Free movement of capital and sustainable forest management. The CJEU in Huijbrechts.

Disclosure I represented the Flemish Region at the Court of Justice. I wrote this post on 11 December 2018. Given that the interpretation of the judgment has a bearing on the proceedings in the national court, I decided to hold back on posting  until those proceedings would have met their national end – which they still have not. Seeing as I thought the case might be of interest I decided to go ahead now anyway.

In C-679/17 Huijbrechts the European Court of Justice held in a fashion which is fairly typical of free movement of capital cases. The Court treads carefully. Positive harmonisation of tax law is difficult for the EU to achieve for this requires unanimity. Tax measures having a direct impact on free movement of capital, too strict an enforcement of the latter may be read as tax harmonisation via the back door.

The case at issue concerns a measure by the Flemish Region of Belgium to exempt sustainable managed forests from death duties (inheritance tax). The exemption is subject to there being a forest management plan, agreed with the relevant agency, and subject to a 30 year follow-up period (should in the interim the forest no longer be sustainably managed, the heirs pay the tax pro rata the remainder of the 30 year period). The heirs concerned did not enjoy the exemption for the forests are located outside the region and suggest this is an infringement of the free movement of capital.

Defence against suggestions of infringement of Article 63 TFEU’s free movement of capital rule typically follow the following sequence: free movement is not impacted; should this fail: the domestic and foreign situation are not objectively comparable; should this fail, per C‑256/06 Jäger, public interest requires an exemption (subject to a suitability and a proportionality test).

A crucial part of free movement judgments entails having to read the judgment with an eye on the factual circumstances: the Court typically employs a formula that reads something like ‘in circumstances such as those at issue in the national proceedings’ or ‘in circumstances such as those at issue in the national law’.

In Huijbrechts, the Court at 25-26 finds that Flemish and foreign forest are objectively comparable (only) where they are transboundary and concern woods that are part of one unit or landscape (lest my geographic knowledge fails me here, this limits the impact of the judgment to French and Dutch estates; Belgium has a land border with Luxembourg and Germany, too, but Flanders does not). Interestingly, at 22 the Court indicates that in making the like forest comparison (GATT, WTO and generally free movement scholars will know where I am heading here), the regulatory goal of sustainable forest management plays a role. (See the like product /service distinction in the WTO).

For that limited group of forest, the public interest exception imposes constraints: a blanket ban on considering sustainable management outside of Flanders fails the Treaty test, for it does not assist with the protection of the forests. Flanders will for that limited group have to allow the heirs (again: only where the forests are transboundary and concern woods that are part of one unit or landscape) to provide proof of sustainable management; should such proof be delivered, the burden of proof will revert to the Flemish tax authorities: they cannot blankly assume that they cannot get the necessary data from the foreign administration during the 30 year period: they have to request such data (typically: on a 30 year basis) and only should they fail to get them, can they still refuse to exempt.

The Court implicitly recognises the specific (dire) circumstances of forests in Flanders (at 31). It does not accept the heirs’ submission that the myriad of international and European policy documents on forest management somehow amount to positive harmonisation.



Be careful what you ask for. A first review of the WTO EU seals Panel.

After leaks, the Panel’s ruling in EU Seals is finally out. As it was only released this afternoon, I have not as yet had time to read it thoroughly. However diagonal reading reveals that by and large the regime was found to qualify for the public morals exception under the GATT Agreement (and not to be more trade restrictive than necessary to protect same under the TBT Agreement) however the pro Inuit exceptions have proven to be the Regulation’s Achiless heel. As I have suggested in the past in other areas, this may well mean that the EU has no choice but to resort to stricter rules, leaving out the exceptions.

Further analysis and post later in the week hopefully.




Is something fishy in the State of Denmark? Faroe Islands WTO and UNCLOS litigation provides a honey pot to trade and EU lawyers

POSTSCRIPT 11 June 2014: An understanding reached today (11 June) means the case will now not reach the WTO. Pitty in many ways.  See EC press release  and WTO database.

