that, even with those additional revenues, the project would not have been viable.
 
In my view, the important factual point to stress is that the public call for developers launched by the Spanish region in 2005 was deserted and the developments never took place (para 135). If listening to the market is of any value, it seems that the Commission made the right call by not including the expected additional revenue.

Anyway, the case law is now more open to the inclusion of alternative sources of revenue in the public investment in complex infrastructure projects as a result of the Ciudad de la Luz Judgment.
 
Finally, in paras 152 to 159, the GC assesses the requirements applicable to private investments and their continuity in order to make the infrastructure project that receives public finance susceptible of a declaration of compatibility under the applicable block exemption regulations. In short, the GC takes a pragmatic approach and clearly determines that an initial investment of 25% of the equity that, due to subsequent increases in capital in which the private investor does not participate, is reduced to around 1.6% in under a year falls short from the requirement of substantial private investment in the project (paras 155-156). In my view, this is a strong point in the Judgment and definitely one oriented to prevent circumvention strategies such as the one clearly seen in the Ciudad de la Luz case.
 
All in all, the case is interesting (or depressing...) if one reads it from the perspective of the massive legal and financial arguments that can be created to cover a simple and worrying truth: that certain infrastructure projects are anti-economical and a brutal waste of public resources, probably only driven by politicans' interests. In that regard, the insights of the study by Flyvbjerg, Garbuio and Lovallo "Delusion and Deception in Large Infrastructure Projects: Two Models for Explaining and Preventing Executive Disaster" (2009) California Management Review 51(2): 170-193 will be worth re-reading (over and over). Now, in the short-term, the difficulty will be in trying to find a private buyer for such inviable film studios...

Monday, 7 July 2014

CJEU protects discriminatory green energy schemes and keeps inconsistency in EU free movement of goods law (C-573/12)

In its Judgment of 1 July 2014 in Ålands Vindkraft, C-573/12, EU:C:2014:2037, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) departed from the previous Opinion of Advocate General Bot [EU:C:2014:37] and considered that the Swedish system of support of green energy is compatible with Article 34 TFEU despite the fact that it includes restrictions to trade in energy (and green electricity certificates) on the basis of nationality (rectius, on the basis of the place of production of that energy).
 
In my opinion, the case is important because: 1) the CJEU did not follow the more honest and transparent approach advocated for by AG Bot and has now perpetuated the doubts concerning the compatibility of environmental protection and internal market policies [particularly due to the conflation of Art 36 TFEU and 'Cassis de Dijon' mandatory requirements, as grounds for the exemption of restrictions to free movement], 2) it relies on economic assessments and the principle of legitimate investor expectations to a point that, in my view, exceeds the traditional balance or concern with pure economic aspects in the design of trade-restrictive policies (as well as only taking into consideration the economic burdens of some of the economic agents involved), and 3) the apparently pragmatic approach adopted by the CJEU actually restricts the potential ability of the EU as a whole to achieve its environmental protection commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. Each of these points deserves some further comments.
 
0. Background
From the perspective of EU law on free movement of goods (art 34 TFEU), the Ålands Vindkraft Judgment is concerned with one of the classical 'conundrums' derived from every clash of policies and, more especifically, with the difficulties derived from the two-tier approach to the exemption of legislative measures that restrict trade in the pursuit of other goals.

The TFEU deals with those situations in a limited manner under Art 36 TFEU, which contains a restricted and exhaustive number of exceptions (numerus clausus) to the general prohibition of measures that restrict trade. The CJEU expanded the possibility to exempt other measures under the so-called 'mandatory requirements' theory as first established in Cassis de Dijon [Rewe-Zentral AG v Bundesmonopolverwaltung für Branntwein, 120/78,
EU:C:1979:42].
 
