CJEU strengthens Commission's enforcement monopoly in State aid (C-111/10) and jeopardises its consistent enforcement with other EU policies (C-272/12)

In two recent Judgments of 4 December 2013 (C-111/10, Commission v Council) and 10 December 2013 (C-272/12, Commission v Ireland and Others), the CJEU has ruled on the distribution of powers between the Council and the Commission in the area of State aid enforcement. In one of the cases (C-111/10), the CJEU made a substantive finding and upheld the Council authorisation of State aid for agricultural support in Lithuania. In the other case (C-272/12) the CJEU refused to engage in an analysis of the distribution of competences between the institutions due to a procedural flaw (the GC had raised the issue of its own motion, in breach of art 21 of the Statute of the Court of Justice of the European Union), but stressed the same underlying principles.
 
It is worth highlighting that, in both Judgments, the CJEU clearly stressed the exceptional powers that the Council holds in the area of State aid enforcement--which, in my view, comes to further strengthen, consolidate and perpetuate the monopoly of State aid enforcement held by the Commission.
 
This is particularly clear in certain passages of the reasoning followed by the CJEU, which:
39 [...] held, after recalling the central role which the FEU Treaty reserves for the Commission in determining whether aid is incompatible with the internal market, that the third subparagraph of Article 108(2) TFEU covers an exceptional and specific case, meaning that the power conferred upon the Council by that provision is clearly exceptional in character (see, to that effect, Case C‑110/02 Commission v Council [2004] ECR I‑6333, paragraphs 29 to 31) and, accordingly, that the third subparagraph of Article 108(2) TFEU must necessarily be interpreted strictly (see, by analogy, Case C‑510/08 Mattner [2010] ECR I‑3553, paragraph 32, and Case C‑419/11 Česká spořitelna [2013] ECR I‑0000, paragraph 26)
72 [...] the power granted to the Council under the third subparagraph of Article 108(2) TFEU applies only within the limits indicated by that provision, namely where exceptional circumstances exist (see, to that effect, Case C‑122/94 Commission v Council [1996] ECR I‑881, paragraph 13) [C-111/10 at paras 39 and 72, emphasis added].
And further stressed that:
48 As the Court held in paragraphs 29 to 31 of Case C‑110/02 Commission v Council [2004] ECR I‑6333, the intention of the EC Treaty, in providing through Article 88 EC for aid to be kept under constant review and monitored by the Commission, is that the finding that aid may be incompatible with the common market is to be arrived at, subject to review by the General Court and the Court of Justice, by means of an appropriate procedure which it is the Commission’s responsibility to set in motion. Articles 87 EC and 88 EC thus reserve a central role for the Commission in determining whether aid is incompatible. The power conferred upon the Council in the area of State aid by the third subparagraph of Article 88(2) EC is exceptional in character, which means that it must necessarily be interpreted strictly (see also, to that effect, the judgment of 4 December 2013 in Case C‑111/10 Commission v Council [2013] ECR I‑0000, paragraph 39) [C-272/12 at para 48, emphasis added].
This renewed emphasis on the (almost) exclusive powers of the European Commission in the area of State aid policy and enforcement is probably a necessity in terms of ensuring institutional balance and the proper working of the EU institutions (as the CJUE stresses in para 47 of C-111/10: 'That interpretation seeks to maintain the coherence and effectiveness of European Union action'), but it can also create difficulties when it comes to ensure the proper integration of State aid enforcement with policy in other areas of EU economic law where the balance of powers between EU Institutions, or between the EU and Member States, is different.
 