Yummie. That’s how Trade lawyers and EU lawyers receive news of the Danish request for consultations  with the EU, over at the WTO, on behalf of the Faroe Islands. A separate action is underway with UNCLOS (although the docket there shows no sign as yet of the case). Disagreement over herring stock lies at the root of the offending EU Regulation, with sanctions imposed by the EU disallowing Faroese fishermen to land mackerel or herring in EU harbours or export such fish to the EU.

The EU justify their action on stock conservation grounds, thus bringing GATT Article XX into play. Action at the WTO is exciting both because it joins a growing list of actions related to domestic regulatory authority, and because it is unheard of for one EU Member to take another to the WTO (Faroe’s specific status under EU law explains this, however even in EU law this terrain is quite uncharted).

As sources at the WTO say: ‘it’s a really interesting case’: that quote must be in the running for understatement of the year. Sources at the EU suggest no one had expected Denmark’s WTO filing to actually materialise.


WTO compatibility of biofuels sustainability criteria: The Argentinian complaint

Argentina has requested consultations, the first step in the WTO’s dispute settlement procedure, with respect to the EU’s biofuels sustainability criteria, contained in RED, its renewable energy Directive. The development of biofuels criteria per se is full of pitfalls. For starters, the EU’s Directive has effectively skirted the issue of sustainability. As all students of environmental law and policy have been told ad nauseam, sustainable development has three pillars (ecological, economic, social), not just the one (ecological /environment) which the Directive has quantified. On social and economic impact of the EU’s regime, the European Commission is merely to report. Evidently, quantifying all three is not straightforward: witness also the demise of the Clean Development Mechanism, CDM,  one of the flexible mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

With respect to the environmental pillar, RED employs a standard value of CO2 emission reduction which for soybean biodiesel (the main export of Argentinian biofuel) is 31%. This falls short of the 35% required for renewable energy to count towards Member States’ renewable energy targets (and co-inciding fiscal and other incentives).  In other words, fuel not meeting the standard can still be imported into the EU: but it will not be very popular (one can sense a de facto /de iure discrimination debate). One way of getting around the issue, is for individual shipments to show that they meet the 35% threshold with all the extra costs this implies (arguably imposing a measure equivalent to a quantitative restriction), or for the European Commission to recognise relevant voluntary schemes meeting the higher threshold through certification. An Argentinian scheme presented to the EC was not accepted by it.

The Argentinian request includes a long list of GATT and WTO obligations which it argues are infringed by the EU (and by relevant Member States implementing measures).

Having a Panel and Appellate Body express some rules of thumb for sustainability criteria (which Argentina explicitly says it does support in principle) would be very useful indeed.


Flury of WTO domestic regulatory autonomy cases continues: Ontario’s feed-in tariff program illegal

Just before the Christmas break, a WTO Panel ruled at the request of Japan and the EU that Ontario’s feed-in tariff program is illegal under the GATT and TRIMs agreement.  Feed-in tariff programs are a popular means to boost renewable energy. Typically, they imply that producers of renewable energy are nurtured through preferential, long-term and advantageous electricity purchase contracts (either through obliging private electricity distributors to enter into such contracts, such as in the infamous European PreussenElektra case, or such as in the case of Ontario’s law, through employment of a Government Agency which enters into these contracts). Governments are often tempted to throw ‘local content requirements’ into the mix: in the case of Ontario, domestic content requirements must be complied with in the design and construction of the relevant electricity generation facilities utilizing solar photovoltaic and wind power technology in order to qualify for guaranteed electricity prices offered under the FIT Program.

The Panel rejected the EU’s claim with respect to Subsidies, however it did accept that the regime infringed GATT Article III, as well as the Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures. The former to me was no great surprise. Infant industry arguments are often made with respect to renewable energy however these do not in my view carry much weight with respect to either solar, wind or hydropower. The finding on TRIMS is encouraging: it shows that the Agreement (I sometimes dub it a mini-MAI) does have some bite.

The EU has had internal issues with feed-in tariffs and the like (see e.g. my paper here on (di)similarities between EU and WTO law on the matter), and (update 5 May 2015) in the UK the Courts are considering the extent to which Article 1 of the first Protocol to the European Conention on Human rights (‘A1P1’), which protects property, shields investors in solar energy from changes in feed-in tariffs.