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.