This is something that case C-272/12 clearly brings to light. In that case, there was a tension between the Decisions adopted by the Council in the area of national fiscal legislation and the Commission's powers in State aid enforcement. The tension derived from the circumstance that the Council could authorise Member States to provide tax exemptions from the excise duty for mineral oils used for the production of alumina. Such exemptions could (at least theoretically, although this was challenged in C-272/12 but the CJEU declined to provide an answer on the basis of the ultra petita argument mentioned before) constitute State aid. In order to try to sort out that potential conflict, recital 5 of the relevant instrument (Council Decision 2001/224) indicated that
that decision was without prejudice ‘to the outcome of any procedures relating to distortions of the operation of the single market that may be undertaken, in particular under Articles [107 TFEU] and [108 TFEU]’, and that it did not override ‘the requirement for Member States to notify instances of potential State aid to the Commission under Article [108 TFEU]’.
Such 'coordination' provision was bound to create difficulties, despite the fact that the European Commission was involved in the assessment of the Member States' requests for authorisation to provide exemptions. The GC had sought to create a functional balance that could overcome the difficulties of subjecting the Council authorisation (and, consequently, the Member States' exemptions) to a second analysis by the European Commission under the State aid rules (despite the wording in recital 5 of Decision 2001/224). Indeed,
the General Court held, first, that, in the light of the fact that the rules governing the harmonisation of national fiscal legislation and the rules on State aid have a shared objective, namely to promote the proper functioning of the internal market, by combating, inter alia, distortions of competition, the concept of distortion of competition had to be regarded as having the same scope and the same meaning in both those areas, in order to ensure the consistent implementation of those rules. The General Court stated, in that regard, that Article 8(4) and (5) of Directive 92/81 confers in particular on the Commission, which submits a proposal, and the Council, which enacts a measure, the responsibility for assessing whether there is any distortion of competition, in order to decide whether or not to authorise a Member State to apply or continue to apply an exemption from the harmonised excise duty and that, if the assessments differ, the Commission has the option of bringing an action for annulment of the Council’s decision [C-272/12 at para 39, emphasis added].
The implications of this reasoning would be, rather clearly, that the European Commission should not have a second bite of the cherry under the State aid rules because it would have already expressed its views on the (absence of a) distortion of competition derived from the excise duty exemption within the fiscal harmonisation mechanism. However, the CJEU had none of this and declared that
46 It must be borne in mind that Directive 92/81 was adopted on the basis of Article 99 of the EEC Treaty (which became Article 99 of the EC Treaty, which itself became Article 93 EC [and is now art 113 TFEU]) which conferred on the Council the power to adopt provisions for the harmonisation of legislation concerning turnover taxes, excise duties and other forms of indirect taxation to the extent that that harmonisation was necessary to ensure the establishment and functioning of the internal market.

47 The authorisation decisions were adopted pursuant to Article 8(4) of Directive 92/81, which granted to the Council, acting unanimously on a proposal from the Commission, the power to authorise any Member State to introduce exemptions or reductions other than those laid down by that directive ‘for specific policy considerations’. The purpose and the scope of the procedure laid down in that article differ from those of the rules established in Article 88 EC.

48 As the Court held in paragraphs 29 to 31 of Case C‑110/02 Commission v Council [2004] ECR I‑6333, the intention of the EC Treaty, in providing through Article 88 EC for aid to be kept under constant review and monitored by the Commission, is that the finding that aid may be incompatible with the common market is to be arrived at, subject to review by the General Court and the Court of Justice, by means of an appropriate procedure which it is the Commission’s responsibility to set in motion. Articles 87 EC and 88 EC thus reserve a central role for the Commission in determining whether aid is incompatible. The power conferred upon the Council in the area of State aid by the third subparagraph of Article 88(2) EC is exceptional in character, which means that it must necessarily be interpreted strictly (see also, to that effect, the judgment of 4 December 2013 in Case C‑111/10 Commission v Council [2013] ECR I‑0000, paragraph 39).

