Why an appeal of the High Court Parliamentary approval Brexit judgment will bring the litigation to the cjeu?

The High Court has today issued its Judgment in the dispute about the UK Parliament's necessary approval of a Brexit notification--see R (Miller) -V- Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [2016] EWHC 2768 (Admin). It has ruled that such Parliamentary approval is indeed required as a matter of UK constitutional and public law. The Government has already announced that it will appeal this decision to the UK Supreme Court (UKSC). The implications of such an appeal are important and need to be carefully considered. One such possible consequence is that the appeal (indirectly) brings the case to the docket of the  Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

In my view, an appeal of the High Court's Judgment before the UKSC will indeed trigger a legal requirement under EU law for the UKSC to send a reference for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU. I have rehearsed most of my arguments on twitter earlier (see here and here) and this posts brings them together.

Basic EU Law Background

Article 267(1)(a) TFEU establishes the monopoly of interpretation of the CJEU and it indicates the Court shall have jurisdiction to give preliminary rulings concerning the interpretation of the Treaties. Article 267(2) then goes on to enable the domestic courts of the Member States to issue request preliminary rulings from the ECJ where questions of interpretation of EU law are raised before them and they consider that a decision on the question is necessary to enable them to give judgment. However, that discretion of domestic courts to request preliminary rulings from the CJEU does not apply to the courts or tribunals of a Member State against whose decisions there is no judicial remedy under national law. In that case, Article 267(3) indicates that where a question on the interpretation of EU law is raised, the highest court  shall bring the matter before the CJEU.

The uncertainties surrounding the interpretation of Art 50 TEU before the High Court

One of the extremely complex issues concerning the UK's potential withdrawal from the EU following the Brexit vote of 23 June 2016 concerns the interpretation of Article 50 TEU (on this, see here). One of the difficult sub-questions concerns the (ir)reversibility of an Art 50 TEU trigger notification. This is an essential element for an assessment of the UK's constitutional requirements for the delivery of such notification, as the High Court's Judgment makes clear.

Indeed, as a preliminary issue, in today's Judgment, the High Court has addressed the problematic interpretation of Art 50 TEU. Unanimously, the High Court has indicated that "Important matters in respect of Article 50 were common ground between the parties: (1) a notice under Article 50(2) cannot be withdrawn once it is given ..." para [10]; and that "Once a notice is given, it will inevitably result in the complete withdrawal of the United Kingdom from membership of the European Union and from the relevant Treaties at the end of the two year period, subject only to agreement on an extension of time ..." para [11].

There are two ways of interpreting the High Court's dealing with the argument on irreversibility of an Art 50 notification. First, that the High Court takes this approach in para [11] because it is common ground between the parties ex para [10]--what I would call the UK procedural approach. Second, that the High Court has of its own interpreted an Art 50 notification to be irreversible ex para [11], which happens to align with the common position of the parties in para [10]--what I would call the EU substantive interpretation approach.

The UK procedural approach is saved by the High Court's discretion under Art 267(2) TFEU to consider that the interpretation of Art 50 TEU is actually not necessary for it to adjudicate the matter at hand because this is not part of the controversy between the parties. However, the EU substantive interpretation does trigger some issues because, having recognised the interpretation of Art 50 TEU as an important aspect for the adjudication of the case, the High Court should not have taken it upon itself to interpret it and should rather have requested a preliminary ruling from the CJEU. However, unless under a very expansive interpretation of the principle of sincere or loyal cooperation in Art 4(3) TEU, this does not amount to a breach of EU law.

The uncertainties surrounding the interpretation of Art 50 TEU before the UK Supreme Court

Now, in case of an appeal of the High Court's decision before the UKSC, in my opinion, the referral to the CJEU is legally unavoidable (I will not deal for now with arguments of judicial politics or pragmatic views on the UKSC's likely course of action). Even if the parties do not challenge or even raise to the UKSC's consideration the matter of the (ir)reversibility of and Article 50 notification, it is a logical given that the UKSC needs to take a stance (even if implicit) on this point in order to be able to rule on the case. If it quashes the High Court's decision, it needs to clarify the points of law which the High Court would have gotten wrong--one of which concerns the irrevocability of an Art 50 notification. if it upholds the High Court's decision, it is (implicitly) accepting the assumption that an Art 50 notification is irrevocable. Either way, the UKSC cannot escape a substantial (implicit) consideration of the interpretation of Article 50.

In my view, this engages the UKSC's obligation to request a preliminary ruling from the CJEU under Article 267(3) TFEU and not doing so triggers a risk of infringement of EU law by the UK due to the acts (or omission, in this case) of its highest court.

Semi-Advanced EU Law Background

The UKSC's obligation to request a preliminary reference from the CJEU is controlled by the so-called CILFIT test, which establishes that "a court or tribunal against whose decisions there is no judicial remedy under national law is required, where a question of [EU] law is raised before it, to comply with its obligation to bring the matter before the Court of Justice, unless it has established that the question raised is irrelevant or that the [EU] provision in question has already been interpreted by the Court or that the correct application of [EU] law is so obvious as to leave no scope for any reasonable doubt. The existence of such a possibility must be assessed in the light of the specific characteristics of [EU] law, the particular difficulties to which its interpretation gives rise and the risk of divergences in judicial decisions within the [EU]" (283/81, EU:C:1982:335, para 21).

What does this mean for the UKSC in the Brexit litigation in case of appeal?

In short, my understanding of the CILFIT test is that a highest court of a Member State (the UKSC) must request a preliminary ruling on the interpretation of the Treaties to the CJEU and has no discretion not to do so unless: (a) the question is (objectively) irrelevant for the adjudication of the case, or (b) the provision has already been interpreted by the CJEU, or (c) there is no scope for reasonable doubt in the interpretation of the provision. None of these apply in the specific case of the Article 50 litigation.

First, it is inconceivable to me to argue that the interpretation of Art 50 and the (ir)revocability of a notice under it is irrelevant for the adjudication of this case. A different issue would be whether the UKSC could pragmatically sidestep the need to engage in that interpretation, either by presuming its content (the EU substantive interpretation approach mentioned above), or by insisting on the fact that it is common ground to the parties to the litigation and, therefore, the issue of the (ir)revocability of the notification is not (formally, explicitly) raised before it (the UK procedural approach.

However, in my opinion, neither of these avoidance strategies would meet the basic requirements of good faith in the interpretation of the CILFIT test, coupled with Article 4(3) TEU, which requires the domestic court to assess the need to request a preliminary ruling "in the light of the specific characteristics of [EU] law, the particular difficulties to which its interpretation gives rise and the risk of divergences in judicial decisions within the [EU]". The interpretation of Article 50 TEU is, to put it simply, the most relevant EU constitutional law issue since the OMT litigation and one of the top, if not the top, EU constitutional law issue since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty. Engaging in semantics in the analysis of the first prong of the CILFIT test against this background (ie, stretching the narrow interpretation "irrelevant") seems to me logically and legally unacceptable.

Second, it is plain that Art 50 has not been interpret by the CJEU yet. And, thirdly, it is also plain that there is scope (massive scope, a gaping hole) for reasonable doubt in the interpretation of Article 50 TEU. Thus, the so-called acte claire doctrine (ie the counterbalance of the CILFIT test) simply does not apply here.

Overall, in my opinion, the UKSC has an absolute and inexcusable obligation to request a preliminary ruling on the interpretation of Article 50 TEU from the CJEU the moment the appeal against the High Court's Judgment (eventually) reaches its docket. Otherwise, the UKSC risks triggering an infringement of EU law and eventually creating liability in damages under the Kobler / Traghetti del Mediterraneo strand of case law on State liability. Again, I am not dealing with the arguments on the likelihood of an actual infringement case brought forward by the European Commission, or the CJEU's eventual decision. I am, for now, simply stressing the state of EU law, which the UKSC would be well advised to bear in mind and uphold, unless it aims to contribute to the deterioration of the rule of law in the UK and the EU (which is something that keeps me awake at night).

CJEU confirms incompatibility between automatic judicial inhibition rules and references for a preliminary ruling: need for reform? (C-614/14)

In its Judgment of 5 July 2016 in Ognyanov, C-614/14, EU:C:2016:514, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has taken a final decision on whether domestic (criminal) procedural rules concerned with safeguards against judicial bias need to be set aside if their application is such as to jeopardise the functioning of the system of referrals for a preliminary ruling in the interpretation of EU law established by Article 267 TFEU.

It is worth stressing that the case at hand concerned criminal law enforcement in Bulgaria, where a domestic rule concerning breaches of judicial impartiality could be interpreted so as to require a referring national court that had laid out the factual background and the law applicable to the case for the purposes of the reference to the CJEU, to inhibit itself from any further decisions in a criminal case (and face disciplinary action).

In short, the CJEU has followed the Opinion of AG Bot (see here) and has decided that such a rule is incompatible with EU law and that the domestic courts not only cannot be obliged to refrain from taking any further decisions in a given criminal case on the basis that they referred a preliminary question to the CJEU where they laid out the facts of the case and the law applicable to them, but they are also prevented from voluntarily stepping down of the case on the basis that they consider themselves biased after having referred the question to the CJEU.

I do not have much of an issue with the first part of the Judgment, where the CJEU considers contrary to EU law a rule implying that any referral of a case for a preliminary ruling is a ground for automatic judicial recusal or inhibition; but I find the second part of the CJEU's decision worrying because the opposite position, whereby a judge cannot recuse herself on the basis of a bias created or identified at the point of sending the request for a preliminary ruling, or whereby she would be breaching EU law if she decided to inhibit herself from any further decision in the case, cannot be right.

In my view, the main issue with the Ognyanov Judgment derives from the (logical) formality of the CJEU's reasoning. After having determined that 'a national rule which is interpreted in such a way as to oblige a referring court to disqualify itself from a pending case, on the ground that it set out, in its request for a preliminary ruling, the factual and legal context of that case' is contrary to EU law, the CJEU engaged in the analysis of whether that rule could be applied voluntarily by the court concerned on the basis that 'that rule ensures a higher degree of protection of the parties’ fundamental rights'. The CJEU analysis was as follows:

32 ...  the fact that a national court sets out, in the request for a preliminary ruling ... the factual and legal context of the main proceedings is not, in itself, a breach of [the right to a fair trial]. Consequently, the obligation to disqualify itself, imposed by that rule on a referring court which has, in a reference for a preliminary ruling, acted in that way cannot be considered as serving to enhance the protection of that right.
36 ... in this case, the referring court is obliged to ensure that Article 267 TFEU is given full effect, and if necessary to disapply, of its own motion [the domestic rule requiring its inhibition] where that interpretation is not compatible with EU law (see, to that effect, judgment of 19 April 2016, DI, C‑441/14, EU:C:2016:278, paragraph 34).
37      In the light of the foregoing, ... EU law must be interpreted as precluding a referring court from applying a national rule, such as that at issue in the main proceedings, which is deemed to be contrary to EU law (C-614/14, paras 32 and 36-37, emphasis added).

In my view, the biggest issue with the Ognyanov Judgment is that the CJEU seems to only take into account one of two possibilities. It is certainly true that, as the CJEU emphasises, setting out the factual and legal context of the main proceedings to which the request for a preliminary refers 'is not, in itself [always or necessarily], a breach of that fundamental right', but it is not less true that the way in which a court lays out such factual and legal context can be sufficient to establish the existence of judicial bias because the referring court may demonstrate that it has pre-judged the issues at stake and thus expressed a legal position that prevents it from remaining involved in the criminal investigation without jeopardising the fundamental rights of the accused. Therefore, a more nuanced approach is needed.

