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Archive for March 14th, 2012

A turn of the screw (José Luis Buendía on SGEIs)

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[Note by Nicolas and Alfonso: Since we learnt the news that the Commission was preparing a reform of the State aid rules applying to services of general economic interest we have been trying to have our friend (also Alfonso’s boss) José Luis Buendía to give us his views on the reform. Apart from a  being a top-notch State aid lawyer and the author of the seminal (and perhaps only) book on Article 106 (a new edition is in the pipeline), he was heavily involved in the drafting of the original “Altmark package” at the time when he was working for the European Commission. In fact, a few months ago a member of the European Commission said at a conference that whereas some people call this package the “Monti package”, many Commission officials refer to it as the “Buendía package”. We are very thankful for him for having taken the time to write this insightful piece that we believe will be a “must” for anyone dealing with this subject. It’s a privilege for us. Enjoy!]

The editors of this blog have kindly invited me to comment the recently adopted ‘Almunia package’, in which the EC has revisited the State aid rules applicable as regards the financing of Services of General Economic Interest (SGEI).[1]

I have chosen the expression “a turn of the screw” to introduce this short comment for two reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that the new rules would – at least at first sight – increase the pressure and make life more difficult for the big operators of SGEI. The second relates to a Henry James novel, The Turn of the Screw” (1898), subsequently adapted to cinema by Jack Clayton under the titleThe innocents” (1961). The reference to the story seems pertinent to me because it has had very differing interpretations, often mutually exclusive.  The ambiguity of the story makes difficult to conclude whether the governess has actually seen the ghosts or whether she simply dreamed. “The Turn of the Screw” definitively looks like a ghost story but… is it really a ghost story? In any case it is a great story I can recommend.

As I will try to explain, when comparing it with the previous post-Altmark (or Monti-Kroes) Package, the Almunia package definitively looks as a turn of the screw as regards the rules applicable to the financing of SGEI.

In my opinion, and given the current political context, the most remarkable feature is the mere adoption of the package by the Commission.  One has to remember that some Member States wanted that the rules on SGEI were adopted, not by the Commission but by the Council and the Parliament, under the new legal basis introduced in Article 14 TFEU by the Lisbon Treaty. Despite this political pressure the Commission chose not to make a proposal under this new basis (probably for the same reason that turkeys do not vote for Thanksgiving). Instead, it revisited the package under its own powers under Articles 106 and 107 TFEU. This decision seems wise and legally well founded, in particular given the limits of Article 14, but is still quite courageous in this time of centrifugal tendencies at the EU level.

Obviously this small comment cannot cover all the interesting issues raised by the package. It is however fair to say that the content of the reviewed package does not look as particularly conciliatory with those who wanted more flexibility for SGEI. It is true that there are some changes going in that direction. This is the case for the small operators in charge of SGEI that are exempted from notification (in particular, there is a new exemption of some social services and a new draft de minimis specially conceived for SGEIs), but the story seems quite different for the bigger operators that remain subject to individual notification.  Under the Almunia package – and contrary to the previous Monti-Kroes package – the rules applicable to the big operators are going to be different and stricter from the rules applied to the smaller.

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Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

14 March 2012 at 2:21 pm