49 Consequently, a Council decision authorising a Member State, in accordance with Article 8(4) of Directive 92/81, to introduce an exemption of excise duties could not have the effect of preventing the Commission from exercising the powers conferred on it by the Treaty and, consequently, setting in motion the procedure laid down in Article 88 EC in order to review whether that exemption constituted State aid and on the conclusion of that procedure, if appropriate, to adopt a decision such as the contested decision
[C-272/12 at paras 46 to 49, emphasis added].
Moreover, the CJEU went as far as to expressly exclude any estoppel-like argument by stressing that
53 [...] the concept of State aid corresponds to an objective situation and cannot depend on the conduct or statements of the institutions (Commission v Ireland and Others, paragraph 72). Consequently, the fact that the authorisation decisions were adopted on a proposal from the Commission could not preclude those exemptions being classified as State aid, within the meaning of Article 87(1) EC, if the conditions governing the existence of State aid were met. That fact however had to be taken into consideration in relation to the obligation to recover the incompatible aid, in the light of the principles of protection of legitimate expectations and legal certainty, as was done by the Commission in the contested decision when it declined to order the recovery of aid granted before the date of publication in the Official Journal of the European Communities of the decisions to initiate the procedure laid down in Article 88(2) EC [C-272/12 at para 53, emphasis added].
In my view, the final caveat clearly indicates that the problems derived from the extreme protection of Commission's powers in which the CJEU has engaged are intractable. The requirements of the principles of protection of legitimate expectations and legal certainty will almost always deactivate any legal effects of the Commission's second analysis of the situation under the State aid rules--so one can wonder if it would not be preferable to create a framework where the powers of the Commission under State aid rules could be restricted in order to promote a better integration of different EU/Member States economic policies and different areas of EU economic law.
 
Otherwise, the 'dominance' of State aid enforcement could significantly diminish the effectiveness of other policies and, as long as those policies are designed and implemented with due regard for the competitive distortions they can create (as was clearly the case in C-272/12, where the Commission was itself entrusted with that analysis), that would be a superior working framework. This is not to say that State aid (or competition) should rank as a secondary consideration. To the contrary, this advocates for an integration of competition concerns at the phase of policy design and implementation, rather than as an ex post (re)analysis of the situation that can create significant disruptive effects--eventually (luckily) barred by the principles of protection of legitimate expectations and legal certainty.
 
All these considerations are clearly relevant in the area of integration of State aid and public procurement rules, particularly in the financing of Services of General Economic Interest (SGEI), where the Almunia package creates a dual relationship between procurement and State aid rules by stressing that only certain procurement procedures will be acceptable under State aid rules and, at the same time, stressing that State aid exemptions do not alter the obligations created by public procurement rules themselves in the first place. If no clear criterion is established to prefer State aid analysis over procurement enforcement, or otherwise, the enforcement landscape looks rather complicated [for further discussion, see my "The Commission’s Modernization Agenda for Procurement and SGEI"].

Who is an interested undertaking in procurement and State aid cases? (T-182/10)

The recent Judgment of the General Court of 15 January 2013 in case T-182/10 Aiscat v Commission (not available in English) raises a relevant question for the EU system of oversight of public procurement procedures that may have State aid implications--in the case at hand, due to the direct award of a works concession contract, as well as in view of the terms of the remuneration paid to the works concessionaire. 

In particular, the Aiscat Judgment establishes who is to be considered an "interested undertaking" and, consequently, who can act as complainant before the Commission and, eventually, challenge its Decisions in a State aid procedure based on Regulation 659/1999. In my view, a detailed analysis of the position of the GC in Aiscat shows certain inconsistencies between the (broad) concept of "disappointed bidder" under the EU public procurement regime and the concept of "affected undertaking" under State aid rules--which can diminish the effectiveness of a coordinated enforcement of both sets of rules.

In Aiscat, the Italian association of road concessionaires challenged the direct award of a works concession in the Padua region. The complaint submitted to the European Commission had a dual set of legal grounds. On the one hand, a "pure" public procurement claim that challenged the legality of the direct award of the contract under the in-house provision doctrine (which the Commission dismissed by considering that the awardee was in fact a "Teckal" entity controlled by the Italian contracting authorities). And, on the other hand, a State aid claim whereby the (illegal) direct award of the works concession contract and its terms of remuneration were considered an undue economic advantage in breach of Article 107 TFEU (which was also dismissed by the European Commission on the basis of the previously declared legality of the award and the absence of "direct" public funding).

