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.

 

Request for consultations under the Trade and Sustainable Devlopment chapter of the EU-Korea FTA.

Update 23 January 2020 for the EC’s first written submission see here.

Update 20 September 2019 the US too have now requested environment consultations under KORUS, their FTA with Korea.

Update 5 July 2019 Ditto for the Korea issue. Update 21 June 2019 the EU /Ukraine issue, below, has now led to a formal request for establishment of panel.

Update 10 April 2019 see USTR for their report on having successfully resolved a timber management issue under the US /Peru FTA.

Update 19 March 2019 see Quentin Decleve here for the US following suit, related to rule of law /due process/ hearing rights issues before the Korean competition authority.

Update 16 January 2019 the first such trigger was quickly followed by a second: the EU have requested consultations with Ukraine over the country’s ban on the export of unprocessed woods.

This is a short posting for completeness and filing purposes. The EU have requested consultations with South Korea under the Trade and Sustainable Development chapter of the EU-Korea FTA. Labour rights are at the heart of the request. The request is a first trigger of the ‘Trade and’ consultations chapters under recent EU FTAs. I am not in a position to say more at this stage.

Geert.

 

US Iran sanctions renew the spotlight on the EU’s blocking regulation: A rare EU harmonised approach to enforcement and recognition from third States.

Ross Denton at Baker & McKenzie has a gem of a briefing on the EU’s ‘blocking Regulation’ and what it would mean in light of the US’ mooted sanctions on Iran. Steptoe had earlier also pondered the impact of the US withdrawal from the ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ or JCPOA, on the Regulation.

Regulation 2271/96 provides essentially for protection against, and counteracts the effects of the extra-territorial application of the laws of third States. WTO lawyers will remember it mostly from the days of Helms-Burton. As Ross points out, the European Commission now have delegated power to populate the Annex to the list (which details the sanctions the Regulation acts against).

Potentially extra-territorial are in particular US ‘secondary’ sanctions: i.e. those against non-US individuals (or companies) for actions undertaken outside the US.

Of particular interest to readers of the blog – including researchers I would imagine, are Articles 4, 5 and 6, which I have copy-pasted in full below. They deal with recognition and enforcement, co-operation with foreign courts, and recovery of expenses. These Articles are a rare instance where the EU adopt a harmonised approach to recognition and enforcement of judgments originating ex-EU (awaiting the potential Hague Judgments project). [Update 22 May 11:30 AM. As Enio Piovezani comments below, the GDPR, too, includes a relevant rule: See Article 48: ‘Transfers or disclosures not authorised by Union law. Any judgment of a court or tribunal and any decision of an administrative authority of a third country requiring a controller or processor to transfer or disclose personal data may only be recognised or enforceable in any manner if based on an international agreement, such as a mutual legal assistance treaty, in force between the requesting third country and the Union or a Member State, without prejudice to other grounds for transfer pursuant to this Chapter.’]

 

As Ross points out, however, the proverbial US rock is harder than the equally proverbial EU stone, hence in practice many companies choose to abide by the US sanctions, anyways.

My fingers are itching to launch yet another interesting PhD topic on this issue…Takers?

Geert.

 

Article 4

No judgment of a court or tribunal and no decision of an administrative authority located outside the Community giving effect, directly or indirectly, to the laws specified in the Annex or to actions based thereon or resulting there from, shall be recognized or be enforceable in any manner.

Article 5

No person referred to in Article 11 shall comply, whether directly or through a subsidiary or other intermediary person, actively or by deliberate omission, with any requirement or prohibition, including requests of foreign courts, based on or resulting, directly or indirectly, from the laws specified in the Annex or from actions based thereon or resulting therefrom.

Persons may be authorized, in accordance with the procedures provided in Articles 7 and 8, to comply fully or partially to the extent that non-compliance would seriously damage their interests or those of the Community. The criteria for the application of this provision shall be established in accordance with the procedure set out in Article 8. When there is sufficient evidence that non-compliance would cause serious damage to a natural or legal person, the Commission shall expeditiously submit to the committee referred to in Article 8 a draft of the appropriate measures to be taken under the terms of the Regulation.

Article 6

Any person referred to in Article 11, who is engaging in an activity referred to in Article 1 shall be entitled to recover any damages, including legal costs, caused to that person by the application of the laws specified in the Annex or by actions based thereon or resulting therefrom.

