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.

Geert.

 

Inspection of SPS standards by ricochet. The CJEU on extra-EU enforcement of process standards in BRF v EC.

The CJEU (General Court) held in Case T-429/18 BRF SA et al v European Commission  this week.  I need to think a bit more about the implications of the judgment, particularly as I am keen to submit a research grant somewhere to investigate how, practically speaking, the EU may enforce EU process standards on production taking place abroad.

The GC refers to this challenge at 79 in fine where  it says ‘neither the Commission nor the Member States have enforcement powers in respect of establishments outside the European Union or countries not directly subject to obligations imposed by EU law.’ In the case at issue, Regulation 854/2004 provides that the possibility for third country establishments to export products of animal origin (for BRF: poultry) to the EU market requires, first, the country in question and, second, the establishment concerned be included on the lists provided for in those provisions.

The Court held that the Commission is within its rights to establish the reliability threshold of the guarantees provided by the competent authorities of a third country at a particularly high level and may thus go so far as to require, by reference to essential parameters, practically irreproachable performance on the part of the competent authorities of third countries (at 80). As far as its duty to state reasons is concerned, at 84:

The Commission stated, in recitals 4 and 5 of the contested implementing regulation, that the Brazilian authorities had been requested to take the necessary corrective actions to remedy the serious and repeated cases of non-compliance with EU requirements due to the presence of salmonella in poultry meat and poultry meat preparations. It is apparent from the information provided by those authorities and from the results of the official controls carried out at the borders of the European Union, however, that the necessary actions had not been taken, so the placing on the market of the products from the establishments concerned constituted a risk for public health. Those reasons relate to the 10 establishments belonging to the applicants and set out in the second table of the annex to that implementing regulation.

At 88: detailed reasons per establishment, for removal from the list, are not required.

More can be said about the judgment however at this stage I jus want to point out the somewhat messy implications of lack of extraterritorial enforcement powers. It puts foreign establishments at the mercy of their own food and feed inspection authorities. For  while EU law requires that some level of tailor-made information be available at individual establishment level, ultimately lack of diligent inspection by the local authorities will ricochet unto individual corporations’ export opportunities.

Geert.