The main difference between the Art 36 TFEU exemptions and those based on Cassis mandatory requirements was, according to the canon, that the former applied to both directly and indirectly discriminatory measures, whereas the latter could only exempt non-discriminatory (or equally applicable) measures. In the specific case of environmental protection, given its non-inclusion in the exhaustive list of Art 36 TFEU, the canon implied that it could only be used to exempt non-discriminatory measures. However, ever since the 2003 Judgment in EVN and Wienstrom [C-448/01, EU:C:2003:651], there has been intense debate as to whether environmental protection could be subsumed or conflated with one of Art 36 TFEU heads of exemption (ie 'the protection of health and life of humans, animals or plants') and, consequently, also be used to exempt directly discriminatory measures [for discussion, see E Engle, 'Environmental Protection as an Obstacle to Free Movement of Goods: Realist Jurisprudence in Articles 28 and 30 of the E.C. Treaty' (2008) Journal of Law and Commerce 37: 113]. This was precisely the legal point to be addressed in Ålands Vindkraft.
 
1. An obscure departure from the clear and honest approach advocated by AG Bot
In his Opinion of 28 January 2014, and building on the more detailed proposal that he submitted in the Opinion in Essent Belgium [C-204/12 to C-208/12, EU:C:2013:294, not available in English] AG Bot took a bold step and suggested that "national legislation constituting a measure having equivalent effect to quantitative restrictions may be justified by the objective of environmental protection even if it is discriminatory, provided, however, that it undergoes a particularly rigorous proportionality test, one which I have referred to as ‘reinforced’" (para 79, emphasis added).
 
His proposal was basically aimed at overcoming the problematic conflation of environmental protection as a Cassis mandatory requirement and an (indirect) measure for the protection of health and life of humans, animals or plants. Moreover, the reinforced proportionality test (with all its problems), intended to reduce the margin of regulatory discretion that can be assigned to Member States under the Cassis doctrine.
 
However, the CJEU did not follow this bold, transparent and clear approach advocated for by AG Bot and, on the contrary and in an obscure manner, perpetuated the conflation in Ålands Vindkraft. Indeed, the CJEU considered that
77 According to settled case-law, national measures that are capable of hindering intra-Community trade may inter alia be justified by overriding requirements relating to protection of the environment (see, to that effect, Commission v Austria, EU:C:2008:717, paragraph 57 and the case-law cited).
78 In that regard, it should be noted that the use of renewable energy sources for the production of electricity, which legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings seeks to promote, is useful for the protection of the environment inasmuch as it contributes to the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, which are amongst the main causes of climate change that the European Union and its Member States have pledged to combat (see, to that effect, PreussenElektra, EU:C:2001:160, paragraph 73).
79 That being so, the increase in the use of renewable energy sources constitutes — as is explained, in particular, in recital 1 to Directive 2009/28 — one of the important components of the package of measures needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to comply with the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and with other Community and international greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments beyond the year 2012.
80 As the Court has pointed out, such an increase is also designed to protect the health and life of humans, animals and plants, which are among the public interest grounds listed in Article 36 TFEU (see, to that effect, PreussenElektra, EU:C:2001:160, paragraph 75). (C-573/12, paras 77 to 80, emphasis added).
From that point onwards, it is impossible to determine whether the CJEU bases its legal arguments in Art 36 TFEU as the protection of the health and life of humans, animals and plants is concerned or on the more general doctrine of mandatory or overriding requirements relating to the protection of the environment, or both. In my view, this is a lost opportunity for the clarification of this relevant point of EU law on free movement of goods. However, it may seem clear that (as Barnard justifies in The Substantive Law of the EU. The Four Freedoms, 4th edn, p. 172 and ff) the CJEU is not concerned with the legal basis used and that, currently, exemptions are fundamentally regulated under the principle of proportionality (but not necessarily under the 'reinforced' proportionality test advocated for by AG Bot). In itself, the perpetuation of this legal unclarity deserves some strong criticism. Not least, because of the flaws in the assessment of proportionality when it comes down to economic matters.
 
2. Unbalanced economic assessment and excessive reliance in (certain) legitimate expectations
The economic assessment of the measures that the CJEU carries out jeopardises the soundness of the proportionality test that it carries out in paras. 83 to 119 of the Ålands Vindkraft Judgment.
 