I would suggest that a careful holistic interpretation of the Ognyanov Judgment could result in such nuanced approach, particularly if it was understood that the CJEU only considers contrary to EU law for a domestic court to inhibit itself from any further decisions in an on-going (criminal) case exclusively on the basis that it had laid down the factual and legal context of that case for the purposes of the request for a preliminary ruling--that is, exclusively in view of its having met the requirements of Art 267 TFEU and Art 94 of the rules on procedure--but it does not consider the same incompatibility with EU law if the domestic court identifies any (additional) substantive (and substantial?) indication of (its own) bias in the way that factual and legal background is laid out.

It certainly seems wrong to me to adopt a broader reading of the Ognyanov Judgment whereby any judicial inhibition (or recusal) on the basis of bias shown within the context of a request for a preliminary ruling is barred as a matter of (non)compliance with EU law.

Ultimately, and beyond these considerations, in my view, the difficulties derived from the reconciliation of domestic rules on judicial impartiality (in criminal law matters) and the EU preliminary reference mechanism seem to be more than a good reason to revisit the assumption that the same rules can apply without causing significant problems for civil/administrative and criminal references for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU.

Creating reliable econometric models of the CJEU case law: a response to criticisms (by Arrebola, Mauricio & Jimenez)

One of the most satisfactory activities in academia is to engage in debate and discussion. Only by subjecting ideas to tough scrutiny can we advance in our knowledge. Thus, I am extremely pleased that Carlos Arrebola, Julia Mauricio and Hector Jimenez have reacted so quickly to my criticism of their recent paper (here) and come back with a thoughtful and forceful rebuttal. I am posting it below. You will see that there are important points of disagreement that will probably require two (or more) follow-up studies in the future. Seems like I need to brush up my econometrics...

Creating reliable econometric models of the CJEU case law:
a response to Sanchez-Graells’ criticisms

by Carlos Arrebola, Julia Mauricio and Hector Jimenez


In a recent study, we used econometric methodology to quantify the degree of influence of the Advocate General on the Court of Justice. Based on data collected from 20 years of actions for annulment, we concluded that the Court is 67% more likely to annul an act if the Advocate General suggests so in her opinion. In a post last Tuesday, Sanchez-Graells examined our paper. As he said, our conclusion is ‘bold [...] and controversial [for its] implications’, and as such it should be subject to ‘tough scrutiny’. We most definitely agree on both the importance of our claim and the need to test it rigorously. As we stated in our paper, if the conclusions are true, the role of the Advocate General within the Court might need to be reconsidered in order to secure judicial independence.

However, Sanchez-Graells voiced several criticisms regarding our econometric model that prevent him from accepting the validity of our results. We greatly welcome the debate, and appreciate the comments in his post, although we ultimately disagree. While we acknowledge that quantitative methodology is not perfect, we argue that our results are a reliable estimation of the influence of the Advocate General (hereinafter, “AG”) on the Court. If not in the specific number of 67% increased probability of a judicial outcome, our results are at least an indication that the influence relationship is positive, as it is shown by the six different econometric models estimated in our study. In the spirit of discussion and debate of this blog, we address Sanchez-Graells’ criticisms along with several other factors that, in our opinion, should have been taken into account when assessing our paper’s reliability.

1. The impossibility of using Randomised Controlled Trials

In his post, Sanchez-Graells suggests that we were too quick to discard the possibility of testing the hypothesis of the influence of the AG on the Court using Randomised Controlled Trials (“RCTs”). For a layperson, RCTs are the type of scientific methodology used in many areas of science to study causality. One of the main examples where RCTs are used is medicine. In order to prove the validity of a new drug, several groups of patients with similar features are randomly selected. Normally, one of those groups would be the control group. The control group would receive a placebo, instead of the actual drug. In this way, the researchers can easily infer whether the health outcome is caused only by the drug. If both the group taking the placebo and the group taking the drug had the same reaction, it would be clear that some external factor other than the drug had caused it. If, on the other hand, the group taking the drug and the placebo group reacted differently (for example, in the case of an illness, if the group taking the drug was the only one to recover), it could be said with certain confidence that the drug caused the recovery.

In our paper, we suggested that RCTs are not a possibility because it would require using the Court of Justice as a laboratory, experimenting with cases, judges and AGs. Nevertheless, Sanchez-Graells argued that we should have considered those cases in which the AG does not participate as our “control group”. This is a misconception about how RCTs are designed. A vital feature in the design of RCTs is making sure that the observations that included in the sample are randomly drawn. This is because, ideally, you would like every observation to be identical, so that the only factor that affects it is the treatment that you are examining in the experiment. In the case of medicine-related RCTs, you want patients with the same characteristics, symptoms, etc., so that whatever happens after taking the drug can only be traced back to the drug. In our study, we would need the same case to be repeated several times, with the same legal problem to be solved by the same judges, having access to the same amount of precedent, lawyers with the same ability to plead cases, etc. Only having that could we then observe what would happen if we took the element of the Advocate General out of the equation. However, cases are never the same. Unlike illnesses, where patients tend to have the same symptoms, cases are much more complex. Legal problems rarely have the same surrounding circumstances.

So, if we followed Sanchez-Graells’ suggestion, we would be ignoring a set of external factors that actually affect the outcome of a case. We would be wrongly attributing it to the Advocate General’s intervention, when actually it could be something else. That is, if we had two cases, one with an AG’s opinion, and one without, in which the Court reached different results, we could not say that the Advocate General caused that different result. It could be that the case had different facts, and that is why the Court decided differently. Or, it could well be that the judges were presented with different arguments by the parties, and it was the lawyers, and not the AGs, who persuaded the Court. Furthermore, Sanchez-Graells’ suggestion is unfeasible because there is a clear bias. As he explained, the cases in which the CJEU considers that there are not going to be problematic legal issues, they decide not to have an AG opinion. It means that from the very beginning of the case they are sensing that it might have an easy or clear legal solution. In other words, Sanchez-Graells is suggesting that we compare in our analysis a simple cold, with a more complicated condition, such as cancer, and that we can thus establish whether radiotherapy has any impact on health. The outcome to such a query would have a misleading result, because the colds would have a rate of recovery close to 100%, whether the cancer would be lower. However, that would not tell us anything about the effectiveness of radiotherapy. In the same way, if a case deals with unproblematic legal issues, the opinion of the AG will probably not do much to affect the Court, because the Court would have come to that conclusion by itself without any external influence. We cannot simply compare those two scenarios without losing information. After all, there would not be any “random” selection of groups, clearly not fulfilling the requirements to conduct a RCT.

For that reason, the only way to approximately estimate causality is to use regressions, in which you can account for as many variables as possible that may influence the Court, including the Advocate General, and including variables that will account for how easy it is to solve a case or clear a case is. That way we will know the exact magnitude of the variable AG on the Court.

2. Designing a reliable regression

Once we establish that the most accurate measure is a regression model accounting for variables that affect the outcome of the Court, the difficulty arises in deciding which variables to include and how to code them. It is in this respect that we think Sanchez-Graells raises his most valid criticism of our study. We acknowledge that our variables are not perfect. We will never be able to establish causality without a shadow of a doubt. This is simply because, as we said, we will always miss variables that affect the case that we will not be able to track, codify and insert in our database. Taking this to an extreme and absurd example, we will never be able to verify whether the judge in the deliberating room had a headache and wanted to go home soon, rushing her decision. However, the fact that we will always miss variables does not mean that our model cannot be reliable. We still include a number of important variables that can explain a substantial amount of what goes on in the courtroom. There are different ways in econometrics to determine the extent to which a model, albeit missing variables, is an accurate depiction of reality. For our study, these measures suggest that the model is indeed reliable. We will come back to this in a moment.

Another aspect of coding variables is, as Sanchez-Graells comments, the oversimplification. In our study, we used actions for annulment, where the outcomes of a case can be (i) annulment, (ii) partial annulment, (iii) dismissal of the case, or (iv) inadmissibility of the case. We decided to simplify this variable by looking only at whether the Court decided to annul (in any of its forms) or not. But, the oversimplification is necessary to make it more reliable, because in order to have a dataset capable of yielding significant results, we need to have a representative sample. In our case, we only had data for a very small number of partial annulments. Including them as a separate variable from total annulment would have only created “noise” in our model, making the results less significant, statistically speaking.

Sanchez-Graells especially criticises our grouping of dismissal and inadmissibility cases together, because he says that dismissing a case and declaring it inadmissible are very different things. However, that discussion in his post is unnecessary, because as he himself notes later on, our results ‘cannot be interpreted regarding inverse AG recommendations (ie recommendations to inadmit/dismiss)’. Our results are only relevant for decisions to annul or partially annul; we do not make any claim about other type of cases, which Sanchez-Graells also criticises.

However, the fact that we decided to look at the question in terms of what happens if the AG suggests to annul the act, rather than if she suggests to dismiss it or declare it inadmissible, does not affect the reliability of our results. In fact, the only thing that Sanchez-Graells is postulating is a new hypothesis. He is saying that, in his opinion, we would have got other results if we had constructed the model differently. That is a point that we cannot falsify without fiddling for a few more weeks with our data in the econometrics software. But, we invite people, and we ourselves may do it in the future, to carry out other studies, with the same or different data to check that the results are not affected if we look at things in a different way; by, for example, looking at what happens if the AG suggests dismissal, or what happens if we gather data from other periods of time. Nonetheless, the reliability of the results that we presented is a separate issue.

So, if we have acknowledged that we are not going to be able to include every variable, and that our data is only a sample, why are we confident in our results? In the paper we explain it more technically, but, basically, there are econometric measures that indicate that the model that we have created is accurate when the estimation that we get from the model is compared with actual data from reality. That is the reason why we know it is a fairly reliable model.

3. Final caveat

Whilst reading Sanchez-Graells’ words, we could not avoid feeling something we felt many times before. Lawyers are more comfortable sticking to arguing with words.  We feel somehow threatened by this terra incognita called econometrics. There seems to be a certain reticence to attempting to use mathematics to help us in our enquiries. It is worth saying that we are not accusing Sanchez-Graells of not wanting to engage with quantitative methodology. In fact, we know that he has used some statistics previously, and we would not expect a “more economic approach” type of person to disregard this evidence-based methodology.

We want to end this post with a final note about quantitative methodology. We want to say that although judicial proceedings and legal arguments cannot always be equated to numbers, and other methodologies are extremely valuable to legal research questions, quantitative analysis can help elucidate complex legal questions. As many other subjects in social sciences did before us, statistics can become a tool at the service of legal researchers. In this sense, it is worth reminding the readers that, a few centuries ago, economics was equally a merely discursive subject, and anyone who has read the Wealth of Nations can be a witness to that.  But, now, economics and mathematics cannot be separated. Therefore, we would encourage researchers to embrace statistics and econometrics, and see how they can help with their enquiries. Quantitative analysis tries to be evidence-based and objective. Therefore, anyone who believes in the benefits of science will prefer a claim based on quantitative methodology to a hypothesis made, to follow the words of Sanchez-Graells, on the basis of ‘anecdotal impression’.

The difficulties in an econometric analysis of CJEU case law -- a propos Arrebola, Mauricio & Jiménez Portilla (2016)

Carlos Arrebola and Ana Julia Mauricio (PhD students at the University of Cambridge), together with  Héctor Jiménez Portilla (of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI)) have published an interesting and thought-provoking  paper (*) where they try to measure the influence of the Advocate General (AG) on the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) [for a short summary of their paper, see here]. This is an area where EU law scholars have been struggling to find an objective way to measure/prove/dimiss any claim of AG influence over the CJEU--as Arrebola et al clearly stress in their excellent literature review.

In a nutshell, Arrebola et al claim that their 'findings suggest that the CJEU is approximately 67 percent more likely to annul an act (or part of it) if the AG advises the Court to annul than if it advises the Court to dismiss the case or declare it inadmissible. In their view, these results raise several questions as regards judicial independence and the relevance of the figure of the Advocate General, providing a grounded basis for future discussions and judicial reform.'