Such recovery may be obtained from the natural or legal person or any other entity causing the damages or from any person acting on its behalf or intermediary.

The Brussels Convention of 27 September 1968 on jurisdiction and the enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters shall apply to proceedings brought and judgments given under this Article. Recovery may be obtained on the basis of the provisions of Sections 2 to 6 of Title II of that Convention, as well as, in accordance with Article 57 (3) of that Convention, through judicial proceedings instituted in the Courts of any Member State where that person, entity, person acting on its behalf or intermediary holds assets.

Without prejudice to other means available and in accordance with applicable law, the recovery could take the form of seizure and sale of assets held by those persons, entities, persons acting on their behalf or intermediaries within the Community, including shares held in a legal person incorporated within the Community.

WTO examiners: at ease! Canadian Supreme Court holds in R. v. Comeau (New Brunswick restrictions on alcohol trade).

Fellow faculty about to examine students on the Law of the World Trade Organisation, have their exam sorted (especially if it is an oral exam). In 2018 SCC 15 R v Comeau the Canadian Supreme Court held last week. At issue is New Brunswick’s restrictive regime on the import and sale of alcoholic beverages. Greg Tereposky and Daniel Hohnstein have background to the case.

Despite the Province’s regime having clear trade impact, the SC held that it was not illegal under Canada’s internal free trade rules – with occasional reference to GATT and WTO. For comparative and exam purposes, the interesting angle is clear: has the Supreme Court adopted the kind of aims and effects test which the WTO is no fan of?

Copy of the judgment. 15 mins prep. And Bob’s your (oral exam) uncle.

Geert.

(Handbook of) The law of the World Trade Organisation, forthcoming at OUP with Demeester, Coppens, Wouters and Van Calster.

Trading Together For Strong and Democratically Legitimized EU International Agreements

I am happy to post here the link to the statement which I signed together with 62 colleagues from various walks of (trade) life, on the EU’s modus operandi for the signature of trade agreements.  Post-CETA, we strongly believe that current procedures, when properly implemented, ensure democratic legitimacy for the EU’s international agreements at multiple levels. The statement is available in English, French and German: EU noblesse oblige.

Geert.

 

Is it me, or is it getting chilly? The EC and endocrine disruptors.

Do the newly negotiated EU rules on endocrine disruptors illustrate regulatory chill /the ‘freezing effect’ of international trade law?

The new European Commission proposals on endoctrine disruptors are, of course’ ‘science based’. It has been reported (EurActiv, 12 December 2016 and last consulted by me on 13 December) that publication of the proposals was followed by a closed door meeting (minutes of which were released only after a freedom of information request) between the EC and a select number of countries (US, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay on 13 July this year). Discussion centered around the potential WTO incompatibility of parts of the EC proposal, particularly those surrounding the tolerance levels for endocrine disruptors present in imported substances (food and feed in particularly). The EC reportedly are prepared to replace “negligible exposure” with “negligible risk from exposure”. The EC defend the latter, arguing it might even ban more, rather than less imported substances: for even if there is only negligible exposure, that exposure may still be a risk. Opponents suggest that the insertion of a risk approach has sacrified precaution on the altar of science.

A few comments.

Firstly, the report (and potentially even the EC itself) repeats the misleading assertion that the debate concerns either science or precaution. Precaution is NOT unscientific. The very trigger of the precautionary approach is science.

Next, the case is reported at a time a lot of people are getting jittery about the regulatory co-operation mechanisms in free trade agreements such as CETA and TTIP. The meeting and the subsequent EC reaction to our trading partners’ comments, would then represent an example of the ‘freezing effect’ in international trade: with our trading partners flying the flag of WTO incompatibility, the EU would then have caved in to threats of litigation in Geneva. Yet in reality WTO input by fellow WTO Members is at least as old as the WTO itself, indeed it predates it. The 1978 Tokyo Standards Code already obliged the then GATT Contracting Parties to notify their draft standards to the GATT Secretariat. The very point of notification and transparency is that the issues raised are being discussed and may indeed lead to the draft standard being adopted. Changes made to REACH, to name but one example, reflected concerns of fellow WTO Members and REACH can hardly be said to pander to industry’s demands.