Aiscat challenged the State aid decision of the Commission before the GC, which the Commission opposed on the basis of lack of active standing on the part of the association. In my view, the analysis conducted by the GC regarding the standing of the association to challenge the direct award of the contract is particularly relevant:
61 [...] with respect to the area of State aid, persons other than the recipients who question the merits of the decision appraising the aid are considered individually concerned by that decision if their market position is substantially affected by the aid analysed in the decision in question (see, to that effect, Cofaz/ Commission [169/84, ECR p. 391] paragraphs 22 to 25, and Commission / Aktionsgemeinschaft Recht und Eigentum, [C-78/03, ECR I-10737] paragraphs 37 and 70).
62 This issue should be examined separately with respect to each of the two measures challenged by the applicant before the General Court, namely the award of the concession contract of the Passante without competitive bidding and increasing toll on the Tangenziale [which was the undue advantage identified by the appellant].
- The award without competitive bidding for the concession on the Passante
63 In the absence of any indication of the parties on the relevant market, it must be identified as that of motorway concessions in Italy, a market in which the 23 members of the applicant association that operate toll roads represent the demand, while the the State, represented by ANAS, which awards grants, represents the offer. According to statistics presented by the applicant, in November 2009, the toll road network in Italy extended over about 5,500 km.
64 As regards the determination of a substantial impairment of the market position, the Court of Justice has observed that the mere fact that an act such as the contested decision could influence the competitive relationships existing in market in question, and that the affected undertaking is in a competitive relationship of any kind with the beneficiary of that act does not suffice to conclude that it is of concern to that undertaking (see, to that effect, Case Justice of 10 December 1969, Eridania and others / Commission, 10/68 and 18/68, ECR p. 459, paragraph 7, the order of the Court of Justice of 21 February 2006, Deutsche Post and DHL Express / Commission, C-367/04 P, not published in the ECR, paragraph 40, and the judgment of the Court of 22 November 2007, Spain / Lenzing, C-525/04 P, ECR p. I-9947 , paragraph 32).
65 Therefore, an undertaking cannot rely solely on its status as a competitor of the beneficiary, but must also prove that it is in a factual situation that individualises it just as much as the beneficiary (judgment of the Court of May 23, 2000, Comité d'entreprise de la Société française de production and others / Commission, C-106/98 P, ECR p. I-3659, paragraph 41; Deutsche Post and DHL Express / Commission, cited in paragraph 64 above, paragraph 41, and judgment in Spain / Lenzing, cited in paragraph 64 above, paragraph 33).
66 However, the evidence that the position of a competitor in the market was significantly affected cannot be limited to the presence of certain elements indicating a worsening of its commercial or financial results, but may result from demonstrating the existence of a loss of revenue or less favorable business evolution than would have taken place had such aid not been granted (judgment in Spain / Lenzing, cited in paragraph 64 above, paragraph 35).
67 In the present case, in what respects the substantial affectation of the market position of the members of the applicant association due to the award of the concession on the Passante without competitive bidding, it should be noted that the applicant states in the claim the reasons why it considers that such direct award constitutes a breach of the principle of prohibition of State aid. As part of its observations on the objection of inadmissibility, the applicant claims an interest of its 23 members, as they were allegedly deprived from the opportunity to participate in a public tender for the award of the contract for the management and exploitation of the Passante.
68 However, in a market that consists of 5,500 km of toll roads, although the award without competitive bidding for the concession on a stretch of highway of about 32 km may have some impact on competition because other operators have not had the opportunity to increase the length of the networks that each exploits, it cannot be regarded that as such, this constitutes a substantial impairment of the competitive position of those other operators. Therefore, the applicant association has not demonstrated that the contested decision affected its members differently than all other operators wishing to exploit the concession on the Passante.
69 Consequently, the Court concludes that, with respect to the award of the concession on the Passante without competitive bidding, the contested decision did not affect the individual members of the applicant association. Consequently, they are not entitled to bring an action themselves to that effect and the applicant association also lacks standing to bring an action on behalf of those interests. (T-182/10, paras 61 to 69, own translation, emphasis added).

