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...

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.

Free movement (of gold) meets consumer protection (C-481/12)

In its Judgment of 16 January 2014 in case C-481/12 Juvelta, the Court of Justice of the EU has issued an interesting decision concerned with the delicate balance between free movement of goods under Article 34 TFEU and the protection of consumers.

In the case at hand, gold jewellery was imported into Lithuania. The golden products had been stamped with the Polish hallmark to indicate their quality and fineness. The Polish and Lithuanian hallmarks differed in that Lithuanian rules require the express indication of the per thousand purity of the gold, whereas the Polish hallmark functions on a scale basis. Aware of such a divergence, the importer of the jewellery had complemented the Polish 'official' hallmark with a 'private mark' that expressly indicated the additional information necessary for Lithuanian consumers to understand the quality of the products. However, Lithuanian authorities were not willing to accept the validity of such 'private' second hallmark and required the products to be 'officially' marked again to comply with Lithuanian standards. The importer considered this an unjustified restriction of its free movement of goods rights and challenged the decision.

The CJEU framed the case within the standard Dassonville formula for the assessment of measures of equivalent effect to quantitative restrictions and offered some interesting insights into the limitations that consumer protection may introduce in that analytical framework. It is worth noting that, according to the CJEU,
23 In order to determine whether an indication of a standard of fineness not provided for by legislation of a Member State provides consumers with equivalent and intelligible information, the Court must take into account the presumed expectations of an average consumer who is reasonably well-informed and reasonably observant and circumspect (see, to that effect, Commission v Ireland, paragraph 32).

24 With regard to the proceedings
 [...] it should be noted that [...]
the articles at issue in the main proceedings were stamped with hallmarks by an independent assay office authorised by the Republic of Poland, in accordance with that State’s legislation.

25 Likewise,
[...]
it is not disputed that the hallmark stamped on those articles shows their standard of fineness by means of the mark consisting of the numeral ‘3’ and that, in Poland, that mark is intended to denote articles of precious metals whose standard of fineness, expressed as the number of parts by weight of the precious metal in 1 000 parts by weight of the alloy, is 585.

26 It follows that the information provided by that mark is, as far as the articles of precious metal stamped with a hallmark in Poland are concerned, equivalent to that provided by the numerals ‘585’ on a hallmark stamped by an independent assay office authorised in Lithuania, in accordance with that State’s legislation.

27 That said, consideration must also be given to whether the marking of the numeral ‘3’ on the hallmarks stamped on the articles at issue in the main proceedings provides information intelligible to an average Lithuanian consumer who is reasonably well-informed and reasonably observant and circumspect.

28 In that regard, it must be held that it is probable that that mark is not intelligible to such a consumer, since such a person is not, in principle, deemed to know the Polish system of indicating standards of fineness for articles of precious metal.
29 However, although the restrictive effects of the legislation at issue can thus be justified by the objective of ensuring effective protection for Lithuanian consumers, and providing them with information relating to standards of fineness for articles of precious metal imported into Lithuania which are intelligible to them, such justification can be accepted only if that legislation is proportionate to the objective pursued, that is to say if, while appropriate in order to fulfil that objective, it does not go beyond what is necessary to attain it (C-481/12 at paras 23-29, emphasis added).
 
In Juvelta, then, the CJEU seems to have inserted an intermediate test of adequacy for consumer protection purposes that may need to be applied before the rule of reason analysis of the restrictive measure and in a cumulative manner. Hence, it seems that in situations where the application of free movement rules may leave consumers unprotected, the CJEU may be willing to set a limitation on the standard criteria of mutual recognition.
 
In general, then, it seems that the additional consideration of consumer protection/expectations comes to consolidate a 'suitability check' applied to the free movement rules (not to the measure having equivalent effect, which is still subjected to the traditional proportionality analysis) and, in that regard, seems fit for the purpose of ensuring overall consistency of the EU internal market rules--which, ultimately, should aim to protect consumers as well as allowing them to benefit from the increased efficiency that market competition brings about.
 
It may be that Juvelta does not create a revolution in the way free movement rules are applied (as such considerations had already occasionally been taken into account by the CJEU to a certain extent), but it may have spelled out more clearly the analytical path through which measures having equivalent effect against free movement of goods need to be assessed. In my view, this is a positive (incremental) development.