Their claim is as intuitively appealing as it is bold (and controversial, in terms of the implications they derive) and, in my view, it deserves a tough scrutiny of the way they reached this conclusion. The following are some of the doubts that I have had while reading the paper, which I am limiting to the three main doubts I am struggling with. Overall, these doubts leave me with the impression that, unfortunately, the paper does not actually deliver on its main goal of contributing 'to a more comprehensive understanding of the role of the Advocate General in the makeup of the Court of Justice of the European Union'.

Their model in a nutshell
Let me frame my doubts in an stylised summary of their econometric model. In short, they have looked at 'data from 20 years of actions for annulment procedures before the Court of Justice. Every case from January 1994 to January 2014 has been included, with the exception of appeals from the General Court and those cases that do not have an AG opinion. We collected a total of 285 observations. For these cases, we have examined the behaviour of the Court and the Advocate General as regards to their decision to annul or not to annul the legal act in question' (p. 15). 

They have coded these cases to examine the relationship between two main variables: the recommendation of the AG and the final decision of the CJEU. There are other variables they take into account, but those do not affect my analysis, so I am sticking to the two main variables for simplicity of argument. They explain why they have chosen annulment cases in the following terms: 'we have created two dichotomous (also called dummy or binary) variables: ECJannulment and AGannulment. ECJannulment is the one that we have considered as the dependent variable. It takes the value of 1 if the Court decided to annul or partially annul an act, and 0 if it dismissed the case or deemed it inadmissible. AGannulment is the variable that we have considered independent. It takes the value of 1 if the Advocate General issued an opinion recommending the Court to annul or partially annul an act, and 0 if it recommended dismissing the case or declaring it inadmissible' (p. 15). 

With this information, they have run a 'probit model [which] is a regression that explains the predicted probability of the dependent variable adopting the value 1. In our case, it outputs the predicted probability of the Court annulling an act, subject to the value given to the other variables included. Therefore, the probit model provides a simple way to interpret the results in terms of predicted probability from 0 to 1. Instead, if we had chosen a linear regression model, the result would not be enclosed between 0 and 1, making the interpretation impossible, as it could yield some predicted probabilities to be negative or above the unit' (p. 25). This is what allows them to reach their main finding that 'when the Advocate General recommends annulment, the Court is 67 per cent more likely to annul' (p. 30).

My main doubts
Firstly, I am not sure that the model the authors use is the best suited to the analysis of such a complex issue as the influence of the AG on the CJEU. One of the reasons (probably the main reason) why the authors decide to use a probit model is that they consider that it is not possible to establish a group of annulment cases that can work as a control (ie what they call the impossibility of conducting a randomised controlled trial). They consider that this would be the best way to avoid selection bias, but that in their study 'it is not possible to create a randomised controlled trial to define the causal effect of the AG opinion on the Court of Justice. This would require having the ability to design empirical experiments using the Court of Justice as a laboratory, which is unfeasible in practice' (p. 13, with more details in fn 54).

I disagree with their view about the impossibility to use a randomised controlled trial. There is a group of annulment procedures where no AG Opinion was submitted, and this could be used as a control group. It is important to note that, according to the Statute of the CJEU, '[w]here it considers that the case raises no new point of law, the Court may decide, after hearing the Advocate General, that the case shall be determined without a submission from the Advocate General' [Art 20(5)]. 

This is organised according to the Rules of Procedure of the CJEU, according to which 'The preliminary report shall contain proposals as to whether particular measures of organisation of procedure, measures of inquiry or, if appropriate, requests to the referring court or tribunal for clarification should be undertaken, and as to the formation to which the case should be assigned. It shall also contain the Judge-Rapporteur’s proposals, if any, as to whether to dispense with a hearing and as to whether to dispense with an Opinion of the Advocate General pursuant to the fifth paragraph of Article 20 of the Statute. The Court shall decide, after hearing the Advocate General, what action to take on the proposals of the Judge-Rapporteur' [Art 59(2) and (3)].

Therefore, the annulment cases where there is no AG Opinion are an important instrument for potential control tests. These cases only come to be decided without an AG Opinion because both the CJEU (rectius, the Judge-Rapporteur) and the AG agreed that the case raised no new point of law. Thus, there is no indication that the AG can influence the CJEU on any other point than the existence or not of new issues to be considered. Admittedly, there could already be scope for some indication of the AG (and the CJEU's) position on the substance of the case in this first judgement. However, I would think that running controls on the basis of these cases could be useful.

In these cases, the CJEU (at least formally), decided whether to admit or dismiss, annul (totally or partially) the case without submission of the AG. If there was a significant divergence of the probability of annulment between these two groups of cases, the argument that the author's raise in the paper would be strengthened. On the contrary, if the CJEU showed the same likelihood of annulling/dismissing regardless of the existence or not of an AG Opinion, the claim would be significantly weakened. I do not imagine this to the ultimate test for the arguments raised in the paper, but I would see it as an important one.

Secondly, I am skeptical of the way in which the authors simplify the setting for annulment procedures. They construct them as binary: that is, the only options available to the AG and the CJEU are to either declare the case inadmissible/dismiss it (0) or annul the provision in question totally/partially (1). I understand the need to simplify decisions to annul grouping together full and partial annulments (which they explain in p. 17). I remain unconvinced by their arguments regarding declarations of inadmissibility and dismissals. They simply indicate that 'inadmissibility and dismissal are sometimes used as interchangeable terms, although technically the substance of the case is not analysed in cases of inadmissibility, whilst it is in cases that are dismissed' (p. 17). However, they do not consider this a major issue and proceed with the grouping of both types of results as a single outcome of the case.

The difficulty I have with this strategy is that the rules on admissibility/inadmissibility are procedural in nature and they set up a first filter for cases to come to a full analysis. It can also be argued that they are much simpler than the rules applicable to the potential annulment of the challenged provisions, which depend on much more complex assessments of both procedural and substantive EU law. Thus, grouping decisions on (procedural) inadmissibility with those on dismissal of the annulment claim after a full analysis seems to create a significant conceptual problem. At this point, it may be worth stressing that the authors had mentioned that 
we have decided to estimate regressions including other variables that could potentially be biasing the results if we only looked at what the Advocate General said and whether the Court followed the Advocate General’s position. In particular, one of the bias factors is the clarity of the law in a given case. For example, the Court and the Advocate General could reach the same result in a case not because the Court decided to follow the AG opinion, but because the law was clear on what the outcome should be, and there was no room for different interpretations. Therefore, not accounting for the clarity of the case could overestimate our measure of the influence of the Advocate General (pp. 14-15, emphasis added). 
My problem is that the authors seems to have forgotten to include this very bias-check in the way they have constructed their variables. By grouping (relatively simpler) procedural checks with (relatively more complex) full assessments, they have created a variable that is very hard to reconcile with reality outside of their model.

Thirdly, even within the context of their model, I am not sure what to make of their results. Their findings indicate that, when the AG recommends the annulment of an act, the CJEU is almost 67 per cent more likely to annul the act than if the AG had not proposed its annulment (ie, had she advocated for either inadmissibility or dismissal). I have trouble interpreting this number due to the conceptual issue mentioned above (ie, conflation of inadmission and dismissal), which makes the recommendation of the AG (as coded) ambiguous. This makes me wary of the claim that 'even if the number of 67 per cent of increased probability is called into question, it is difficult to deny that there is some level of influence' of the AG on the CJEU (p. 34, emphasis added), and that 'our analysis shows that there is some component in the making of a decision that is simply attributed to what the Advocate General recommended' (p. 35, emphasis added).

From the numbers in the paper, I have been unable to work out the effect that an AG recommendation to inadmit/dismiss has on the CJEU's willingness to do so. Intuitively, I would expect that, if by itself the Opinion of the AG is such a relevant factor as the paper claims, then the CJEU should also be more inclined to inadmit/dismiss when the AG submitted such a recommendation. However, in that case, I would not necessarily find the causal explanation between the AG recommendation and the CJEU's decision persuasive. An alternative interpretation not linked to the influence of the AG over the CJEU would need to be dispelled: ie the zeal with which the CJEU keeps control of its docket. The intuition would be that the CJEU may be engaged in an interpretation of inadmissibility rules that prevents a floodgate of claims, which could well override whatever position the AG decides to take. In my personal opinion, and based on anecdotal impression, this is what has been happening regarding annulment procedures promoted by unprivileged applicants (with all the issues that the Plaumann, UPA, Inuit, saga have created; see here).

In the end, the difficulty I have is that their results do not necessarily make a lot of intuitive sense because they cannot (or at least not immediately) be interpreted regarding inverse AG recommendations (ie recommendations to inadmit/dismiss) and their effect on the CJEU. Somehow, there seems to be an implicit assumption that 'influence' of the AG is stronger if it prompts the CJEU to annul than if it prompts the CJEU to inadmit/dismiss. If all of this is incorrect, then my only residual criticism is that the paper could have been made more accessible for non-statisticians.

Conclusion
Overall, I remain unconvinced that the results of Arrebola et al significantly contribute 'to a more comprehensive understanding of the role of the Advocate General in the makeup of the Court of Justice of the European Union'. Thus, I am not prepared to engage with the implications in terms of judicial independence and potential (further) reform of the CJEU that they draw (pp. 34-38). Given the disagreement with their methodology and the diversity of views as to how to interpret their results, I have contacted Carlos Arrebola and offered him to reply to my criticisms in a guest post. He has kindly accepted. Keep an eye out for it in the coming days.

(*) The full reference for the paper is: C Arrebola, AJ Mauricio and H Jiménez Portilla, 'An Econometric Analysis of the Influence of the Advocate General on the Court of Justice of the European Union' (January 12, 2016). Cambridge Journal of Comparative and International Law, Vol. 5, No. 1, Forthcoming; University of Cambridge Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 3/2016. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2714259.

CJEU: companies cannot mislead consumers under their 'freedom of expression' (C-157/14)

In its Judgment of 17 December 2015 in Neptune Distribution, C-157/14, EU:C:2015:823, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) addressed whether companies making potentially misleading claims about their products could be protected under a right to 'freedom of expression and information'. In short, the CJEU assessed whether companies could issue commercial statements apt to mislead consumers and still be protected under that type of 'corporate human right'. 

This is a global issue, and the relevance of this problem has been picked by mainstream media, such as John Oliver's piece on an episode of HBO's Last Week Tonight in 2014. Interestingly, the CJEU ended up rejecting the idea of affording protection to companies that potentially mislead consumers in breach of EU foodstuffs law, but only after assessing their claims under a strict proportionality test. Its reasoning, which falls quite short from resolving the issue once and for all, deserves some analysis.

In Neptune Distribution, the contested claims concerned the presentation of carbonated water as low or very low in salt or in sodium in a manner contrary to Art 9(1), 9(2) and Annex III of Directive 2009/54 on the exploitation and marketing of natural mineral waters, when read together with the annex to Regulation No 1924/2006 on nutrition and health claims made on foods. The main issue was that, in the way they were advertised (eg per comparison to milk, or by establishing claims as to the different effects of sodium chloride and sodium bicarbonate), the mineral water products sold by Neptune could be perceived by consumers as '(very) low salt/sodium' despite actually (significantly) exceeding the the limits for the amounts of sodium or the equivalent value for salt laid down by the relevant EU legislation.

Remarkably, Neptune claimed that its marketing statements were protected by freedom of expression and information under Art 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and corresponding rules under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR, Art 10). The CJEU does not disagree with this general approach. The CJEU indeed recognises that there is significant scope for protection of corporate claims, including marketing claims, under their right to freedom of expression and information. As the CJEU stresses, the freedom of expression and information enshrined in Art 11 of the Charter 'applies, inter alia, as is clear from the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, to the circulation by an entrepreneur of commercial information in particular in the form of an advertising slogan' (para 64). 

