In its Judgment of 18 February 2016 in Germany v Commission (Zweckverband Tierkörperbeseitigung), C-446/14 P, EU:C:2016:97 (only in German and French), the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has supported the approach of the General Court (GC) in the assessment of the Altmark (C-280/00, EU:C:2003:415) conditions for the analysis of State aid regarding a system of financial support for a service of general economic interest (SGEI) consisting in the maintenance of reserve animal disposal capacity in the case of epizootic in a public abattoir in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany.
This appeal was against the GC's Judgment in T-295/12 (EU:T:2014:675, which is discussed by P Nicolaides here), but the analysis of the CJEU was highly relevant for the pending appeal against the GC Judgment in T-309/12 (EU:T:2014:676, discussed here), which has now been abandoned by the appellant (the abattoir, now in liquidation). The intricacies of the case are quite complex, and points of detail are too specific to discuss now. However, there are some general issues to note in view of the CJEU's Germany v Commission (Zweckverband Tierkörperbeseitigung) Judgment.
From the outset, it must be stressed that the CJEU is following the GC in a trend that may well be modifying the scope of the Altmark test in a way that pushes for overcompliance with the EU public procurement rules as the only effective way in which Member States can achieve legal certainty in the way they organise their SGEIs. This requires to take a long view on some of the arguments in the case.
The CJEU has generally been very clear that 'the four conditions set out in Altmark ... are distinct from one another, each pursuing its own finality' (para 31, own translation from French). In particular, it stressed that the first condition requires 'that the recipient undertaking must actually be required to discharge public service obligations and those obligations must be clearly defined for such compensation to escape the classification as State aid' (para 26, own translation from French), while the fourth condition determines that 'when the choice of the undertaking which is to discharge public service obligations, in a specific case, is not in the framework of a public procurement procedure, the level of compensation needed must be determined based on an analysis of the costs which a typical, well run, undertaking would have incurred in discharging those obligations, taking into account the relevant receipts and a reasonable profit for discharging those obligations' (para 29, own translation from French). In that regard, these would seem to require separate, independent assessments of each of the Altmark conditions.
In contrast, in the challenged decision, the GC had determined that
as part of the review of the question whether the fourth Altmark criterion ... is satisfied, there is certainly room to take into consideration the nature of the service in question and the circumstances of the case, and it is therefore possible that this criterion, which requires a comparison of the costs and revenues directly related to the provision of the SGEI, can not be applied strictly to the present case (see, that effect, case BUPA ea / Commission (T-289/03, EU:T:2008:29) paragraph 246). Indeed, the Court has already held that ... although the conditions set out in Altmark ... concern without distinction all sectors of the economy, their implementation must take into account the specificity of a certain sector and, given the particular nature of the SGEI mission in specific sectors, it should be flexible in the application of the Altmark judgment ... in relation to the spirit and purpose that led to the establishment of said conditions, so that they are suitable to the particular facts of the case (see case of 7 November 2012 CBI / Commission, T-137/10 (EU:T:2012:584) paragraphs 85 and 86, and the cases cited) (T-295/12, para 131, own translation from French).
This was criticised by Germany as a conflation of the first and fourth Altmark conditions, particularly because the analysis supported by these general remarks implied dismissing the existence of an SGEI in the specific case in Rhineland-Palatinate, and a general consideration of the costs incurred by undertakings active in the same sector in other German states that, however, may have been subjected to different public service obligations or where no SGEI may have existed at all (T-275/12, para 130). In Germany's submission, this would have led the GC to a tautological conclusion.
The CJEU dismisses the argument on the following basis:
... the Court cannot be criticized for having reached a tautological conclusion that would have linked the lack of satisfaction of that fourth condition to a finding of lack of qualification of maintaining a reserve capacity as a service of general economic interest [first condition]. Indeed, as is clear from paragraph 130 of the judgment, the Court, first, discussed the situation in which the maintenance of a reserve capacity in case of an outbreak could have validly received such qualification [of SGEI] and on the other hand, felt that, given the obligations of the competent public authorities in all German states to eliminate the largest quantity of substances ... received during an outbreak [regardless of the way they organised the discharge of that public obligation, and regardless of whether they defined an equivalent SGEI], it was necessary to take into account the existing situation in other German states to determine the necessary level of compensation on the basis of an analysis of the costs which a typical undertaking, well run and adequately equipped, would have incurred in meeting the public service requirements (C-446/14 P, para 35, own translation from French).
Thus, the general conclusion of the CJEU is that the GC did not err in law by conflating the different conditions established in Altmark.
I disagree with the CJEU because, even if the conditions 'are distinct from one another, each pursuing its own finality', the logic in their application to a same set of factual circumstances requires that, once the scope of the economic activity that the Member State claims is an SGEI is properly established for the purposes of the judicial review (and regardless of whether the first condition is upheld or not in terms of whether those obligations are clearly defined), the analysis of the fourth condition (ie either procurement of that 'alleged' SGEI or analysis of the costs of a notional well-run undertaking providing that 'alleged' SGEI) needs to remain within that context.
Otherwise, the assessment of the notional, well-run undertaking's cost structure outside of the remit of the 'alleged' SGEI under dispute comes to basically neutralise the second alternative test in the fourth condition of Altmark by allowing the Commission and the GC (and ultimately the CJEU) to find any other comparator they deem to be sufficiently close to that economic activity, which nullifies the economic concept of the notional, well-run competitor. Immediately, this pushes Member States to try to avoid in this types of assessment, which can only be done by resorting to (certain types of) public procurement procedures under the first test in the fourth Altmark condition [for discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, 'The Commission’s Modernization Agenda for Procurement and SGEI', in E Szyszczak & J van de Gronden (eds) Financing Services of General Economic Interest: Reform and Modernization, Legal Issues of Services of General Interest Series (The Hague, TMC Asser Press / Springer, 2012) 161-181].
This may well be cornering Member States in an impossible situation where, regardless of the way they conceive and delineate an SGEI [which they have exclusive competence to do, under Art 14 TFEU and Protocol No (26) therewith, and, currently, reminded in the provisions of Article 1(4) of Directive 2014/24], an assessment of the fourth Altmark condition only allows them to operate with sufficient legal certainty if they contract out the provision of that service in a way that complies with the EU public procurement rules (and not all of them, at that). This is certainly not a desirable outcome and, once more, the developments supported by the CJEU require a fundamental rethinking of the coordination of State aid and public procurement rules, in particular in the area of SGEIs [for discussion, particularly in the setting of procurement challenges, see A Sanchez-Graells, 'Enforcement of State Aid Rules for Services of General Economic Interest before Public Procurement Review Bodies and Courts' (2014) 10(1) Competition Law Review 3-34].