Recent CJEU and GC views on the "economic advantage" element in State aid cases (C-559/12 and T-150/12)

In two recent cases, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) and the General Court (GC) have reassessed the element of "economic advantage" required in the prohibition of State aid in Art 107(1) TFEU in connection with State guarantees in France and Greece. The element of advantage has ranked rather high in the list of issues recently submitted to public consultation by the European Commission as part of the forthcoming new Notice on the concept of State aid. Hence, it seems interesting to have a look at these cases.

Firstly, in its Judgment of 3 April 2014 in case
C-559/12 France v Commission (La Poste), the CJEU assessed the Commission's previous findings regarding the existence of an unlimited guarantee granted by the French State to its postal operator (La Poste) as part of its status as an establishment of an industrial and commercial character (établissement public à caractère industriel et commercial, ‘EPIC’)--which entails a number of legal consequences, including the inapplicability of insolvency and bankruptcy procedures under ordinary law--and which ultimately constituted State aid within the meaning of Article 107(1) TFEU. The Commission's assessment had been endorsed by the GC (see comment here). The CJEU concurs with the substantive assessment of both the Commission and the GC in an interesting reasoning (and after having addressed a number of issues concerning the burden of proof that, in the end, remain largely marginal in view of the consolidation of a presumption of advantage in the case of unlimited State guarantees):
94 [...] it must be borne in mind that the concept of aid embraces [...] measures which, in various forms, mitigate the charges which are normally included in the budget of an undertaking and which, therefore, without being subsidies in the strict sense of the word, are similar in character and have the same effect [...] Also, State measures which, whatever their form, are likely directly or indirectly to favour certain undertakings or are to be regarded as an economic advantage which the recipient undertaking would not have obtained under normal market conditions, are regarded as aid [...].
95 Since State measures take diverse forms and must be analysed in terms of their effects, it cannot be ruled out that advantages given in the form of a State guarantee can entail an additional burden on the State
96 As the Court has already held, a borrower who has subscribed to a loan guaranteed by the public authorities of a Member State normally obtains an advantage inasmuch as the financial cost that it bears is less than that which it would have borne if it had had to obtain that same financing and that same guarantee at market prices
97 From that point of view, moreover, the Commission Notice on the application of Articles 
[107 and 108 TFEU] to State aid in the form of guarantees specifically provides[...]
that an unlimited State guarantee in favour of an undertaking whose legal form rules out bankruptcy or other insolvency procedures grants an immediate advantage to that undertaking and constitutes State aid, in that it is granted without the recipient thereof paying the appropriate fee for taking the risk supported by the State and also allows better financial terms for a loan to be obtained than those normally available on the financial markets.
98 It is apparent,
a simple presumption exists that the grant of an implied and unlimited State guarantee in favour of an undertaking which is not subject to the ordinary compulsory administration and winding-up procedures results in an improvement in its financial position through a reduction of charges which would normally encumber its budget.
99 Consequently, in the context of the procedure relating to existing schemes of aid, to prove the advantage obtained by such a guarantee to the recipient undertaking,
it is sufficient for the Commission to establish the mere existence of that guarantee, without having to show the actual effects produced by it from the time that it is granted (C-559/12 at paras 94 to 99, emphasis added).
Secondly, in its Judgment of 9 April 2014 in case T-150/12 Greece v Commission (aid to cereal production), the GC has also assessed a Greek guarantee scheme to cereal producers and has upheld the Commission's view whereby the conditions attached to such guarantee--i.e. initially, the acceptance of crops as collateral (although the existence of the guarantee rights and the conditions for their execution were not automatic) and later the potential charge of a 2% premium (again, which charge was not automatic)--did not dissipate the existence of an economic advantage for the beneficiaries of the guarantee scheme. The reasoning of the GC (in French) in paras 82 to 97 is interesting to grasp the unconditionality required of any measures intended to eliminate the (presumed) advantage that State guarantee schemes provide.
In my view, both Judgments are in line with the content of the Commission's Draft Notice on the concept of State aid (and, in particular, paras 111 to 117) and it seems now clear that unlimited State guarantees or State guarantees without actual (automatic) conditions (such as collateral and premia to be paid by the beneficiaries) will be ruled as being against Art 107(1) TFEU as a result of the iuris et de iure presumption of their conferral of an advantage.