Nothing is what it seems: A different concept of 'body governed by public law' for public procurement and VAT (C-174/14)

In its Judgment of 29 October 2015 in Saudaçor, C-174/14, EU:C:2015:733, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) followed the Opinion of Advocate General Jääskinen (of 25 June 2015, C-174/14, EU:C:2015:430, paras 59-67) and ruled that the concept of ‘other bodies governed by public law’ within the meaning of Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112 on the common system of value added tax (VAT) must not be interpreted by reference to the definition of ‘body governed by public law’ in Article 1(9) of Directive 2004/18 on public procurement (now substituted by Art 2(4) of Directive 2014/24). 

This is an important Judgment because it consolidates the atomisation of concepts that are increasingly relevant for the application of EU economic law in a scenario of ever growing recourse to private law institutions by the public sector in the organisation of its activities. Thus, it is worth looking closely at the reasons that led to this disconnect between concepts of 'body governed by public law' for the purposes of different branches of EU economic law (namely, taxation and public procurement).

In the Saudaçor case, the dispute concerned the VAT treatment of Sociedade Gestora de Recursos e Equipamentos da Saúde dos Açores SA (Saudaçor). This entity was created by Regional Legislative Decree No 41/2003/A of the Autonomous Region of the Azores (RAA) transforming the Institute of Financial Management of the Health Service of the RAA into a limited company with exclusively public capital, that company being wholly owned by that region. 

Saudaçor has the task of providing services of general economic interest in the field of health and, particular, the planning and management of the regional health system and associated information systems, infrastructure and facilities and the completion of construction, conservation, rehabilitation and reconstruction work on health establishments and services, in particular in areas covered by natural disasters and in areas regarded as risk areas. 

Saudaçor had not been charging VAT to the RAA for the provision of these services. It relied on the exemption as a non-taxable person under Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112, according to which
States, regional and local government authorities and other bodies governed by public law shall not be regarded as taxable persons in respect of the activities or transactions in which they engage as public authorities, even where they collect dues, fees, contributions or payments in connection with those activities or transactions.

However, when they engage in such activities or transactions, they shall be regarded as taxable persons in respect of those activities or transactions where their treatment as non-taxable persons would lead to significant distortions of competition.
In this setting, the Public Treasury opened an investigation and considered that the services provided by Saudaçor in respect of the planning and management of the regional health service concern areas of activity involving private initiative, which means that treatment as a non-taxable person for VAT purposes might lead to distortions of competition, thus challenging Saudaçor's status as a non-taxable person.

The appeals of the case went all the way up to the Supreme Administrative Court of Portugal, who harboured doubts as to the interpretation of the concept 'other bodies governed by public law' used by the judge of instance, which had decided that 
for the purpose of interpreting the rule laid down in the first subparagraph of Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112, under which bodies governed by public law are not regarded as taxable persons for VAT purposes, there is no need to refer to the concept of ‘body governed by public law’ defined, in the context of public procurement law, in Article 1(9) of Directive 2004/18 since the latter concept is understood in a broad sense, whereas the concept of ‘body governed by public law’ within the meaning of the first subparagraph of Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112 must be interpreted strictly when applying the rule of treatment as a non-taxable person for VAT purposes because that rule constitutes an exception to the general rule of taxation of any economic activity (C-174/14, para 24).
The Supreme Administrative Court of Portugal considered that
whilst it is clearly established in the [CJEU]’s case-law that only the activities of bodies governed by public law acting as public authorities are excluded from liability to VAT, it cannot be determined on the basis of that case-law whether an entity such as Saudaçor, having regard to its legal status as a limited company originating from the transformation of a State entity, comes within that concept of body governed by public law. The question arises in particular whether the scope of that concept tallies with the scope of the concept of ‘body governed by public law’ in Article 1(9) of Directive 2004/18 in the context of the definitions of the various categories of ‘contracting authorities’ (C-174/14, para 28, emphasis added).