Therefore, Art 11 Charter protection can be claimed in relation to 'the use by a business, on packaging, labels and in advertising for natural mineral waters, of claims and indications referring to the sodium or salt content of such waters' (para 65). This results in the fact that '[t]he prohibition on the displaying on the packaging, labels and in the advertising for natural mineral waters of any claim or indication referring to the fact that such waters have a low sodium content which may mislead the consumer as to that content is an interference with the freedom of expression and information of the person carrying on that business and with his freedom to conduct that business' (para 67, emphasis added). 

Even if technically correct de lege data, I find this approach criticisable in itself because it recognises a type of strong 'corporate human right' to freedom of expression and information that seems unwarranted in view of the extremely weak (if not inexistent) link between the development of commercial activities and the exercise of (properly understood) civil and political liberties [see  the main arguments in A Sanchez-Graells and F Marcos, "'Human Rights' Protection for Corporate Antitrust Defendants: Are We Not Going Overboard?", in P Nihoul and T Skoczny (eds), Procedural Fairness in Competition Proceedings (Cheltenham, Edward Elgar, 2015) 84-107]. 

However, in a line of argument that clearly restricts the general approach outline above, the CJEU also recognises that such interference with corporate freedom of expression can be compatible with the applicable rules under the Charter and the ECHR if it serves a valid social purpose, not least because 'the freedom to conduct a business ... must be considered in relation to its social function' (para 66). In that regard, the CJEU considers that 'While those freedoms may nevertheless be limited, any limitation on their exercise must ... be provided for by law and respect the essence of those rights and freedoms. Furthermore ... subject to the principle of proportionality, limitations may be made only if they are necessary and genuinely meet objectives of general interest recognised by the European Union or the need to protect the rights and freedoms of others' (para 68).

In the assessment of the proportionality of the measure restricting Neptune's right to make any claims whatsoever about its products, the CJEU focusses on three aspects. First, that the restriction is created by law. Second, that 'the freedom of expression and information of the person carrying on the business is not affected by those provisions, since they merely make the information which may be communicated to the consumer regarding the sodium or salt content of natural mineral waters subject to certain conditions' (para 70). And, third, that 'far from prohibiting the production and marketing of natural mineral waters, the legislation at issue ... merely controls, in a very clearly defined area, the associated labelling and advertising. Thus, it does not affect in any way the actual content of the freedom to conduct a business' (para 71). This comes to establish that, provided that the restriction is not absolute and that it derives from a legal source, then a claim under Art 11 Charter is unlikely to prosper. However, this will not always be the case and, in particular for products other than foodstuffs, compliance with all these conditions may be difficult to achieve--particularly if the products are totally unregulated, which makes the first condition difficult to achieve unless general consumer protection or unfair competition rules fill that possible regulatory gap.

Further to these general considerations, the CJEU also assesses the purpose and proportionality of the restrictions. In that regard, it gives particular weight to several factors related to the fact that the 'limitations on the use of the claims and indications ... aim to ensure a high level of consumer protection, to guarantee adequate and transparent information for the consumer relating to the sodium content of drinking water, to ensure fair trading and to protect human health' (para 72), In particular,
75 ... the determination of the validity of the contested provisions must be carried out in accordance with the need to reconcile the requirements of the protection of those various fundamental rights protected by the EU legal order, and striking a fair balance between them ...
76 With regard to judicial review of the conditions of the implementation of the principle of proportionality, the EU legislature must be allowed a broad discretion in an area such as that involved in the present case, which entails political, economic and social choices on its part, and in which it is called upon to undertake complex assessments ...
77 ... even if a claim or indication referring to the sodium content of natural mineral waters associated with chloride ions can be regarded as being substantively correct, the fact remains that it is incomplete if it suggests that the waters are low in sodium whereas, in reality, their total sodium content exceeds the limits provided for by EU legislation ... 
78 In such a situation, the information displayed on the packaging, labels and in advertising containing that claim or indication may mislead the consumer as to the sodium content of the mineral waters ... (C-157/14, paras 75-78, references omitted).
There is a final step in the analysis concerning certain claims of Neptune that EU legislation was unnecessarily restrictive, which the CJEU sorts out by deferring to the EU legislator's action under the precautionary principle. Thus, overall, the CJEU has no qualms in restricting the previously recognised corporate right to freedom of expression and information on the basis of a pretty straightforward analysis of the labelling requirements coupled with a high degree of deference on the basis of the precautionary principle.

Overall, the outcome of the case must be welcome (and follows some other positive developments in EU food law). However, in my view, the trouble is in the process that the CJEU had to follow before upholding the restrictions on labelling of mineral waters for consumer protection health-related reasons. It would seem to me that these issues would be better reconducted under a standard case of judicial review of the administrative action and the underpinning legal rules imposing labelling requirements. In that regard, it seems quite clear that Neptune would not have had legal standing to challenge the European rules on mineral water labelling. However, it managed to trigger the same level of judicial review through a claim of corporate human rights (certainly artificially overblown). Is it time to reconsider, once and seriously, a change in the rules for judicial review of EU acts, or are we better off by indulging endlessly in this ridiculous discussion on corporate human rights?

CJEU makes interesting points regarding illegal presumptions of restriction of competition in public procurement (C-425/14)

In its Judgment in Impresa Edilux and SICEF, C-425/14, EU:C:2015:721, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) was asked to establish the parameters under which an economic operator can be excluded from a procurement procedure below EU thresholds for not supplying a declaration of acceptance of a legality protocol on combating criminal activity. This case is interesting because it involves the use of self-declarations as participation requirements in procurement procedures, which is bound to gain more and more importance under Directive 2014/24.

However, the Judgment in Impresa Edilux and SICEF is also remarkable because the CJEU (maybe only by coincidence) makes very important points regarding the establishment of excessive presumptions of restrictions of competition as part of this type of self-declarations. By looking in detail at the content of the declarations required from interested tenderers, the CJEU identifies a public procurement practice that results in the establishment of irrebutable presumptions of distortion of competition that go beyond what is required to uphold the principle of competition in the public procurement setting. In doing so, the CJEU establishes clear red lines regarding this type of presumptions.

This blog post focuses on both sets of issues in turn. First, it concentrates on the analysis of anti-criminal activity protocols and self-declarations. Secondly, it moves on to assess the treatment of the presumptions of competitive distortion that can derive from certain types of self-declarations.

1. Compatibility of anti-criminal activity protocols with EU procurement rules
The case at hand concerned public procurement in Italy, where Article 1(17) of Law No 190 on measures for the prevention and suppression of corruption and illegal conduct in the public administration of 6 November 2012 (‘Law No 190/2012’) foresees that ‘Contracting authorities may state in public procurement notices... that failure to comply with the clauses of legality protocols or integrity agreements is to constitute a ground for exclusion from the tendering procedure.’ 

The CJEU emphasises that, according to the referring court (ie the Council of Administrative Justice for the Region of Sicily, Italy), 'the purpose of introducing legality protocols into Italian law is to prevent and combat the pernicious phenomenon of the infiltration of organised crime, firmly entrenched in some regions of southern Italy, into the public procurement sector. The referring court takes the view that those protocols are also essential in order to protect the fundamental principles of competition and transparency underlying Italian and EU public procurement legislation' (C-425/14, para 13).

Thus, the main legal issue put to the CJEU for preliminary interpretation concerned the compatibility of exclusion grounds such as that of Article 1(17) of Law No 190/2012 with EU law in the case of public procurement procedures not covered by the relevant EU rules because the value of the contract does not meet the relevant thresholds. 

This is an important point to note. Should the value of the contract have met or exceeded the EU thresholds, the case would have concerned the compatibility of such exclusion ground with the specific rules of Article 45 of Directive 2004/18 now repealed by Article 57 of Directive 2014/24 (which, for these purposes, is fundamentally equivalent). This could have altered the legal analysis in view of the constant case law of the CJEU that interprets the exclusion clauses in Art 45 Dir 2004/18 (and now Art 57 Dir 2014/18) as listing exhaustively the grounds based on objective considerations of professional quality which can serve to justify the exclusion of a contractor from participation in a public contract

That is, the constant position in the case law that those provisions preclude Member States or contracting authorities from adding other grounds for exclusion based on criteria relating to the professional qualities of the candidate or tenderer, and more specifically professional honesty, solvency, and economic and financial capacity (see Case 76/81 Transporoute [1982] ECR 417 para 9; Joined Cases C-226/04 and C-228/04 La Cascina [2006] ECR I-1347 para 21–22; and Case C-213/07 Mikhaniki [2008] ECR I-9999 para 40–43. This has recently been reiterated in case C-376/08 Serrantoni and Consorzio stabile edili [2009] ECR I-12169 para 31; C-74/09 Bâtiments and Ponts Construction and WISAG Produktionsservice [2010] ECR I-7271 para 43; and Case Forposta and ABC Direct ContactC-465/11, EU:C:2012:801 para 38]

As the referring court indicated, this would have required an assessment of the extent to which 'Article 1(17) of Law No 190/2012 could be consistent with the third sentence of Article 45(1) of [Directive 2004/18], which, in its view, provides a derogation from the exhaustive nature of the grounds for exclusion for overriding requirements in the general interest, such as those relating to public order and the prevention of crime.' In my view, that would not be possible under Art 45(1) 2004/18 and much less now under the revised wording of Art 57(3) of Directive 2014/24. 


However, given that the contract in the case at hand was below the thresholds, the CJEU did not assess such compatibility with Art 45 Dir 2004/18 (Art 57 Dir 2014/24), and ruled exclusively in relation to the general principles of EU public procurement law (paras 18-24). Indeed, the CJEU reformulated the question in the following terms:


whether the fundamental rules and general principles of the Treaty, in particular the principles of equal treatment and of non-discrimination and the consequent obligation of transparency, must be interpreted as precluding a provision of national law under which a contracting authority may provide that a candidate or tenderer be excluded from a tendering procedure relating to a public procurement contract for not having lodged, with its tender, a written acceptance of the commitments and declarations contained in a legality protocol, such as that at issue in the main proceedings, the purpose of which is to prevent organised crime infiltrating the public procurement sector (C-425/14, para 25).


In answering that question, the CJEU makes a couple of interesting points:

28 It is clear that, by preventing criminal activity and distortions of competition in the public contracts sector, a measure such as the obligation to declare acceptance of that type of legality protocol appears to be such as to strengthen equal treatment and transparency in procurement procedures. In addition, inasmuch as that obligation is incumbent upon every candidate or concession-holder without distinction, it does not conflict with the principle of non-discrimination.
29 However, in accordance with the principle of proportionality, which constitutes a general principle of EU law, such a measure must not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the intended objective (see, to that effect, judgment in Serrantoni and Consorzio stabile edili, C-376/08, EU:C:2009:808, paragraph 33 and the case-law cited).
30 In that regard, it is appropriate ... to reject Edilux and SICEF’s argument that a declaration of acceptance of certain commitments is an ineffective means of combatting the infiltration of organised crime since observance of those commitments can be determined only after the contract concerned has been awarded. ...
32 ... as regards the content of the legality protocol ..., the commitments which must be given by candidates or tenderers under subparagraphs (a) to (d) of the legality protocol are, in essence, to indicate the progress of the works, the purpose, amount and recipients of subcontracts and derived contracts and the procedures for selecting contractors; to report any attempted interference, irregularity or distortion in the conduct of the tendering procedure and during performance of the contract, to cooperate with the police, by reporting any attempt at extortion, intimidation or influence of a criminal nature, and to include the same clauses in subcontracts. Those commitments overlap with the declarations contained in that protocol, under subparagraphs (h) to (j).
33 As regards a declaration such as that in subparagraph (g) of the legality protocol at issue in the main proceedings, whereby the participant declares that it has not concluded and will not conclude any agreement with other participants in the tendering procedure seeking to restrict or avoid competition, it is limited to the purpose of protecting the principles of competition and transparency in public procurement procedures.
34 Such commitments and declarations concern the honest conduct of the candidate or tenderer towards the contracting authority at issue in the main proceedings and cooperation with law enforcement. They do not, therefore, go beyond what is necessary in order to prevent organised crime infiltrating the public contract awards sector (C-425/14, paras 28-34, emphasis added).
Up to this point, the Judgment in Impresa Edilux and SICEF remains within what could be expected and the CJEU takes the chance to support Member States measures to prevent organised criminality where those initiatives do not conflict with explicit EU rules. As I mentioned, I am not sure that the same result would have been possible under the rules of Art 45 Dir 2004/18, or now Art 57 Dir 2014/24, unless the CJEU engaged in a line of reasoning along the lines followed in para 33 and opened the door to exclusion grounds that can be interpreted as remaining sufficiently close to the grounds actually listed in those provisions--and, in the case at hand, establishing a sufficient link with the mandatory grounds for exclusion based on participation in a criminal organisation or corruption, as regulated in Art 57(1)(a) and (b) of Directive 2014/24.