However there needs to be one core appreciation in this process: just as notification serves transparency (anyone can consult the TBT notification gateway to review draft measures that have been notified), so too should the process of review after reception of the comments, be conducted in a transparent manner. This clearly has not happened here. By conducting these meetings in private, and by refusing to release the minutes until prompted to do so, EC services have given the impression that there is more than meets the eye. In times where even CETA has not yet been ratified, that is most definitely the wrong approach.

Geert.

 

Neither extraterritoriality questions nor WTO concerns unsettle the CJEU. Animal testing ban applies outside EU.

The last part of this title is a bit of a stretch, apologies: soundbite beats nuance. I reported earlier on the High Court’s referral to the CJEU in the Cosmetics Regulation case, C-592/14 . The Court held last week, 21 September. Much like in C-366/10, the emissions trading /aviation case, the Court was unimpressed with accusations of extraterritoriality (‘territory’ is not discussed in the judgment) and does not even flag WTO concerns (Bobek AG had, and simply suggested this is an issue that solely lies with the WTO itself to resolve).

Referring to the need to interpret the Regulation with a view to its object and purpose, the Court insists that in particular to avoid easy circumvention of the Regulation, data obtained from animal testing carried out outside the EU, cannot be employed for the marketing of cosmetics in the EU, even if those tests had to be performed so as to meet the regulatory requirements of third countries.

Of course in WTO jargon, this recalls the discussion of non-product incorporated production processes and -methods (n-PR PPMs) however the Court is more concerned with regulatory efficiency.

Geert.

Landmark judgment in the making. High Court refers to Luxembourg, demarcation of Moroccon territory viz Saharawi.

How exactly is the EU bound by public international law? What is the justiciability of acts of foreign sovereign nations in EU courts? To what extent can an individual rely on customary or other sources of public international law, in national courts or at the CJEU?  All of these questions often puzzle non-lawyers (if something is illegal due to a higher rule, how can the lower rule still be in existence) and lawyers alike. At the EU level, things are complicated due to the hybrid (OK: sui generis) nature of the EU, and its complicated relationship with international law.

In Western Sahara Campaign UK, claimant is an independent voluntary organisation founded in 1984 with the aim of supporting the recognition of the right of the Saharawi people of Western Sahara to self-determination and independence and to raise awareness of the unlawful occupation of the Western Sahara. Defendants are the Inland Revenue, challenged for the preferential tariff given on import to the UK of goods that are classified as being of Moroccan origin but in fact originate from the territory of Western Sahara. The second challenge is brought against the Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in respect of the intended application of the EU-Morocco Fisheries Partnership Agreement to policy formation relating to fishing in the territorial waters of Western Sahara.

Essentially, it is claimed that defendants ought not to apply the relevant European agreements for these are, arguably, in violation of public international law. Claimant contends that Morocco has annexed the territory of Western Sahara and claims it as part of its sovereign territory despite decisions of the United Nations and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that the people of Western Sahara have the right to self-determination. Accordingly it is said that Morocco’s occupation is in breach of the principles of international law and the Charter of the United Nations.

Under EU law, only the CJEU can establish the invalidity of EU law. Blake J decided to send the case to Luxembourg for preliminary review. Defendants opposed such reference primarily because they submit that the issues raised by the claimant are matters of public international law that the CJEU will decline to adjudicate on in the present circumstances. Precedent which they relied on is not unequivocal, however. This case therefore will be an opportunity for the CJEU (Grand Chamber, one would imagine) to clarify the relationship between EU and public international law.

Geert.

Belgium’s origin labelling of products from Israeli – occupied territories. A lot of beating round the bush.

Update 14 November 2019 See for the European legal context the CJEU earlier in this week in C-363/18 Organisation juive européenne holding that foodstuffs originating in a territory occupied by the State of Israel must bear not only the indication of that territory but also, where those foodstuffs come from a locality or a group of localities constituting an Israeli settlement within that territory, the indication of that provenance.

The Belgian Government has published its ‘notice to retailers concerning origin labelling of products from Israeli occupied territories’. The initiative got a lot of press, in Belgium at least, the past few days. It was announced as the culmination of lengthy preparation in light of the existing difficulties in particular with the EU-Israel and EU-Palestine association agreements. Good summary of those difficulties is provided here by DEFRA. (Compiled in 2009 but the issues have remained more or less the same. Note that the Belgian notice refers as far as the exiting origin obligations are concerned, essentially revisits the DEFRA compilation).