In his Opinion, AG Jääskinen considered that there was no need to consider the compatibility of the definition in Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112 and that in Article 1(9) of Directive 2004/18. In his view, such irrelevance of the concept of ‘body governed by public law’ within the meaning of Directive 2004/18 for the interpretation of Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112 derived from the following reasons

63. Article 13 has been regarded in the Court’s case-law as an exemption which should be placed in the general context of the common system of VAT. Thus, as a derogation from the principle that any activity of an economic nature must be subjected to VAT, the first subparagraph of Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112 must be interpreted strictly. Obviously, this also holds for the interpretation of the concept of ‘other bodies governed by public law’ in the first subparagraph of Article 13(1).
64. By contrast, in the light of the objectives pursued by the provisions of Union law on the coordination of the procedures for the award of public contracts, and in particular the dual objective of opening up competition and transparency, the concept of ‘body governed by public law’ within the meaning of Article 1(9) of Directive 2004/18 should be given a broad and functional interpretation.
65. It should be stated that the meanings of, on the one hand, ‘body governed by public law’ for the purposes of Directive 2004/18 and, on the other, ‘other bodies governed by public law’ for the purposes of Directive 2006/112 cannot be the same, as those two directives have very different objectives (sic) [...]
66. It should be added that, as was rightly pointed out by the United Kingdom Government, the Union legislature made the deliberate choice not to make reference in Directive 2006/112 to the concept of ‘body governed by public law’ which appears in Directive 2004/18. In other contexts, where it considered that a link should be made between two instruments of EU law, the Union legislature chose to adopt the definition used in Directive 2004/18 by means of a cross-reference (Opinion of AG Jääskinen in C-174/14, paras 63-66, references omitted and underlining added--other emphasis in the original).
In my view, this approach creates two difficulties. Firstly, if concepts of identical wording are to be interpreted differently depending on the ultimate goals of the rules of EU economic law in which they are inserted, legal certainty can hardly be satisfied. Secondly, the narrow interpretation of Article 13 could have been implemented through a strict approach to the concept of  'activities or transactions in which they engage as public authorities', or to the existence of 'distortions of competition'. This would have been preferable to the dissociation of concepts that are meant to determine the subjective scope of application of rules of EU economic law--which, by the way, are meant to be applied concurrently to the those entities.

In its final Judgment, the CJEU followed the Opinion of AG Jääskinen and ruled that
46 By defining in broad terms the concept of ‘body governed by public law’ and, as a result, the concept of ‘contracting authorities’, Article 1(9) of Directive 2004/18 seeks to define the scope of that directive in a sufficiently extensive manner so as to ensure that the rules on, in particular, transparency and non-discrimination which are required in connection with the award of public contracts apply to all State entities which do not form part of the public administration but which are nevertheless controlled by the State, in particular by means of their financing or their management.
47 However, the context of the concept of ‘other bodies governed by public law’ referred to in Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112 is fundamentally different.
48 That concept is not intended to define the scope of VAT but, on the contrary, makes an exception to the general rule on which the common system of that tax is based, namely the rule that the scope of that tax is defined very broadly as covering all supplies of services for consideration, including those provided by bodies governed by public law (see, to that effect, judgment in Commission v Netherlands, C-79/09, EU:C:2010:171, paragraphs 76 and 77) (C-174/14, paras 46-48, emphasis added).
I have difficulty accepting the reasoning of the CJEU as persuasive. Taken literally, it would mean that the rules that determine the (material, and personal?) scope of application of a norm are only those of a positive nature--ie rules of inclusion--whereas the negative rules that free situations or agents from coverage by that norm--ie rules of exclusion--would not be seen as able to construct its scope. This is logically confusing, as delineating the actual scope of application of a norm involves taking into account both the elements that determine what is included and those that determine what is not included therein [for a discussion on the validity and effectiveness of restrictive legal norms, see K Larenz, Metodología de la Ciencia del Derecho, 2a ed (Madrid, Ariel, 2001) 252-253].