Moreover, along these same lines, the CJEU stresses that requiring a declaration to the effect of ensuring that the tenderer has not entered into anticompetitive agreements is not disproportionate--which seems useful for the interpretation of Art 59 Dir 2014/24 regarding the self-declarations that can be required from economic operators under the new mechanism of the European Single Procurement Document (ESPD). Therefore, up to this point, the case is useful but not necessarily ground-breaking.

Nonetheless, the specifics of the reasoning of the CJEU hide another interesting dimension of the case that, as mentioned, concerns a public procurement practice that results in the establishment of irrebutable presumptions of distortion of competition that go beyond what is required to uphold the principle of competition in the public procurement setting. We now turn to this second dimension of the Judgment in Impresa Edilux and SICEF.

2. Incompatibility of undercover or disguised restrictions of competition
Interestingly, after dealing with those core issues of the case, the CJEU keeps on with the very detailed assessment of the content of the specific declaration of acceptance of the legality protocol on combating criminal activity that was required from the tenderers. The purpose of this analysis is to exhaust the issue of proportionality but, maybe as a coincidence and in any case as a positive spillover, brings to light the fact that some of these protocols can include disguised measures restricting competition in terms of unduly preventing cooperation between undertakings, including  legitimate subcontracting.

In the specific case, the issue was that the required declaration included some requirements not necessarily linked with criminal behaviour, such as the obligation of participating tenderers to 'expressly and solemnly declare' that they: (e) are 'not in a relationship of control or association (legal and/or factual) with other competitors and that [they have] not concluded and will not conclude any agreement with other participants in the tendering procedure'; or (f) 'will not subcontract any type of tasks to other companies participating in the tender [...] and [are] aware of the fact that, otherwise, those subcontracts will not be authorised'. 

The CJEU assesses this requirement as follows:
36 ... it follows from the case-law of the Court that the automatic exclusion of candidates or tenderers who are in such a relationship [of control or of association] with other candidates or tenderers goes beyond what is necessary to prevent collusive behaviour and, therefore, to ensure the application of the principle of equal treatment and observance of the obligation of transparency. Such an automatic exclusion constitutes an irrebutable presumption of mutual interference in the respective tenders, for the same contract, of undertakings linked by a relationship of control or of association. Accordingly, it precludes the possibility for those candidates or tenderers of showing that their tenders are independent and is therefore contrary to the EU interest in ensuring the widest possible participation by tenderers in a call for tenders (see, to that effect, judgments in Assitur, C-538/07, EU:C:2009:317, paragraphs 28 to 30, and Serrantoni and Consorzio stabile edili, C-376/08, EU:C:2009:808, paragraphs 39 and 40).
37 ... the legality protocol also includes a declaration that the participant has not concluded and will not conclude any agreement with other participants in the tendering procedure. By excluding in this way any agreements between the participants, including agreements not capable of restricting competition, such a declaration goes beyond what is necessary to safeguard the principle of competition in the public procurement sector.

38 It follows that an obligation for a participant in a tendering procedure to declare, on the one hand, that it is not in a relationship of control or of association with other competitors and, on the other, that it has not concluded any agreement with other participants in the tendering procedure, with the consequence that, failing such a declaration, that participant is automatically excluded from that procedure, infringes the principle of proportionality.
39 Similar considerations must also apply as regards the declaration ... by which the participant declares that it will not subcontract any type of tasks to other undertakings participating in the tendering procedure and is aware of the fact that, otherwise, those subcontracts will not be authorised. In fact, such a declaration involves an irrebuttable presumption that any subcontract by the successful tenderer, after the contract has been awarded, to another participant in the same call for tenders resulted from collusion between the two undertakings concerned, without giving them the opportunity to show that is not the case. Thus, such a declaration goes beyond what is necessary to prevent collusive behaviour (C-425/14, paras 36-39, emphasis added).
These arguments of the CJEU should not be lost as a result of the apparently technical and disconnected case in which they have been made. They are essential to the assessment of the compatibility with EU law of collaboration agreements between (otherwise) competing undertakings for the tendering and execution of public contracts. In my view, these are very positive approaches by the CJEU to the issue of collaboration between tenderers and subcontracting schemes, not least because they are in line with Article 101 TFEU--and particularly 101(3) TFEU--in terms of potential justification of economically efficient instances of cooperation between economic operators.

In that regard, I consider that the CJEU has pushed for the preservation of sufficient space for a competition-law compliant analysis of teaming, joint bidding and subcontracting arrangements, for which I advocate in Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 336-340 and 353-355. In particular, I find this development particularly in line with the following arguments (p 294):
... the establishment of grounds for exclusion that tend to narrow down excessively the pool of potential participants in a tender, or that completely exclude a given type or entire category of potential bidders, will need to be scrutinised carefully. This will be one of the cases where the application of the principle of proportionality alone might be insufficient (see above chapter five) and where a purposive interpretation might be required to ensure a more pro-competitive outcome. Additional grounds for exclusion will therefore not only need to be proportionate, but should not generate unnecessary distortions to competition.
The argument can be pushed further to require that the additional rules for the exclusion of tenderers be designed exclusively to prevent undertakings from exploiting certain unlawful competitive advantages in the public procurement setting. As the ECJ has clarified, the purpose of the basic principles of equality and non-discrimination and the ensuing obligation of transparency is to guarantee that ‘tenderers [are] in a position of equality both when they formulate their tenders and when those tenders are being assessed by the contracting authority’.[1] Therefore, the underlying rationale of the system of exclusion of tenderers is to prevent the participation of tenderers that are ex ante advantaged vis-a-vis the rest of competitors from resulting in a breach of the principle of equal treatment. Hence, the additional grounds for exclusion established by Member States should be designed in such a way that only situations under which a potential competitive advantage is clearly envisioned are covered—ie, they should not be designed exclusively in accordance with formal considerations of equality or non-discrimination. Moreover, in their implementation, contracting authorities need to be able to prove the existence of an actual advantage for the candidate or tenderer whose exclusion is being considered,[2] and an opportunity to show that no such advantage exists in the particular instance under consideration should be granted to the affected candidate or tenderer (ie, the establishment of irrebuttable presumptions should not be allowed).[3]
Therefore, it is submitted that it should be expressly recognised and taken into account that the establishment of grounds for exclusion of tenderers other than those listed in article 57 of Directive 2014/24 needs to be based on competition considerations and, more specifically, aimed at preventing the exploitation of actual unlawful competitive advantages by candidates or tenderers—since the establishment of purely formal grounds for the exclusion of tenderers not justified by the existence of associated distortions of competition would unnecessarily restrict access to public procurement.



[1] Case C-19/00 SIAC Construction [2001] ECR I-7725 34; Case C-448/01 EVN and Wienstrom [2003] ECR I-14527 47; and Case C-213/07 Mikhaniki [2008] ECR I-9999 45.
[2] Joined Cases C-21/03 and C-34/03 Fabricom [2005] ECR I-1559 33 and 35; and Case C-213/07 Mikhaniki [2008] ECR I-9999 62. For a recent application of the advantage criterion that, in our view, imposes an exceedingly demanding requirement as regards its proof, see Case T-4/13 Communicaid Group v Commission [2014] pub. electr. EU:T:2014:437.
[3] That would particularly be the case according to the reading of Fabricom made by the EGC, which has considered that the ECJ ‘held that a candidate or tenderer cannot automatically be excluded from a tendering procedure without having the opportunity to comment on the reasons justifying such exclusion’; Joined Cases T-376/05 and T-383/05 TEA–CEGOS [2006] ECR II-205 65. See also Case C-213/07 Mikhaniki [2008] ECR I-9999 69; Case C-538/07 Assitur [2009] ECR I-4219 30; and Opinion of AG Mazák in case C-538/07 Assitur 44 and fn 22, where it is argued that those measures may result in the exclusion of persons whose participation entails no risk whatsoever for the equal treatment of tenderers and the transparency of procedures for the award of public contracts—which is clearly undesirable.

When a commercial lawyer is (also) a consumer: Excessive paternalism by the CJEU (C-110/14)

In its Judgment in Costea, C-110/14, EU:C:2015:271, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has engaged in extreme formalism in the interpretation of the notion of 'consumer' under EU law [and, more precisely, under Article 2(b) of Council Directive 93/13/EEC of 5 April 1993 on unfair terms in consumer contracts]. Costea is, in my view, a criticisable Judgment because it pushes legal fiction too far and departs from what I would have considered a sensible functional approach to the concept of consumer. It is worth looking closer at the reasoning of the CJEU.

The CJEU provides a very useful summary of the facts of the case: 
Mr Costea practises as a lawyer and, as such, primarily handles cases in the field of commercial law... he concluded a credit agreement with Volksbank. The repayment of that loan was secured by a mortgage registered against a building belonging to Mr Costea’s law firm ... That credit agreement was signed by Mr Costea, not only in his capacity as borrower but also in his capacity as representative of his law firm, owing to the latter’s status of mortgage guarantor (C-110/14, para 9, emphasis added).
In short, then, Mr Costea was legally acting in several capacities in a single commercial transaction, where he was both borrowing money personally and representing the legal entity that acted as his guarantor. However, he claimed protection under EU law so as to detach both legal positions and avoid his professional qualification from reducing the protection that he would otherwise be afforded as a lay consumer.

His claim was, in very simple terms, that he was at the same time a commercial lawyer acting for his firm and a consumer acting for himself. Given the impossibility of splitting the human mind and detaching oneself from knowledge already acquired, it is very hard to understand how--beyond the legal fiction derived from his ability to represent a legal entity created and owned by himself, as well as his own personal interests--he could ever be considered to functionally hold two very opposite positions: ie that of the knowledgeable commercial lawyer that acts under the general duties of his lex artis, and that of the unknowing consumer that deserves special protection when it enters into complex transactions.