On the one hand, the CJEU follows recital 25 to Directive 2009/28 and stresses that "it is essential, in order to ensure the proper functioning of the national support schemes, that Member States be able to ‘control the effect and costs of their national support schemes according to their different potentials’, while maintaining investor confidence" (para. 99). Even further, it indicates that "the effectiveness of such a scheme requires by definition a measure of continuity sufficient, in particular, to ensure the fulfilment of the legitimate expectations of investors who have committed themselves to such projects, and the continued operation of those installations" (para. 103). In that regard, the CJEU adopts an approach to the protection of the budgetary planning and constraints that Member States unavoidably face (particularly in terms of avoiding claims for compensation) that ressembles, but goes further than its approach in the restrictions to free movement of persons when the viability of the healthcare system is concerned. However, this approach fails to take into consideration that the incentives to investors are not unidirectional when it comes to environmental protection.
 
In the case at hand, energy producers based in Sweden may well have a clear need for an avoidance of changes in the regulatory regime on the basis of which they invested in the creation of renewal energy production facilities. However, those same investors may also have a very strong financial interest in being able to benefit from lower production prices or lower prives for green energy certificates in other Member States (eg, by acquiring cheaper green energy (certificates) in cheaper markets and selling theirs is highly-priced markets, if they identify opportunities for arbitrage). Moreover, some of those investors may wish to follow EU-wide or, at least, regional policies. That was the case of the appellant, Ålands Vindkraft when it was seeking to have green energy produced in Finland recognised under the Swedish scheme. Hence, by imposing absolute territorial protection to the schemes in support of green energy, Member States and the CJEU may actually be crowding out investors that do not wish to remain purely local. And that is not taken into consideration in the Ålands Vindkraft Judgment.
 
The reasoning in para. 118 also seems economically faulty to me. The CJEU considers that
provided that there is a market for green certificates which meets the conditions set out in paragraphs 113 and 114 above [ie proper functioning market mechanisms that are capable of enabling traders (...) to obtain certificates effectively and under fair terms] and on which traders who have imported electricity from other Member States are genuinely able to obtain certificates under fair terms, the fact that the national legislation at issue in the main proceedings does not prohibit producers of green electricity from selling (...) both the electricity and the certificates does not mean that the legislation goes beyond what is necessary to attain the objective of increasing the production of green electricity. The fact that such a possibility remains open appears to be an additional incentive for producers to increase their production of green electricity (emphasis added).
 
Effectively, what the CJEU affirms is that an importer that has already paid higher prices for green energy prices at origin (say, Finland) and that cannot use third country green certificates in Sweden, who then has to acquire (in fair terms, sic) additional green energy certificates in Sweden, has an increased incentive to produce green energy in Sweden. But that makes no sense unless this is complemented with the fact that such importer would have no incentive whatsoever to continue importing green energy into Sweden--hence reducing its production or demand for green energy elsewhere (say, Finland).
 
In my view, the proper considerations of these alternative (additional) economic effects may well have tilted the proportionality assessment in the other direction and forced the CJEU to conclude that the Swedish measure was not proportionate (as AG Bot proposed in his Opinion Ålands Vindkraft, para. 110).
 
3. A perpetuation of the difficulties that the EU faces to meet collective commitments under the Kyoto Protocol
As a final, functional point, it is worth stressing that the CJEU position in Ålands Vindkraft is squarely contrary to the fact that, as stressed by AG Bot in his Essent Belgium Opinion, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is just as effectively achieved through the use of foreign green electricity as domestic green electricity--which comes to undermine the global effectiveness of the EU's fight against climate change at the altar of the protection of domestic regulatory regimes and national budgets. The deference given by the CJEU to the political compromise achieved by the Member States in the passing of Directive 2009/28 (see paras. 53, 92, 94) can be actually self-defeating, given that the CJEU has completely given up on its role to push for a dynamic development of the internal market and for a clear support in the discharge of the EU's obligations vis-a-vis international partners. Indeed, it seems to me that the CJEU has sacrificed Art 194(1)(c) TFEU and, particularly, its "spirit of solidarity between Member States" in the altar of Member State finances. This may be a realist approach to the issue, but it definitely perpetuates the difficulties that the EU (as an international actor with separate legal personality) faces to act as one in the international arena and, particularly, to meet collective commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.
 