This is a very narrow analysis of the actual interest of potential bidders to participate in a tender and it follows a "de minimis-like approach" that does not match (easily) the requirements of Art 1(3) of Directive 2007/66/EC on public procurement remedies, which requires that "Member States shall ensure that the review procedures are available, under detailed rules which the Member States may establish, at least to any person having or having had an interest in obtaining a particular contract and who has been or risks being harmed by an alleged infringement". In my view [Sanchez Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2011) 354], this means that
Directive 2007/66 requires Member States to adopt a broad approach to the setting of detailed rules regulating active standing to access bid protests and review procedures (as clearly indicated by the requirement of making these procedures available ‘at least’ to potentially affected parties—which seems to be oriented towards not excluding systems granting universal standing); and to do so attending both to the criterion of participation in the tender, and to the criterion of the effects generated or potentially generated by the alleged infringement.
To be sure, an alternative reading could suggest a more restrictive approach, requiring a potential challenger to meet simultaneously participation and harm requirements in order to have standing in bid protest and review procedures. However, from a logical perspective, configuring both requirements in a cumulative manner seems superfluous—since it would be very difficult to envisage a situation where a person having had an interest in obtaining a particular contract would not risk being harmed by an alleged infringement of public procurement rules. Moreover, it would seem an overly restrictive measure—particularly in cases where compliance with the first criterion is factually impossible, eg because a given contract was awarded without tender. Along the same lines, a systematic interpretation of Directive 2007/66 seems to exclude the possibility of restricting the standing for review to the candidates and tenderers that have participated in the tender, which are defined as ‘tenderers and candidates concerned’ [art 2a(2) dir 89/665 and art 2a(2) dir 92/13 (both as amended by dir 2007/66)]. The use of a much broader wording as regards the rule on standing [art 1(3) dir 89/665 and art 1(3) dir 92/13 (both as amended by dir 2007/66)] seems to clearly depart from its narrow construction. Moreover, it is submitted that such a restrictive approach would be undesirable from the perspective of guaranteeing the effectiveness of EU public procurement directives in general—and the embedded principle of competition in particular—and, therefore, would be contrary to the main goal of Directive 2007/66. Therefore, as anticipated, in our view, the best reading of the standing requirements imposed by Directive 2007/66 is that Member States have to adopt a broad approach to the setting of detailed rules regulating active standing to access bid protests and review procedures, and that they have to do so attending both to the criterion of participation in the tender, and to the criterion of the effects actually or potentially generated by the alleged infringement—so that bid protest and review procedures are open to any party that has taken part in the tender or that can otherwise prove that it has been harmed or risks being harmed as a result of the alleged infringement, regardless of its actual participation (or lack of it) in the specific tender that gave rise to it.
Therefore, by requiring a "singular" negative effect of the direct award on a complainant to allow it to raise a challenge on the basis of State aid rules generates frictions in the system. In some scenarios, it is not hard to see how an undertaking may be unable to challenge a direct award of a contract both under "pure" public procurement and State aid rules. And, certainly, this is not a situation that leads to effective enforcement of either of these important sets of EU economic law.
 
In my view, a revision of the Aiscat Judgment by the CJEU would be desirable in order to broaden the active standing of "disappointed bidders" (broadly conceived), and would also give the CJEU an opportunity to clarify its unclear decision in case C-496/99 Succhi di Frutta [2004] ECR I-3801 (where it seemed to adopt a similarly restrictive approach to active standing contrary to the posterior criteria of Directive 2007/66/EC).