Moreover, when the CJEU engages in the determination of whether Saudaçor meets the requirements to be considered within the category of ‘other bodies governed by public law’ for the purposes of Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112 (paras 55 and ff), the CJEU uses criteria that are fundamentally aimed at determining if: 1) it has powers that traditionally would belong to the public sector (paras 58-59), 2) the region that owns it can exercise decisive control over it (paras 60-65), and 3) it engages in any competition with private providers (para 66). Implicitly, the CJEU also considers whether more than 50% of its funding comes from the public sector (para 63), and it stresses that the activity carried out by Saudaçor is a service of general economic interest (para 67), to the effect of (implicitly) determining that it is not of a purely commercial nature. 

Thus, in my view, these are fundamentally the same criteria and considerations that would apply under the test designed to determine whether an entity is a body governed by public law under the applicable public procurement rules. Functionally, then, the analysis actually carried out by the CJEU is convergent in the fields of taxation and procurement. I consequently struggle to see what was there to be won in the position that "the concept of ‘other bodies governed by public law’ within the meaning of Article 13(1) of [Directive 2006/112] must not be interpreted by reference to the definition of ‘body governed by public law’ in Article 1(9) of Directive 2004/18". 

It seems that the CJEU is only willing to engage in functionalism in the application of the rules, but not in the formulation of the concepts that underpin them. This creates significant confusion and threatens legal certainty. Specially when it is impossible to know in which situations where it is confronted with (almost) identically drafted provisions of EU economic law the CJEU will adopt a single 'EU law' autonomous concept or more than one... Nothing is what it seems under EU economic law...

CJEU 'warns' against tax breaks based on employment goals: State aid rules (may) oppose them (C-6/12)

In its Judgment of 18 July 2013 in case C-6/12 P Oy, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) assessed the compatibility with EU State aid rules of the Finnish regime of deduction of tax losses by undertakings subjected to corporate control changes (see a Finnish comment here). 

In my view, the most interesting part of the CJEU Judgment in the case lies not with the "boilerplate" analysis of the Finnish tax law provisions but, remarkably, with the not so concealed warning it has sent out to Member States that may be tempted to create 'too soft' tax regimes for companies which activities may have a "particular impact on employment".

Basically, Finnish tax rules allow companies to carry their losses forward up to 10 years after incurring them for the purposes of compensating their benefits and diminishing their tax burden. However, in order to prevent strategic acquisitions of 'bags of losses' within the shields of inactive companies, the Finnish tax code establishes a special regime in case of changes of corporate control. According to the relevant provisions, "losses sustained by a company are not deductible if, during the year in which they arise or thereafter, more than half of the company’s shares have changed ownership otherwise than by way of inheritance or will, or more than half of its members are replaced." However, "the competent tax office may, for special reasons, where it is necessary for the continuation of the activities of the company, authorise the deduction of losses when such an application is made" (emphasis added). 

By way of a guidance letter, the Finnish Tax Directorate interpreted the concept of "special reasons" and considered that, inter alia, could include the fact that the company requesting permission to carry fiscal losses forward despite a change of corporate control had "particular impact on employment". Indirectly, this raised the issue whether the granting of such an authorisation based on (non-strictly) tax reasons would meet the selectivity requirement of Article 107(1) TFEU and, consequently, could be challenged under the EU State aid rules.