4. Conclusion
Overall, the Ålands Vindkraft Judgment deserves criticism from a strict legal perspective (due to the muddled situation in which it keeps environmental protection justifications to restrictions on free movement of goods), from an economic perspective (due to the partial and biased assessment of economic charges and incentives), and from a functional/political (international) perspective (as it diminishes the possibilities for the EU as a whole to comply with the Kyoto Protocol). Only Member States' Ministers of Finance can celebrate this situation...

Friday, 27 June 2014

Competition infringer: You don't want the EU Commission as your banker (T-564/10)

In its Judgment in Quimitécnica.com and de Mello v Commission, T-564/10, EU:T:2014:583, the General Court has addressed a rather strange issue concerning the interest rates applicable by the European Commission when undertakings that have breached competition law choose to (partially) defer the payment of their fines.

The main dispute derives from the fact that, under the 2002 Financial Regulation, unsecured outstanding amounts are subject to an interest rate of ECB+3.5%, whereas secured debts go down to ECB+1.5%. It is a rather important point to note that the Financial Regulation indicates that the deferral of payments is subject to the condition that
"the debtor lodges a financial guarantee covering the debt outstanding in both the principal sum and the interest, which is accepted by the institution's accounting officer" (emphasis added).
 
In the case at hand, Quimitecnica and JMS requested their fine to be payable in three annual instalments and offered to provide a bank guarantee by a given Portuguese bank. The Commission's accounting officer agreed to the deferred payment plan, subject to them providing a guarantee  issued "by a bank rated as long-term AA", which the proposed guarantor was not.
 
The undertakings failed to obtain such guarantee and challenged the "long-term AA" requirement before the GC (in the case that has now been decided). They did not provide any other bank guarantee. However, during the procedure, the undertakings met all deadlines in the agreed (but unsecured) financial plan and eventually settled all their debt with the Commission. However, at this stage, the Commission requested the payment of  additional interest in view of their failure to provide satisfactory guarantees for the credit (now effectively extinct).
 
There are may interesting passages in the Judgment, such as the attitude displayed by the Commission in its argument that the appeal had now become void of content (due to the debt having been paid in full) despite the dispute of over 36,000 Euro in interest being on the table. The arguments against the standing of the undertakings to challenge the measure on the basis that it could not change their legal situation simply do not hold water, regardless of the technicalities in which the Commission and the GC engage.
 
More importantly, the way in which the GC accepts the position of the Commission and does not engage in any significant assessment of the proportionality of the "long-term AA" rating is troubling. Indeed, the arguments raised by the undertakings on the inconsistency incurred by the Commission should have been given more weight. It is definitely irrational for the Commission to be criticising rating agencies and proposing their regulation, while at the same time stubbornly relying on their ratings and not being willing to negotiate the conditions of acceptability of guarantees issued by other banking institutions.
 
Furthermore, from a functional perspective, the case does not make much sense and there is an element of estoppel that I am finding difficult to pin down, but puzzles me. If the furniture of the bank guarantee was a condition for the acceptance of the payment plan, absent the guarantee, the Commission should have insisted on payment of the debt immediately and in full.

Reversely, by accepting partial payments according to the plan, and leaving its credit completely unsecured during the proceedings before the GC (could an interim measure not have been requested?), the behaviour of the European Commission could be seen as amounting to a waiver of the guarantee requirement. Somehow, I think that the Commission is having its cake and eating it too. And I am not sure that the same behaviour by a private creditor would be tolerable, which makes the findings of the GC all the more troubling.
 
In any case, it is very likely that the cost of this procedure far exceeds the 36,000 Euro at stake, which makes me wonder if this is the best possible use of the Commission's and the GC's resources.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

It Won't Last Long? CJEU takes a functional, competition-based approach to in-house provision that questoins the criteria in the new EU procurement directives (C-574/12)

In its Judgment in Centro Hospitalar de Setúbal and SUCH, C-574/12, EU:C:2014:2004, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) has issued a new decision concerned with the in-house exception to the application of the EU public procurement rules (for a previous summary of the doctrine, see here). The Judgment is concerned with Directive 2004/18, but the findings are already relevant for the interpretation of the revised in-house exception in Directive 2014/24.
 