However, the CJEU does precisely that. Following the Opinion of AG Cruz Villalón (see a comment here), the CJEU engages in the following reasoning:
17 It is ... by reference to the capacity of the contracting parties, according to whether or not they are acting for purposes relating to their trade, business or profession, that the directive defines the contracts to which it applies (judgments in Asbeek Brusse and de Man Garabito, C-488/11, EU:C:2013:341, paragraph 30, and Šiba, C-537/13, EU:C:2015:14, paragraph 21).
18 That criterion corresponds to the idea on which the system of protection implemented by that directive is based, namely that the consumer is in a weaker position vis-à-vis the seller or supplier, as regards both his bargaining power and his level of knowledge. This leads to the consumer agreeing to terms drawn up in advance by the seller or supplier without being able to influence the content of those terms (judgments in Asbeek Brusse and de Man Garabito, C-488/11, EU:C:2013:341, paragraph 31, and Šiba, C-537/13, EU:C:2015:14, paragraph 22).
21 The concept of ‘consumer’, within the meaning of Article 2(b) of Directive 93/13, is ... objective in nature and is distinct from the concrete knowledge the person in question may have, or from the information that person actually has (C-110/14, paras 17-18 and 21, emphasis added).
In setting up this analytical framework, the CJEU conflates two arguments. The first one relates to the weak position of the consumer in terms of unequal bargaining power. The second one relates to the information imperfection that can affect the consumer. At least on this second point, the CJEU is extremely formalist and engages in an interpretation of EU law that is not adjusted to commercial reality, but simply aimed at the world of ideas. By  flatly rejecting that the specific knowledge and expertise of the consumer can alter its legal position, the CJEU preempts any granularity in EU consumer law, at least when it comes to a potential reduction of the standard of protection of the savvy consumer--which is also functionally in stark contrast with the increased protection afforded to the particularly vulnerable consumer, and thus creates a clear imbalance in the development of this area of EU economic law.

Moreover, this formalism exacerbates the paternalism of the CJEU in its aim to protect consumers, even when they are in a situation where they do not actually deserve protection because they are not affected by an information asymmetry or imperfection [for extended discussion on this rationale for consumer protection law, see F Gomez Pomar, 'EC Consumer Protection Law and EC Competition Law: How related are they? A Law and Economics perspective' (2003) InDret 113, pp. 10 and ff]. Thus, the Costea Judgment is bound to expand consumer protection beyond its desirable remit.

The line of argument based on the consumer's limited bargaining power is the one that allows the CJEU to afford protection to Mr Costea as an individual. It is harder to take issue with the reasoning of the CJEU in paras 24-27 because the CJEU assesses the relative bargaining power of a lawyer in the abstract and concludes that 'even if a lawyer were considered to display a high level of technical knowledge ..., he could not be assumed not to be a weak party compared with a seller or supplier'. However, this should have been left for a factual assessment under the circumstances of the case, in which it could actually be proven (not presumed or assumed) that the lawyer was in no weaker position.

This is where the CJEU again engages in a line of reasoning that is extremely formalistic, particularly because it loses perspective of the fact that several legal persons are actually embodied in a single natural person. According to the CJEU
28 As regards the fact that the debt arising out of the contract in question is secured by a mortgage taken out by a lawyer in his capacity as representative of his law firm and involving goods intended for the exercise of that lawyer’s profession, such as a building belonging to that firm, it should be held that ... it has no bearing on the assessment carried out in ... this judgment.
29 The case in the main proceedings concerns the determination of the status (that of consumer or of seller or supplier) of the person who has concluded the main agreement (the credit agreement) and not the status of that person under the ancillary agreement (the mortgage), securing the payment of the debt arising from the main agreement. In a case such as that at issue in the main proceedings, the categorisation, as a consumer or as a seller or supplier, of the lawyer in the context of his taking out a mortgage cannot, consequently, determine his status under the main credit agreement (C-110/14, paras 28-29, emphasis added).
In my view, this is simply functionally absurd. The CJEU failed to look at the transaction as a whole and afforded protection beyond what might have been necessary. Moreover, the reasoning seems exceedingly simplistic in its dichotomy: ie in a given contract, each of the parties is either a consumer or a seller/supplier. This is not in line with the fact that, as AG Cruz Villalón pointed out in his Opinion, 'the contrast between the concepts of seller or supplier and consumer does not operate in completely symmetrical terms' (para 21). A functional approach should certainly allow for a more nuanced approach, so that a specific party (ie the one that demands the services in the transaction) can be categorised as consumer/no-consumer. This is certainly the case with legal entities [Judgment in Cape and Idealservice MN REC-541/99 and C-542/99, EU:C:2001:625, para 16], and there seems to be no good reason to automatically exclude such analysis in the case of professionals.

Overall, then, the Costea Judgment seems like an exceedingly formalistic exercise and leaves a flavour of undue expansion of consumer protection that could well backfire by allowing professionals to access unnecessary protection by the simple use of separate legal entities (which they can create and control). Will this lead to a future extension of the doctrine of lifting the corporate veil to the area of consumer protection? That would certainly be bonkers...

Public procurement in the CJEU's Annual Report 2014 Statistics

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has published the full version of its 2014 Annual Report, which allows for an update of the statistics available two years ago (here). The 2014 report offers interesting data about the continued relevance of public procurement in the overall activities of the Court, as well as the evolution of the backlog in the docket, which seems to be needing attention at the highest level. I provide the new data first, both for the CJEU and the GC, and then update the time series I first prepared in 2012.

CJEU 2014 data

In 2014, the CJEU opened 21 new cases on public procurement (3.42% of all new cases), of which 20 were references for a preliminary ruling and the other case was an appeal. It adopted 13 decisions in public procurement cases (11 Judgments and 2 Orders) during the same period (which represent 2.08% of all cases closed). This clearly indicates that the CJEU has accumulated a (further) backlog of around 50% of the 2014 new procurement cases.

A cursory search on CURIA's case finder shows 9 pending procurement cases (below), which would track the 2014 mismatch (although two of them are 2015 cases)--but only assuming there was no backlog of procurement cases at the beginning of that year, which I do not think is correct (see below for some conjectures). In any case, more transparency on the backlog of cases would be desirable.

GC 2014 data

In 2014, the GC opened 17 new cases on public procurement, and it issued 18 decisions (16 Judgments and 2 Orders). The GC is managing to keep the number of pending cases stable at around 35. The fact that the GC publishes explicit statistics on pending cases by subject matter makes things easier.

Time series

The following is an update of the time series I prepared in 2012. Just like then, please note that unfortunately, prior to 2010, the data for the CJEU does not include a separate category for public procurement cases (they were likely to be classified under approximation of laws, or under the relevant fundamental freedom). Therefore, the actual numbers may be higher than the available statistics show but, in my view, the general trends remain clear: backlog is increasing and now reaches about 75 cases. As I mentioned above, more transparency (or a correction of incorrect classification of cases, if there is any) would be much desirable.

 


Don't skip a beat: CJEU intends to strengthen consumer protection of medical devices, but does it? (C-503/13)

In the interesting Judgment in Boston Scientific Medizintechnik, C-503/13, EU:C:2015:148, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has clarified the requirements for the application of the EU rules on liability for damage caused by defective products to the manufacturers of potentially defective medical devices which substitution require surgical intervention. 

In the case at hand, the issue was whether the manufacturer of potentially defective pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators was liable to cover the cost of surgery and related damages to patients that needed those potentially defective products replaced. 

In a clear and rather short Judgment, the CJEU has ruled that such situations are covered by the special liability regime. This is bound to trigger commercial adjustments in this sector, as well as in the insurance sector and I would not be surprised if the Boston Scientific Medizintechnik is strongly criticised. I can think of some reasons why, which I sketch below.

The key controversial legal issues were whether the mere fact that a specific product is potentially defective suffices to classify it as defective for the purposes of EU law and, if so, whether the surgery needed to replace (potentially) defective medical devices was within the scope of the damages imposed on the producer. The CJEU has answered both questions in the affirmative. Some of its reasoning is worth considering in detail.

Firstly, regarding the way in which potentially defective medical devices should be treated, the CJEU determined that
37 ... a product is defective when it does not provide the safety which a person is entitled to expect, taking all the circumstances into account, including the presentation of the product, the use to which it could reasonably be expected that it would be put and the time when the product was put into circulation. Moreover ... that assessment must be carried out having regard to the reasonable expectations of the public at large.
38 The safety which the public at large is entitled to expect ... must therefore be assessed by taking into account, inter alia, the intended purpose, the objective characteristics and properties of the product in question and the specific requirements of the group of users for whom the product is intended.
39 With regard to medical devices such as the pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators at issue in the main proceedings, it is clear that, in the light of their function and the particularly vulnerable situation of patients using such devices, the safety requirements for those devices which such patients are entitled to expect are particularly high.
40 Moreover, as observed, in essence, by the Advocate General at point 30 of his Opinion, the potential lack of safety which would give rise to liability on the part of the producer ... stems, for products such as those at issue in the main proceedings, from the abnormal potential for damage which those products might cause to the person concerned.
41 Accordingly, where it is found that such products belonging to the same group or forming part of the same production series have a potential defect, it is possible to classify as defective all the products in that group or series, without there being any need to show that the product in question is defective
(C-503/13, paras 37 to 41, emphasis added).
This is a very significant line of reasoning, as it clearly establishes that the potential for damage is an element to take into consideration when assessing the level of safety that users of specific products can expect. In that regard, the higher the potential for damages (in this case, possibly, death), the lower the threshold for the special liability regime to be applicable. This basically comes to create a further objectification of the test for the imposition of objective liability under the EU rules and, in my view, significantly raises the financial risks faced by producers of medical devices. 

A law and economics detailed assessment would be necessary, but this case seems like a good candidate in the list of cases where the good intentions of the CJEU may create unforeseen and undesirable effects, eg by imposing additional costs on producers of medical devices that they pass-on to consumers, ultimately pricing out those with a lower acquisition power [for general discussion, see A Sanchez Graells,  The Importance of Assessing the Economic Impact of the Case Law of the Court of Justice of the European Union: Some Exploratory Thoughts (April 18, 2013)].

An alternative approach could have been explored by focusing on the level of security that medical professionals could expect, as medical devices are clearly not products directly offered to their end users. More alternatives could have been explored in view of the fact that the claimants in the case are mandatory insurance funds and not the ultimate users of the medical devices, which could also have triggered an analysis of the justification for medical insurance itself and the eventual obligation of medical insurers to absorb some of the risks they are perceived to insure. However, none of these issues are addressed by the CJEU in its Boston Scientific Medizintechnik Judgment.

http://candorville.com/2013/08/16/hypocritical-oath/

Secondly, regarding the classification of the surgery costs and related damages as "damage caused by death or by personal injuries" for the purposes of EU law, the CJEU made a distinction based on the recommendations of the manufacturer as to how best to minimise or reduce the risk derived from the potential defect. In that regard, it is worth stressing that
49 Compensation for damage thus relates to all that is necessary to eliminate harmful consequences and to restore the level of safety which a person is entitled to expect...
50 As a consequence, in the case of medical devices, such as pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators, which are defective ... compensation for damage must cover, inter alia, the costs relating to the replacement of the defective product.
51 In the present case ...
[the manufacturer/importer] recommended to surgeons that they should consider replacing the pacemakers in question.
52 In that case, the Court finds that the costs relating to the replacement of such pacemakers, including the costs of the surgical operations, constitute damage ... for which the producer is liable...
53 That finding may be different in the case of implantable cardioverter defibrillators, as
[the manufacturer/importer] recommended ... that the magnetic switch of those medical devices should simply be deactivated.
54 In that regard, it is for the national court to determine whether, having regard to the particularly vulnerable situation of patients using an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, the deactivation of the magnetic switch is sufficient for the purpose of overcoming the defect in that product, bearing in mind the abnormal risk of damage to which it subjects the patients concerned, or whether it is necessary to replace that product in order to overcome the defect
(C-503/13, paras 49 to 54, emphasis added).
In my view, this nuanced approach of the CJEU that makes the imposition of liability dependent on the recommendation issued by the manufacturer/importer of the potentially defective medical devices is tricky. On the one hand, it shows some space for technical considerations and allows manufacturers to take responsibility in finding the best ways to correct the defect or substitute the defective product. 
 