In a very clear manner (despite the non-binding general tone of the Judgment, where the CJEU claims not to have sufficient information to reach a final position), the CJEU has indicated that:
26 […] the application of an authorisation system which enables losses to be carried forward to later tax years, such as that in question in the present case, cannot, in principle, be considered to be selective if the competent authorities have, when deciding on an application for authorisation, only a degree of latitude limited by objective criteria which are not unrelated to the tax system established by the legislation in question, such as the objective of avoiding trade in losses.
27 On the other hand, if the competent authorities have a broad discretion to determine the beneficiaries or the conditions under which the financial assistance is provided on the basis of criteria unrelated to the tax system, such as maintaining employment, the exercise of that discretion must then be regarded as favouring ‘certain undertakings or the production of certain goods’ in comparison with others which, in the light of the objective pursued, are in a comparable factual and legal situation (see, to that effect, C‑107/09 P Commission and Spain v Government of Gibraltar and United Kingdom [2011] ECR I‑0000,  paragraph 75). […]
30 […] if the competent authorities were to be able to determine the beneficiaries of the deduction of losses on the basis of criteria unrelated to the tax system, such as maintaining employment, such an exercise of that power should then be regarded as favouring ‘certain undertakings or the production of certain goods’ in comparison with others which, in the light of the objective pursued, are in a comparable factual and legal situation (C-6/12 at paras 26 to 30, emphasis added).
In my view, the CJEU has gone out of its way in this case (where it could have simply declined to provide an answer on the basis of the lack of information submitted by the referring court) with the aim of sending out a clear message to the governments of all Member States: if they intend to use (selective) tax measures to prevent negative impacts on employment, they need to obtain approval by the European Commission first.

This is not a revolution and may even have a second order of importance but, in my view, the CJEU has clearly backed the European Commission's efforts to control Member States' measures to (continue trying to) react to the economic crisis and has clearly indicated that corporate taxation cannot be used as a tool for these purposes. We shall see if the message reaches the intended ears...

#CJEU incorrectly analyses 'State imputability' and gives green light to (pseudo)fiscal #Stateaid schemes (C-677/11)

In its Judgment of 30 May 2013 in case C-677/11 Doux Élevages and Coopérative agricole UKL-AREE  the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has carried on with its line of case law in C-345/02 Pearle and Others and stressed that, according to Art 107(1) TFEU, State aid cannot exist if the economic advantage under analysis is not funded by 'State resources' and there is no 'imputability to the State'.

In the case at hand CIDEF, a French agricultural inter-trade organisation (for poultry), introduced the levying of a 'cotisation volontaire obligatoire' (sic) (CVO) for the purposes of financing common activities decided on by that organisation. The contribution was initially introduced in 2007 as a voluntary measure for the members of CIDEF, but it was extended to all traders in the sector on a compulsory basis in 2009 by a tacit Ministerial decision to accept that extension (see press release).

Two complainants challenged the extension of the CVO on the basis that making it a mandatory payment for all traders in the sector (ie going beyond the group of members of CIDEF) involved State aid. The French Conseil d’État referred the matter to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling, which has decided that there is no element of State aid in the mandatory extension of the CVO to all traders in the industry concerned.