In the case at hand, a Portuguese hospital awarded a services contract for the provision of meals to patients and staff to a non-profit organisation (SUCH) which membership included public entities (such as other hospitals) as well as private social solidarity institutions carrying out non-profit activities. The hospital considered it an in-house provision situation and, relying in the Teckal doctrine (recently revisited and affirmed by the CJEU, see here), did not comply with the transparency obligations of Directive 2004/18.

However, a competitor of SUCH challenged the award on the basis that the Hospital did not exercise a control over the non-profit organisation that qualified for such an exemption, particularly according to the requirements of Stadt Halle and RPL Lochau, C-26/03, EU:C:2005:5, according to which "the investment, however small, of a private undertaking in the capital of an undertaking of which the awarding authority also forms part prevents, in any event, the awarding authority from being able to exercise a control over it similar to that which it exercises over its own departments" (C-574/12, at para 13).
 
The main point of law for the CJEU to interpret was, consequently, whether only participation of private for profit undertakings excluded the in-house exception or if, on the contrary, participation of any other sort of non-profit entities triggered the same effect. Following a commendable functional approach to the in-house exception based on the avoidance of distortions of competition, the CJEU opted for the second solution. Indeed, according to the C. H. de Setúbal and SUCH Judgment,
35 […] it must be pointed out that the exception concerning the in-house awards is based on an approach according to which, in such cases, the awarding public authority can be regarded as using its own resources in order to accomplish its tasks in the public interest.
36 One of the reasons which led the Court to the findings established in the judgment in Stadt Halle [...] was based not on the legal form of the private entities forming part of the contractor or on their commercial purpose, but on the fact that those entities obeyed considerations particular to their private interests, which were different in nature from that of the objectives of public interest pursued by the awarding authority. For that reason, that authority could not exercise control over the contractor similar to that which it exercised over its own services (see, to that effect, Stadt Halle [...] paragraphs 49 and 50).
37 Having regard to the fact, pointed out by the referring court, that SUCH is a non-profit association and the private partners which formed part of that association at the time of the award of the contract at issue in the main proceedings were private social solidarity institutions, all of them also non-profit, it must be noted that the fact that the Court referred, in the judgment in Stadt Halle [...], to concepts such as that of ‘undertaking’ or ‘share capital’ is due to the specific facts of the case which gave rise to that judgment and does not mean that the Court intended to restrict its findings to those cases alone where commercial for-profit undertakings form part of the contractor.
38 Another reason which led the Court to the findings in the judgment in Stadt Halle [...] is that the direct award of a contract would offer a private undertaking with a capital presence in that contractor an advantage over its competitors (see, to that effect, Stadt Halle [...] paragraph 51).
39 In the main proceedings, SUCH’s private partners pursue interests and objectives which, however positive they may be from a social point of view, are different in nature from the public interest objectives pursued by the awarding authorities which are at the same time partners of SUCH.
40 In addition, as the Advocate General noted in point 37 of his Opinion, the private partners of SUCH, despite their status as social solidarity institutions carrying out non-profit activities, are not barred from engaging in economic activity in competition with other economic operators. In consequence, the direct award of a contract to SUCH is likely to offer an advantage for the private partners over their competitors (C-574/12, at paras 35-40, emphasis added).
In my view, the CJEU has applied good logic and has incorporated the likely distortions of competition in the market for the provision of meals that could result from non-profit partners of SUCH having preferential (direct) access to the supply to the public sector. This functional approach is economically sound and deserves all praise.

The only difficulty that the C. H. de Setúbal and SUCH Judgment creates is its compatibility/coordination with the new rules under Art 12(1)(c) and 12(3)(c) of Directive 2014/24, which recast the in-house provision exception but modify the Teckal/Stadt Halle doctrine by relaxing the requirement that there is no private participation whatsoever--so that, in the future, the in-house exception can be applied provided "there is no direct private capital participation in the controlled legal person with the exception of non-controlling and non-blocking forms of private capital participation required by national legislative provisions, in conformity with the Treaties, which do not exert a decisive influence on the controlled legal person" (emphasis added).
 