On the other hand, however, the CJEU is not very clear on this point and hints at the fact that the "particularly vulnerable situation of patients using an implantable cardioverter defibrillator" may tilt the national court's assessment on whether the manufacturer/importer's recommendation was actually fit for purpose. Once more, the focus seems to be in the wrong place, as the technical criteria of the doctors is not being taken into consideration.

If doctors performed an operation to substitute certain medical devices despite the fact that the manufacturer/importer had recommended a less intrusive approach, the medical criterion should be taken into account and, most likely, prevail. A doctor under the Hippocratic Oath is under a duty not to impose (unnecesary) suffering or damage. In this specific context, a doctor would be liable for performing an unnecessary surgery to replace a potentially defective medical device that could be satisfactorily fixed in an alternative way.
 
Hence, determining that the intervention was not necessary (ie releasing the manufacturer/importer from liability) would almost automatically trigger liability for the doctor. This, again, would create undesirable incentives for physicians, who would abstain from replacement surgery where the manufacturer/importer recommendation was different. In that case, there would be no technical check on the manufacturer/importer's views, and users (rectius, patients) could be at a clear disadvantage.

All in all, then, I think that the CJEU's Boston Scientific Medizintechnik Judgment creates significant distortions in the incentives that all parties involved have when medical devices are potentially defective. In my view, this derives from a lack of thought on the implications derived from the fact that medical devices are not acquired freely or willingly by their users, but under a strong prescriptive supervision by the medical profession. And that, in turn, their activities are further overseen (and influenced) by medical insurers. This is something that I would like to see gain more space in future Judgments or, otherwise, the consumerization of healthcare will end up actually under-protecting patients.

AG Szpunar submits that German nuclear taxes are not State aid, but his reasoning is totally unimaginative (C-5/14)

In its Opinion in Kernkraftwerke Lippe-Ems, C-5/14, EU:C:2015:51 (not available in English), AG Spuznar has submitted to the CJEU that a German tax on fissionable nuclear materials used for the production of electricity does not constitute State aid within the meaning of Art 107(1) TFEU, regardless of the fact that such a tax only applies to companies that produce electricity commercially.

From the State aid perspective, the reasoning of AG Spuznar deserves some analysis, as it is based on a rather uncreative (rectius, unimaginative) counterfactual situation that excludes the possibility of any different theoretical methods of taxation of electricity production. 

Indeed, the AG considers that, prior to the creation of the "nuclear tax"
German law does not include any general system for the taxation of electricity production. However, in certain circumstances, establishing a new tax only for certain undertakings in a comparable category can have the same effect as an exemption from an existing tax [for the other undertakings]. Is it possible then to conceive a general tax system under which all electricity producers are equally taxed in their production?
It is characteristic of electricity that it can be produced under numerous techniques, which are very different from each other; namely the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas or oil) and their derivatives, nuclear reaction, or the use of different sources of renewable energy such as water, wind, solar energy, geothermal energy, etc. 
Thus, it seems impossible to create a system of prior imposition that considers all these production processes equally. In other words, companies producing electricity under these different technologies are not in a comparable factual situation in terms of any prior taxation. All they have in common is their final product, ie electricity.
Therefore, not having previously taxed electricity generated by means other than nuclear energy is not an advantage in the light of the overall tax system, because such a system cannot exist. Thus, the disputed tax in the main proceedings is a specific tax that can only apply to the nuclear sector.
Since such a general system of prior imposition of electricity producers is not an imaginable framework of reference, failure to submit these producers [ie, non-nuclear] to a system of this type cannot be perceived as a mitigation of charges normally included in the budget of an undertaking (paras 69-73, references omitted, emphasis added).
In my view, the problem with the AG's reasoning is that it fundamentally relies on the acceptance that an alternative tax system could not be conceived. I struggle to accept this at face value. Surely, if the tax trigger was the production of electricity using inputs that cannot be disposed of safely or that create very high risks of catastrophic accidents (as one can conceive nuclear material does), then the system could be designed objectively to cover all modes of electricity production. 

If any of the producers with other technologies met those characteristics to a reduced degree (eg, oil also creates risks, particularly in terms of spills, but it may be considered less dangerous than nuclear material), the system could be constructed in a progressive way. 

This would have the double advantage of being clearly not selective and, more importantly, it would be pursuing environmental considerations to a higher level. And this is just one option. I am sure that clever tax lawyers could find more tax triggers that could support an "imaginable" general system for the taxation of electricity production--which would always be general, even if it meant that "clean" energy production was taxed at zero rates.


Just as the AG may have been, I am torn with the situation (from a normative perspective, I agree that nuclear production should be heavily taxed in order to discourage it), as accepting the existence of such an alternative system would strike the German nuclear tax down due to its incompatibility with Art 107(1) TFEU. 

This could have some short-term negative effects and would put significant heat under the seats of the CJEU, as environmental associations would see them as siding with nuclear production of energy. However, it would also require Germany (and all other 27 Member States) to rethink the taxation of electricity production, which is not necessarily a bad thing. And, more importantly, it would not push for a development of EU State aid law that is fundamentally based on a (self-perceived) impossibility of existence of alternative systems of taxation, which is not that sound. Hence, I would ask the CJEU to take the burn and depart from Spuznar's unimaginative way of dodging the bullet.

The best way to deal with a petition to the European Parliament? Admit it and then we'll see (C-261/13)

In its Judgment in case Schönberger v Parliament, C-261/13, EU:C:2014:2423, the CJEU has assessed the limits of the right to petition the European Parliament under art 227 TFEU, as informed by art 44 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. In a case that confirms a previous Judgment by the GC [EU:T:2013:111, not available in English], the CJEU has clarified the controls, checks and balances applicable to a rejection of a petition and, maybe more counterintuitively, the lack of controls applicable to the admission of a petition. This may sound absurd and unnecessary, given that there would seem to be no need to control the reasons why the European Parliament admits petitions.
 
However, the discussion seems to actually not have been about how to control de admission of petitions, but the actions that the European Parliament decides to engage in once the petition is admitted. On this point, and showing a very clear deference for the political process involved in the right to petition, the CJEU has stressed that
it is clear from the provisions of the TFEU and from the rules adopted by the Parliament for the organisation of the right of petition that, where the Parliament takes the view that a petition meets the conditions laid down in Article 227 TFEU, it has a broad discretion, of a political nature, as regards how that petition should be dealt with. It follows that a decision taken in that regard is not amenable to judicial review, regardless of whether, by that decision, the Parliament itself takes the appropriate measures or considers that it is unable to do so and refers the petition to the competent institution or department so that that institution or department may take those measures (C-261/13, para 24, emphasis added).
The question at this point is how to interpret this passage, which seems to either not require any reaction at all from Parliament, or a very minimum 'referral' of the petition to a different institution or department. Ie, in the best case scenario, all the Parliament needs to do is to pass the hot potato onto somebody else. In the worst case, it may just decided that there is nothing that can be done.
 
 
The lack of appetite for a control of the actions that follow a petition is understandable. However, an extreme reading of Schönberger v Parliament would simply result in the European Parliament never rejecting any petition in the future (that would be open to judicial review) and instead admitting them and immediately declaring that there is nothing they can do (with, or without further referral). Whether this provides any meaningful effectiveness to art 44 EUCFR and art 227 TFEU is at least debatable. However, there is nothing I can say about this. Hopefully the experts will.

(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!

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.

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...

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...

When the CJEU opens the umbrella, lawyers and economists get ready for a warm shower of damages claims (C-557/12)

In its Judgment in Kone, C-557/12, EU:C:2014:917, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has followed the highly controversial proposal of AG Kokott (see my criticism here) and has bought into the theory of 'umbrella damages', hence determining that "Article 101 TFEU must be interpreted as meaning that it precludes the interpretation and application of domestic legislation enacted by a Member State which categorically excludes, for legal reasons, any civil liability of undertakings belonging to a cartel for loss resulting from the fact that an undertaking not party to the cartel, having regard to the practices of the cartel, set its prices higher than would otherwise have been expected under competitive conditions."

In my opinion, this Judgment must be strongly criticised and shows a very dangerous path of judicial activism that the CJEU is for some reason willing to engage with in the area of private law, but that it avoids in the area of public law and fundamental rights (see my remarks on the CJEU's total lack of will to effectively become EU's constitutional court here). Only on this asymmety of approach towards the development of EU rights in the public law / private law area (or, more bluntly, in the fundamental rights/economic rights divide) should give us all some food for thought about the role of the CJEU.
 
Further than the general criticism already spelled out against AG Kokott's Opinion, I think that the Judgment gives rise to even more specific arguments against the findings of the CJEU on the basis of the 'umbrella damages' theory of harm. I am lucky to have colleagues such as Dr Sebastian Peyer with whom to discuss these issues and, on this occassion, we clearly  coincide in our negative reading of the case. In this post, we put together our thoughts. Mine are slightly more general, so they will come first. Sebastian will then follow on with more specific and ellaborate points on the basis of his expertise in private enforcement of EU competition law.

My own criticism
From a general perspective of EU law and its effectiveness, the Kone Judgment really makes no sense and potentially impinges on the Member States' competences to regulate non-contractual liability and tort remedies [this point is common to previous criticisms against the EU's competence to regulate in the area of damages actions, as Francisco Marcos and myself stressed in “Towards a European Tort Law? Damages Actions for Breach of the EC Antitrust Rules: Harmonising Tort Law through the Back Door?” (2008) 16(3) European Review Private Law 469-488].
 
 
Quite simply, in my view, Kone has carried the application of the principle of supremacy and effectiveness of EU law too far and the contrast between the findings in Kone and its original application to the competition law damages field in Courage and Crehan [C-453/99 EU:C:2001:465, paras. 23 and ff] is simply abysmal. Courage 'just' made the point clear that damages actions should not be impossible and that they were governed by the general principles of equivalence and effectiveness of remedies (para. 29). This general mantra has been repeated over and over but, in its repetition, the effectiveness part has been gaining relevance and, at least in Kone, the CJEU has completely disregarded the principle of equivalence (despite mentioning it in para. 25).
 
Given the split of competences between the EU and the Member States in many areas of the law and, in particular, in many areas that govern the remedies available for breaches of EU (and domestic) rules, the principle of equivalence needs to be understood as a functional tool to provide effectiveness to EU rights without altering the Member States' competences. In that regard, it seems uncontroversial that, as even an undergraduate student of law can clearly express in an effective way: "The principle of equivalence ensures that EU rights receive the same protection as domestic ones" [David Murray, "EU law rights and national remedies: an uneasy partnership?" (2010) Diffusion 6(1)]. There is no reason to suggest that, in the absence of EU regulatory competences or specific EU remedies, EU rights should receive more intense protection than domestic ones.
 
However, the CJEU disregards this plain understanding of the general requirements of EU law and its supremacy and goes on to state that:
32 [...] it is, in principle, for the domestic legal system of each Member State to lay down the detailed rules governing the application of the concept of the ‘causal link’. However,  [...] national legislation must ensure that European Union competition law is fully effective (see, to that effect, VEBIC EU:C:2010:739, paragraph 63). Those rules must therefore specifically take into account the objective pursued by Article 101 TFEU, which aims to guarantee effective and undistorted competition in the internal market, and, accordingly, prices set on the basis of free competition. In those circumstances [...] national legislation must recognise the right of any individual to claim compensation for loss sustained.
33 The full effectiveness of Article 101 TFEU would be put at risk if the right of any individual to claim compensation for harm suffered were subjected by national law, categorically and regardless of the particular circumstances of the case, to the existence of a direct causal link while excluding that right because the individual concerned had no contractual links with a member of the cartel, but with an undertaking not party thereto, whose pricing policy, however, is a result of the cartel that contributed to the distortion of price formation mechanisms governing competitive markets.
In my view, this is truly far away from a pondered and acceptable balancing of the competing demands of the principles of equivalence and effectiveness and amounts to a suppression of the equivalence element that is essential to the test for compliance by Member States with their duty to ensure the effet utile of EU law under Article 4(3) TFEU and the existing case law.