Generally, initiatives like these are problematic at three levels.

Firstly, purely legally, specifically international trade law. Countries introducing these types of regimes (including the UK, Denmark, and now also Belgium) allege that all that is envisaged is consumer information, without any signal or pressure from government to boycott said products. That is cosmetic at best. One cannot seriously argue that given the current context, the ‘informative notice’ is not related to a political signal by the Belgian Government. Any consequences of the notice therefore in my view without doubt are sponsored by the Government and hence fall under WTO discipline. (Note that Palestine is not a WTO Member but Israel is).

That same context feeds the argument that the introduction of a label of origin for the occupied Palestine territories serves to make all Israeli produce suspicious in the eyes of the Belgian consumer. That is a highly relevant angle for international trade law.
Secondly, the practical angle. A label of origin requirement is not new. The very existence of different agreements between Palestine, Israel and the EU requires it. Yet controlling those labels has proved impossible so far. Suggestions of lengthy preparation made me curious about the regime the Belgian Government would have devised. The answer is simply that is has devised none. The notice simply says

In order to clarify that these products originate from an Israeli settlement, the following labels are recommended: – ‘Product from the Golan Heights (Israeli settlement)’ – ‘Product from the West Bank (Israeli settlement)’. For products from the West Bank that do not originate from settlements, the label ‘product from the West Bank (Palestinian product)’ is recommended.

There are no indications of who is supposed to attach the labels (‘the retail industry’), who will inspect them, what rules of origin percentages apply. etc.

I am not an economist and hence not in a position to advice whether boycotts such as these actually reach those against whom they are intended. (Which is the third level of problems). Neither am I a public international lawyer who sees clear in the myriad of territorial and other claims which sadly dog Israel-Palestine relations. I am however a litigator and in that capacity I have always preferred doing things with blazing guns once it comes down to boycotts, consumer driven or not: state your case and do not beat around the bush. This notice is disappointing in view of the noise created around it in recent days and it pussyfoots around the real Government intention.

Geert.

 

Not on my soil! The Council of the EU compromise on national vetoes to GMO cultivation.

The Council has published its first-reading position on a draft directive granting member states more flexibility to decide whether or not they wish to cultivate genetically modified organisms(GMOs) on their territory – I had flagged it here before I had an opportunity chance to look at the text. My initial reaction is confirmed however.

Under the text, the possibility would be provided for a Member State to request the Commission to present to the notifier/applicant its demand to adjust the geographical scope of its notification/application to the effect that all or part of the territory of that Member State be excluded from cultivation. The Commission shall facilitate the procedure by presenting the request of the Member State to the notifier/applicant without delay and the notifier/applicant should respond to that request within an established time-limit. In the event of refusal, the Member State may block cultivation on its territory for reasons other than the scientific assessment which will have been carried out by the relevant authorities. (And note that the EC may after refusal also proceed to adjusting geographically the request for authorisation for scientific reasons).

The list of ‘compelling reasons’ which may lead a Member State to refuse cultivation, is non-exhaustively listed as

(a) environmental policy objectives distinct from the elements assessed according to the Directive and to Regulation 1829/2003;  (since those environmental objectives will have been considered in the scientific assessment);

(b) town and country planning;

(c) land use;

(d) socio-economic impacts;

(e) cross-contamination with other products;

(f) agricultural policy objectives; and

(g) public policy.

Those grounds may be invoked individually or in combination, with the exception of the public policy exception (which awkwardly needs to be coupled with one of the other grounds). An authorisation procedure will apply (with no need to apply the transparency Directive, 98/34, concurrently).

An important point to note is that the Directive only applies to growing (‘cultivation’) of GMOs in situ: not to the import, marketing etc. of GMO containing products, food, feed etc. I would not be surprised that in practice this will mean a continuation of industry practice to leave the EU altogether for growing GMOs, focusing its efforts instead on securing authorisation to market. (This regime does not feature the much wider leeway for non-science driven objections).

Today is the Saint’s Day of Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. A suitable day to ponder a proposal heavy with risk analysis, regulatory theory,  and trade law implications.

Geert.