The explanation provided for such a change in recital (32) of Directive 2014/24 is as follows:
The exemption should not extend to situations where there is direct participation by a private economic operator in the capital of the controlled legal person since, in such circumstances, the award of a public contract without a competitive procedure would provide the private economic operator with a capital participation in the controlled legal person an undue advantage over its competitors. However, in view of the particular characteristics of public bodies with compulsory membership, such as organisations responsible for the management or exercise of certain public services, this should not apply in cases where the participation of specific private economic operators in the capital of the controlled legal person is made compulsory by a national legislative provision in conformity with the Treaties, provided that such participation is non-controlling and non-blocking and does not confer a decisive influence on the decisions of the controlled legal person. It should further be clarified that the decisive element is only the direct private participation in the controlled legal person. Therefore, where there is private capital participation in the controlling contracting authority or in the controlling contracting authorities, this does not preclude the award of public contracts to the controlled legal person, without applying the procedures provided for by this Directive as such participations do not adversely affect competition between private economic operators (emphasis added).
These two justifications for the relaxation of the Teckal/Stadt Halle/SUCH  absolute prohibition of private participation will prove controversial, given that they can give rise to situations where an effective market advantage is derived from the (apparent) in-house award. Indeed, the drafting of the condition in Art 12(1)(c) and 12(3)(c) of Directive 2014/24 seems quite open and it is possible to anticipate the need to conduct an assessment of proportionality between the objectives pursued by the national law imposing private participation and the carve-out that it creates in the application of the EU procurement rules. It will then be for the CJEU to either stick to its functional, competition-based approach to the in-house doctrine, or to defer to the quite express will of the EU legislator (fundamentally, in this case, the Member States). I would personally want it to tilt the balance in favour of the first option, but I can see the difficulties now that the text of the Directive is so clear.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Could Intel challenge its 1bn Euro fine on grounds of 'corporate human rights'?

After last week's General Court Judgment in Intel v Commission, T-286/09, EU:T:2014:475, the 2 month period for Intel to appeal the confirmation of its 1bn Euro fine before the Court of Justice of the EU on points of law is ticking. I guess that few doubts can be harboured as to the likelihood of such an appeal, given the very significant financial implications for the company. However, the more interesting question is whether Intel will eventually appeal the fine before the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that its 'corporate human rights' have been violated.
 
At first thought, the claims could be two-fold. On the one hand, Intel could argue procedural issues related to the enforcement and decision-making processes at the European Commission (art 6 ECHR, on fair trial). On the other hand, Intel could try to challenge the volume of the fine on the basis of the protection of its right to private property (art 1 protocol 1 ECHR, on property).
 
In my view, such an appeal would be undesirable, but it would at least offer the ultimate test case for the jurisdiction and actual ability of the Strasbourg court to deal with highly-complex (third) competition reviews. I have been arguing that due process rights in competition law enforcement against corporate defendants should be limited [“The EU’s Accession to the ECHR and Due Process Rights in EU Competition Law Matters: Nothing New Under the Sun?”, in Kosta, Skoutaris & Tzevelekos (eds), The Accession of the EU to the ECHR, Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2014, forthcoming] and, more generally, together with Francisco Marcos, that 'corporate human rights' should be limited if not totally abolished ["'Human Rights' Protection for Corporate Antitrust Defendants: Are We Not Going Overboard?" (February 2, 2014). University of Leicester School of Law Research Paper No. 14-04]. For previous entries in this blog, see here and here.
 
In a very timely fashion, the June 14(1) Antitrust Chronicle of Competition Policy International [Spring 2014, Volume 6 Number 1] "highlights a number of recent developments adding fuel to the fire: the ECtHR's ruling in Menarini and other cases, whether the concept of a "corporate human rights" principle should be applicable [... and] conclude(s) with an insightful discussion of impartiality" (including a summary of our thoughts, for which Francisco and myself are honoured and grateful).
 
Also in good time, these issues will be soon discussed at ASCOLA's conference on "Procedural fairness in competition proceedings", where Francisco will be presenting our paper. Hopefully, these discussions will shed light on the problems that the (excessive) protection of 'corporate human rights' can create. In our view, a reduction in the effectiveness of both competition law enforcement and human rights protection (for humans) itself.
 
In my personal view, all these debates (and the eventual Intel case before Strasbourg) should result in a significant restriction of corporate human rights protection, if not their abolition. I know that this is not a 'popular' position, so I expect heated debate in the coming months...