Sjelle Autogenbrug, second hand goods. A core tutorial on the VAT mechanism and how in law, all is connected.

In C-471/15 Sjelle Autogenbrug, Bot AG opined a few weeks ago. I find myself curiously drawn to VAT cases these days. Especially since I reported how in a VAT case, the CJEU perhaps accidentally came to a major decision on the Aarhus Convention. Also have a look for instance on how the same AG discusses ‘cultural services’ within the context of VAT (C-592/15 BFI). Or perhaps it is because I have a past (and potentially, a future) in customs duties and excise.

It is particularly interesting to ponder how terminology that is used across the board in EU law, specifically also regulatory law, is interpreted in the context of VAT. (Incidentally the Advocate General gives an excellent summary of VAT rules and why VAT can /should be set-off between traders). In the case at hand, Directive 2006/112 provides i.a. the following definition for second-hand goods: “second-hand goods” means movable tangible property that is suitable for further use as it is or after repair, other than works of art, collectors’ items or antiques and other than precious metals or precious stones as defined by the Member States; 

Sjelle Autogenbrug I/S is a vehicle reuse undertaking whose main activity is the resale of used motor vehicle parts which it removes from end-of-life vehicles. It also engages in the environmental and waste treatment of end-of-life vehicles, a service for which it charges a standard price. Lastly, a lesser part of the undertaking’s overall turnover derives from the sale of scrap metal remaining after removal of the motor vehicle parts. Sjelle Autogenbrug purchases end-of-life vehicles — which are either vehicles whose lifespan has expired or total write-offs — from individuals and insurance companies who do not declare VAT on sales made. Sjelle Autogenbrug currently declares VAT pursuant to the applicable general rules. In 2010, it asked the tax authorities to apply the special margin scheme for second-hand goods to its activity of reselling used motor vehicle parts taken from end-of-life vehicles. The authorities refused.

Since the goods are reintroduced into the distribution chain, the taxable dealer is liable for VAT when he resells the goods. However, as the taxable dealer did not pay VAT when he purchased the second-hand goods from the non-taxable individual, he cannot deduct such VAT from the amount to be paid to the State, being an amount comprised exclusively of the VAT charged upon resale of those goods. This results in a lack of VAT neutrality and in the double taxation of the goods (at 26). The margin scheme was adopted to alleviate that difficulty. It aims to harmonise the rules applicable to the acquisition of new goods subject to VAT which are later resold as second-hand goods and to prevent double taxation and the distortion of competition between taxable persons in the area of second-hand goods.

The Danish government submits that the use in that provision of the words ‘as it is’ demonstrates that, in order to be classified as ‘second-hand goods’, the goods must retain their identity, which is not the case with spare parts since Sjelle Autogenbrug acquires, first of all, a complete vehicle. Furthermore, it argues that even if those spare parts could be classified as ‘second-hand goods’, it would not be possible to apply the margin scheme because the purchase price of the spare parts cannot be precisely determined.

Bot AG disagrees:

  • the EU legislature did not intend to exclude goods originating from a single whole which could be separated, such as parts taken from end-of-life vehicles (at 33)
  • the key factor in the classification of goods as ‘second-hand goods’ is that the used goods must retain the characteristics they had when new (at 35). He refers in this context also tho the end-of life-vehicles Directive, 2000/53, which defined ‘reuse’ as ‘any operation by which components of end-of-life vehicles are used for the same purpose for which they were conceived’. ‘Motor vehicle parts fall squarely within that definition since, even when separated from the vehicle, they retain their original characteristics as they will be reused for the same purpose in another vehicle. The fact that those parts were removed from the vehicle is therefore of little consequence.‘ (at 35)

The Advocate General further considered that were the special margin scheme not to be applied, dealers of second hand spare parts would be disfavoured vis-a-vis those dealing in new spare parts. Hardly indeed a result that would be conducive to the circular economy.

EU waste law does not employ the notion ‘second hand goods’. In practice these goods have raised all sorts of demarcation issues. Summarising all these, if one and the same good is simply passed on to ‘a second hand’, ie the original owner no longer has a use for it but it can be passed on by someone else who will employ it for its original purpose and without there being a need for treatment or processing, it should not be regarded as waste.

It is only be looking into all nooks and crannies of EU law that  ambitious projects like the circular economy will be a real success. Current Opinion is a good illustration of such successful consideration.

Handbook of EU Waste Law, second ed. 2016, Chapter 1.

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