The reasoning of the CJEU indeed follows its previous line of case law in the area of State aid and adopts a very narrow approach to the concept of economic advantages 'granted by a Member State or through State resources'. On the point of the involvement of State resources, the CJEU finds that
the contributions [...] are made by private‑sector economic operatorswhether members or non-members of the inter‑trade organisation involved – which are engaged in economic activity on the markets concerned. That mechanism does not involve any direct or indirect transfer of State resources, the sums provided by the payment of those contributions do not go through the State budget or through another public body and the State does not relinquish any resources, in whatever form (such as taxes, duties, charges and so on), which, under national legislation, should have been paid into the State budget. The contributions remain private in nature throughout their lifecycle and, in order to collect those contributions in the event of non‑payment, the inter-trade organisation must follow the normal civil or commercial judicial process, not having any State prerogatives (C-677/11 at para 32, emphasis added).
This should come as no big surprise, since this has become the standard position in the case law of the CJEU (ie that if the State 'does not touch' and 'should not have touched' the money, it cannot constitute a 'State resource'). However, one may wonder why the Court has not addressed the point of the (pseudo)fiscal nature of the imposition of a contribution (ie a levy) on undertakings that do not belong to the private organisation charging it. In the absence of a voluntarily established association (via membership), the prerogative of the inter-trade association to require payments from undertakings surely goes beyond the sphere of powers created by private law (taxation is one of the very exclusive powers of the State). In that regard, the reasoning followed by the CJEU on the point of 'imputability to the State' requires some close scrutiny. The Court finds that
35 […] Article 107(1) TFEU covers all the financial means by which the public authorities may actually support undertakings, irrespective of whether or not those means are permanent assets of the public sector. Therefore, even if the sums corresponding to the measure in question are not permanently held by the Treasury, the fact that they constantly remain under public control, and therefore available to the competent national authorities, is sufficient for them to be categorised as State resources (see [C‑482/99 France v Commission (2002) ECR I‑4397], paragraph 37 and the case-law cited).
36 In the case in the main proceedings, the conditions laid down by the Court in paragraph 37 of the judgment in France v Commission are not met. It is clear that the national authorities cannot actually use the resources resulting from the [CVOs] to support certain undertakings. It is the inter-trade organisation that decides how to use those resources, which are entirely dedicated to pursuing objectives determined by that organisation. Likewise, those resources are not constantly under public control and are not available to State authorities.
37 Any influence that the Member State may exercise over the functioning of the inter-trade organisation by means of its decision extending an inter-trade agreement to all traders in an industry is not capable of altering the findings made in paragraph 36 of this judgment.
38 It is clear from the case-file submitted to the Court that the legislation at issue in the main proceedings does not confer upon the competent authority the power to direct or influence the administration of the funds. Moreover, as the Advocate General noted in point 71 of his Opinion, according to the case-law of the competent national courts, the provisions of the Rural Code governing the extension of an agreement introducing the levying of contributions within an inter-trade organisation do not permit public authorities to exercise control over CVOs except to check their validity and lawfulness.
39 Regarding that control, it should be noted that Article L. 632-3 of the Rural Code does not permit making the extension of an agreement dependent upon the pursuit of political objectives which are specific, fixed and defined by the public authorities, given that that article non‑exhaustively lists the very general and varied objectives that an inter-trade agreement must promote in order to be capable of being extended by the competent administrative authority. That conclusion cannot be undermined by the obligation imposed by Article L. 632-8-I of that code to inform the authorities of the way in which CVOs have been used.
40 Moreover, there is nothing in the case-file submitted to the Court permitting it to consider that the initiative for imposing the CVOs originated with the public authorities rather than the inter-trade organisation. It is important to emphasise, as the Advocate General observed in point 90 of his Opinion, that the State was simply acting as a ‘vehicle’ in order to make the contributions introduced by the inter-trade organisations compulsory, for the purposes of pursuing the objectives established by those organisations.
41 Thus, neither the State’s power to recognise an inter-trade organisation under Article L. 632-1 of the Rural Code, nor the power of that State to extend an inter‑trade agreement to all the traders in an industry under Articles L. 632-3 and 632-4 of that code permit the conclusion that the activities carried out by the inter‑trade organisation are imputable to the State (sic) (C-677/11 at paras 35 to 41, emphasis added).
The reasoning followed by the CJEU could not be more puzzling, particularly at para 41, which to me seems plainly wrong. Given the literal tenor of Art 107(1) TFEU, which sets that the prohibition of State aid covers 'any aid granted by a Member State or through State resources in any form whatsoever' it is clear that the analysis of the 'imputability to the State' must cover the aid measure and not the activities of the beneficiary of such measure. 

Therefore, the conclusion reached in para 41 of C-677/11 is simply a non sequitur. After having recognised that 'the State was simply (sic) acting as a ‘vehicle’ in order to make the contributions introduced by the inter-trade organisations compulsory, for the purposes of pursuing the objectives established by those organisations' (para 40), it is an illogical step to conclude that such (vehicular) intervention is not imputable to the State. In my opinion, this plainly makes no sense.

The implications of the Judgment in Doux Élevages are likely to be far fetched, since they open the door to a floodgate of (pseudo)fiscal measures designed by Member States (by indirect influence to the relevant inter-trade or similar organisations, which should not be readily proven, see para 40 ab initio) to compensate for the stricter (?) controls on aid directly granted by public authorities. 

