The European Court of Justice decided on 21 November 2013 that EU national courts must assume that a measure qualifies as State aid, if the European Commission has opened an in-depth investigation into that measure.
This judgment is relevant to all cases in which the disputed measure was already granted, or is planned to be granted, and the European Commission has opened an in-depth investigation but not yet made a final decision on whether or not the measures qualify as State aid.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) decided on 21 November 2013 in Deutsche Lufthansa AG v Flughafen Frankfurt-Hahn GmbH (C-284/12) on the obligations placed on national courts in EU Member States that have been asked by a third party to order the recovery of State aid that was granted to a beneficiary without approval by the European Commission.
The ECJ stated that, even though the assessment carried out by the European Commission in its decision to open an in-depth investigation is preliminary in nature, the decision to open an investigation has legal effect and is therefore binding for national courts in that they must find that the measure qualifies as State aid. If the aid was granted without approval by the European Commission, the national court will have to order its recovery.
EU Member States cannot implement measures that qualify as State aid within the meaning of Article 107(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) until those measures have been approved by the European Commission (“the standstill obligation”, established in Article 107(3)(3) TFEU). The European Commission has exclusive competence to approve State aid.
National courts may, however, find an infringement of the standstill obligation and order the recovery of State aid that was granted without European Commission approval. Although national courts may not authorise State aid, they are permitted to decide whether or not a measure qualifies as State aid.
State aid investigations by the European Commission begin with a first phase, in which the European Commission requests information from the relevant EU Member State and gives the State the opportunity to give its views on the qualification of the relevant measures as State aid and grounds for their authorisation.
In complex cases, the European Commission generally opens an in-depth investigation. When making its decision to initiate an in-depth investigation, the European Commission has to provide an initial assessment of the measure and explain why it has come to the preliminary conclusion that the measure qualifies as State aid.
In the case at hand, the competitor of an alleged aid beneficiary approached a German court seeking recovery of alleged aid given to the beneficiary and suspension of its implementation. According to the appellant, the measure qualified as State aid, was granted without approval by the European Commission and was therefore in violation of the standstill obligation. The European Commission opened an in-depth State aid investigation into the relevant measures in 2006, but the final decision is still outstanding.
Question Referred by [...]