Moreover, it prevents Member States from adopting clear and streamlined rules that avoid the need to engage in very complicated and costly case by case assessments of every claim, regardless of any indication of remoteness or weakness of basic causality links. Hence, the Kone Judgment should clearly be rejected and its implications limited (ie undone) by the CJEU itself at the closest opportunity.

What Sebastian has to say
The Court's judgement does not only show some dangerous judicial activism, as my colleague and host Dr Albert Sanchez Graells has pointed out, it also raises more questions than it answers.

What do we talk about when we talk about umbrella pricing? In a standard cartel case the damages claimant, typically a direct customer of the cartel, has to show that the defendant overcharged him. For umbrella pricing the situation is different. The claimant has not purchased from the cartelist but from another firm in the affected market. Consequently, the claimant should demonstrate that the market price was inflated due to the cartel and that he suffered harm due to the higher market price. In European jurisdictions this is basically a question of causation and a question of the proof that is required by the courts whereas US courts deal with these issues under ‘antitrust injury’. In Kone, the Court has stated that national courts cannot categorically reject a causal link between the cartel and inflated market prices charged by non-cartelists (para. 34):

Consequently, the victim of umbrella pricing may obtain compensation for the loss caused by the members of a cartel […] where it is established that the cartel at issue was, in the circumstances of the case and, in particular, the specific aspects of the relevant market, liable to have the effect of umbrella pricing being applied by third parties acting independently, and that those circumstances and specific aspects could not be ignored by the members of that cartel.

The Court addresses the two issues related to umbrella pricing (Was there an effect on the market? Did the market effect cause damage to the claimant?) in one sentence and merges them into one “be liable” test. It is left to the Member States to establish the rules and standards for proving these effects. The Court also seems to introduce some element of knowledge on part of the cartelist ("could not be ignored"). This may turn out to be impossible to prove.
 
Sadly, the ruling fits into the line of recent cases that appear to be claimant-friendly but may not contribute much to the effectiveness of enforcement. On the face of it, cases such as Pfleiderer [C-360/09, EU:C:2011:389] or Donau Chemie [C-536/11, EU:C:2013:366] have opened the gates to private damages claims, allegedly improving the effectiveness of competition law enforcement through access to documents. But I think this does not hold true. In those rulings the court replaced categorical rules with a case by case approach. So far, this has not really helped claimants but forced courts to justify why they have decided to, for example, deny access to leniency material (Pfleiderer). With regards to umbrella pricing, the CJEU has followed this approach replacing a 'fixed rule' with a case by case approach. We shall see if the claimants can get anything out of this apart from more complicated litigation.
 
Overall, the CJEU’s decision is extremely short for a ruling that could turn out to be expensive for both claimants and defendants. The cost associated with proving and calculating umbrella pricing could be prohibitive and adds to the generally high litigation costs of follow-on damages actions. I would expect most umbrella claimants to fail at the quantification stage, even if they have actually managed to master the causation hurdles.

The implications of this judgement for national causation rules are also worrying. Member States are supposedly able to govern causation and remoteness of damages under the procedural autonomy principle the Court stressed in the Kone ruling but also in Courage, Manfredi, Pfleiderer and Donau Chemie. However, in AG Kokott (see her opinion in Kone) and the Court disregard earlier statements that it is for the domestic legal system to regulate a causal relationship. So, what does this mean for the domestic legal systems?
 
Regarding the UK, I could imagine that the autonomous decision of a third party not to undercut the cartel is an intervening event breaking the chain of causation. It could also become a struggle to show that damages were foreseeable because they depend on the buyer's decision to contract with a non-cartelist and on the non-cartelist’s decision to charge an inflated price in the shadow of the cartel. However, the TheWagon Mound (No1) holds that only the kind of damage has to be foreseeable, not the extent of it. The CJEU’s decision in Kone has certainly created many more questions. Now, the ball is in the national courts.

CJEU further pushes for a universal application of the 'market economy private investor test' (C-224/12)


In its Judgment of 3 April 2014 in case C-224/12 Commission v Netherlands and ING Groep, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has followed its antiformalistic approach to the application of the 'market economy private investor test' (see comment to its precedent in C-124/10 EDF here) and has basically consolidated its role as a universal test in the application of Article 107(1) TFEU [for discussion, see A Sanchez Graells, “Bringing the ‘Market Economy Agent’ Principle to Full Power” (2012) 33 European Competition Law Review 35-39].

In its ING Groep Judgment, the CJEU determined that the Commission could not evade its obligation to assess the economic rationality of an amendment to the repayment terms of the aid granted by the Dutch State to ING in the light of the private investor test solely on the ground that the capital injection subject to repayment itself already constituted State aid--since only after such an assessment would the Commission be in a position to conclude whether an additional advantage within the meaning of Article 107(1) TFEU had been granted.
 
In my view, this general approach insisting on the application of the 'market economy private investor test' regardless of the prior existence of State aid in itself must be praised, and the very rotund terms in which the CJEU has stressed its importance deserve some emphasis.
 
Indeed, the CJEU has built up on the arguments already indicated in C-124/10 EDF and, following the advice of AG Sharpston, has made it clear that:
30 [...] in view of the objectives pursued by Article [107(1) TFEU] and the private investor test, an economic advantage must, even where it has been granted through fiscal means, be assessed in the light of the private investor test if, on conclusion of an overall assessment, it appears that, notwithstanding the fact that the means used were instruments of State power, the Member State concerned has conferred that advantage in its capacity as shareholder of the undertaking belonging to it.
31 It follows that the applicability of the private investor test to a public intervention depends, not on the way in which the advantage was conferred, but on the classification of the intervention as a decision adopted by a shareholder of the undertaking in question.
32 Furthermore, that test is one of the factors which the Commission is required to take into account for the purposes of establishing the existence of aid and is therefore not an exception that applies only if a Member State so requests, where the constituent elements of State aid incompatible with the common market referred to in Article [107(1) TFEU] have been found to be present (see Commission v EDF, paragraph 103).
33 Consequently, where it appears that the private investor test may be applicable, the Commission is under a duty to ask the Member State concerned to provide it with all relevant information enabling it to determine whether the conditions governing the applicability and the application of that test are met (see Commission v EDF, paragraph 104).
34 The application of that case-law cannot be compromised merely because, in this case, what is at issue is the applicability of the private investor test to an amendment to the conditions for the redemption of securities acquired in return for State aid.
35 Indeed, as the Advocate General has stated [...] any holder of securities, in whatever amount and of whatever nature, may wish or agree to renegotiate the conditions of their redemption. It is, consequently, meaningful to compare the behaviour of the State in that regard with that of a hypothetical private investor in a comparable position (C-224/12 at paras 30-35, emphasis added).
In my view, this Judgment must be welcome as a good addition and (further) clarification to C-124/10 EDF in terms of the universal applicability of the  'market economy private investor test' and, as I already indicated, it would be interesting to see this criterion extended to other areas of EU Economic Law and, particularly, public procurement, where the control the (disguised) granting of State aid is crying for further developments of the 'market economy private [buyer] test' [as I stressed in "Public Procurement and State Aid: Reopening the Debate?"(2012) 21(6) Public Procurement Law Review 205-212].

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.

CJEU stresses 'consumer interest' test under Art 34 TFEU and finds Spain guilty of "gold-plating" in transport services' regulation (C-428/12)

In its Judgment of 3 April 2014 in case C-428/12 Commission v Spain (new transport trucks) (only available in French and Spanish) the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has found Spain in breach of Art 34 and Art 36 TFEU due to the imposition of a disproportionate requirement in the system of authorisation of road transport services by companies not primarily engaged in road transport. In my view, the case is interesting because it deals once again with claims of justification based on road safety, in what seems to have become a topic in EU free movement of goods law [see C-110/05 Commission v Italy (mopeds) and, very recently, C-639/11 Commission v Poland (right steering wheel cars), discussed here and here].
 
In the case at hand, Spain had adopted regulations for the authorisation of companies providing ancillary road transport services that required that the age of the first heavy (ie above 3,500 kg) vehicle in the fleet of a (newly authorised) company did not exceed five months from its first registration. The Commission considered that this requirement infringed Art 34 TFEU and was not justified under Art 36 TFEU. One can wonder why the case was brought under this legal basis instead of the seemingly more appropriate of Art 49 TFEU (given that the system was concerned with a 'first' or new authorisation and, consequently, seemed to affect newly established transport companies particularly) or of Art 56 TFEU (on the provision of services, as the effect of the restriction surely would limit the offer of road transport services), although the (greater?) difficulty in justifying the existence of a cross-border impact and the exclusion of transport from the 2006 Services Directive may have played a role in the 'strategic' choice of legal basis by the Commission.
 
Taking the (uneasy?) approach of the restriction of the free movement of goods under Art 34 TFEU, the Commission considered that i) the Spanish rule constituted a measure having equivalent effect to a quantitative restriction on imports, ii) that such provision had the effect of restricting imports of heavy goods vehicles more than five months old from other Member States, and iii) that it violated the principle of mutual recognition and impeded access to the Spanish market, which had the effect of severely restricting the use of the vehicles concerned. The Commission also considered that neither road safety or environmental protection justifications could exempt the controverted rule. The CJEU rather keenly accepts the approach taken by the Commission and makes some interesting findings, not least consolidating the 'market access' test approach to the enforcement of Art 34 TFEU:
29 [...] it is clear from the case law that a measure, even if it does not have the purpose or effect of treating less favorably products from other Member States, is included in the concept of a measure equivalent to a quantitative restriction within the meaning of Article 34 TFEU if it hinders access to the market of a Member State of goods originating in other Member States (see, to that effect, Commission / Italy, C-110/05, EU: C: 2009:66, paragraph 37).
30 In this regard, the Court observes that the prohibition of use as the first vehicle in the fleet of vehicle with a maximum authorized mass exceeding 3.5 tonnes and more than five months old from the date of its first registration may have a considerable influence on the behavior of firms wishing to use a vehicle of this nature for complementary private transport, behavior which in turn can affect access of that product to the market of the Member State in question (C-428/12 at paras 29-30, own translation from Spanish).
The CJEU also consolidates the 'consumer interest' test in order to assess restrictions to market access:
31 [...] businesses, knowing that the use authorized [...] of a vehicle with a maximum authorized mass exceeding 3.5 tonnes and more than five months old from the date of first registration is restricted, will only have a limited interest in buying a truck like this for their complementary private transportation activities (see, to that effect, Commission / Italy EU: C: 2009:66, paragraph 57, and Mickelsson and Roos, EU: C: 2009:336, paragraph 27) (C-428/12 at para 31, emphasis added, own translation from Spanish).
The CJEU dismisses the claims for justification made by Spain, indicating that road safety could be protected by less intrusive measures (such as technical inspections, already in place) and also interestingly dismisses arguments based on the solvency of companies:
40 As regards [...] the other explanations given by the Kingdom of Spain [... such as] the proof of greater solvency of the company or even fostering better exploitation of vehicles for private complementary transport do not constitute reasons of public interest within the meaning of Article 36 TFEU or mandatory requirements within the meaning of the Court of Justice's case law (C-428/12 at para 40, own translation from Spanish).
In my opinion, the case is interesting because it consolidates the 'new' approach to the enforcement of Art 34 TFEU under a 'market access' test applied thorugh a 'consumer interest' (sub)test. It is also interesting because it continues to perpetuate the 'supremacy' of free movement of goods rules as the main analytical framework for the protection of the fundamental freedoms impinging the internal market.