The only remaining hope at this point is that, under the relevant constitutional law of the Member States, such (pseudo)fiscal levies are considered unconstitutional limitations to the right to property, since the State is the only entity vested with powers to extract money payments not voluntarily accepted, at least as a general implication of the membership of an association (as was the case in Pearle, although any element of mandatory membership obviously would grant the same conclusion). And, consequently, this (pseudo)fiscal structure  that allows non-State entities to extract mandatory payments can be seen as an excessive restriction of the right to property under some Member States constitutional law (such as in Spain, for instance).

Maybe with the accession of the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights and a (stronger) duty to protect the right to property under Art 1 Protocol No. 1 ECHR (which includes rules on taxation not mentioned in the right to property recognised in Art 17 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU), the CJEU will need to revisit this line of case law.

#CJEU pushes for EU single fiscal territory in ban of Spanish 'cross-border' tax on unrealised capital gains (C-64/11 Commission v Spain)

In its Judgment of 25 April 2013 in case C-64/11 Commission v Spain (press release), the Court of Justice of the EU has pushed for the further consolidation of the EU single fiscal territory by preventing any discriminatory tax treatment between companies that transfer their place of residence inside a Member State (domestic transfer) and those that transfer it to another EU Member State (EU transfer).

In the case at hand, Spanish corporate taxation law makes unrealised capital gains form part of the basis of assessment for the tax year, where the place of residence or the assets of a company established in Spain are transferred to another Member State. This rule has been challenged by the Commission as a restriction of freedom of establishment in that it puts the companies which have exercised that freedom at a cash-flow disadvantage.

The CJEU has indeed found that the immediate taxation of unrealised capital gains on the transfer of the place of residence or of the assets of a company established in Spain to another Member State amounts to a restriction on the freedom of establishment since, in such cases, a company is penalised financially as compared with a similar company which carries out such transfers in Spanish territory--in respect of which capital gains generated as a result of such transactions do not form part of the basis of assessment for corporate taxation until the transactions are actually carried out.

The CJEU has struck down such restriction as disproportionate in considering that Spain could preserve its powers in taxation matters by means of measures which are less harmful to the freedom of establishment. The CJEU considers it possible, for example, to request payment of the tax debt following the transfer, at the point at which the capital gains would have been taxed if the company had not made that transfer outside of Spanish territory. Moreover, the mechanisms of mutual assistance which exist between the authorities of the Member States are sufficient to enable the Member State of origin to assess the veracity of declarations made by companies which opt to defer payment of the tax. Thus, the Court clearly finds that the right to the freedom of establishment does not preclude capital gains generated in a territory from being taxed, even if they have not yet been realised, but it does preclude a requirement that that tax be paid immediately.

In this Judgment, the CJEU is clearly pushing for a suppression of tax borders within the EU and for an effective treatment of corporate changes of residence within the single market as domestic transfers. The CJEU strongly relies on the effectiveness of the current mechanisms of administrative cooperation in the field of taxation (as sufficient to enable Member States to exercise effective monitoring of transferred companies). These cooperation mechanisms (timidly created in 1977 by Council Directive 77/799/EEC) were revamped in 2011 by means of Council Directive 2011/16/EU and its Implementing Regulation 1156/2012

Directive 2011/16 had to be transposed into national laws by 1 January 2013 but, as of today, several Member States have not yet communicated any implementing measures to the Commission--including Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Poland and Portugal. This means that Member States need to get up to speed and effectively implement measures of administrative cooperation in tax matters if they want to keep (or improve) the effectiveness of their tax systems in the (growing) EU single fiscal territory.

As indicated in Directive 2011/16, Member States need to use their  'power to efficiently cooperate at international level to overcome the negative effects of an ever-increasing globalisation on the internal market'. Surely, developments and best practices generated in this inter-institutional cooperation setting will be relevant in the (likely?) future creation of a single EU tax authority.