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A Dialogue of Unequals – The European Court of Justice Reasserts National Courts’ Obligations under Article 267(3) TFEU: ECJ 4 October 2018, Case C-416/17, Commission v France

  • Araceli Turmo
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Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Nantes.

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1 ECJ 4 October 2018, Case C-416/17, Commission v France

2 ECJ 15 September 2011, Case C-310/09, Accor.

3 D. Sarmiento, ‘Judicial Infringements at the Court of Justice – A Brief Comment on the Phenomenal Commission/France (C-416/17)’, Despite Our Differences, 9 October 2018, ⟨despiteourdifferencesblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/09/judicial-infringements-at-the-court-of-justice-a-brief-comment-on-the-phenomenal-commission-france-c-416-17/⟩, visited 29 April 2019.

4 ECJ 6 October 1982, Case 283/81, CILFIT e.a. Concerning this judgment, see G. Bebr, ‘The Rambling Ghost of “Cohn-Bendit”: Acte Clair and the Court of Justice’, CMLR (1983) p. 439; K. Lenaerts, ‘La modulation de l’obligation de renvoi préjudiciel’, CDE (1983) p. 471.

5 See CE 19 June 1964, n° 47007 Société des pétroles Shell-Berre.

6 Combrexelle, J.-D., ‘Sur l’actualité du “dialogue des juges”’, 34 AJDA (2018) p. 1929 .

7 Gervasoni, S., ‘CJUE et cours suprêmes: repenser les termes du dialogue des juges?’, AJDA (2019) p. 150 .

8 Loi n° 2003-1311 du 30 décembre 2003 de finances pour 2004, JORF n° 302, 31 décembre 2003, p. 22530.

9 Tribunal administratif de Versailles 21 décembre 2006, n° 20440, Société Accor and n° 404552, Société Rhodia.

10 Cour administrative d’appel de Versailles 20 mai 2008, n° 07VE00529, Ministre de l’Économie, des finances et de l’industrie c/ Société Rhodia, and n° 7VE00530, Ministre de l’Économie, des finances et de l’industrie c/ Société Accor.

11 For more details on the judgments delivered by French courts in these cases, see F. Locatelli, ‘Accor et désaccords – affaire dite du précompte mobilier: “[...] Et pour la première fois dans le cadre d’un recours en manquement […]”’, 41 Droit fiscal (2018), comm. 420, at 11 ff.

12 Conseil d’État 3 juillet 2009, n° 317075, Ministre de l’Économie et des finances c/ Société Accor.

13 For more details on the Accor case, see J.-L. Pierre, ‘Non-conformité au droit de l’UE des dispositifs du précompte et de l’avoir fiscal’, 3 Droit fiscal (2012) p. 40; A.J. Martín Jiménez, ‘Impuestos directos y libertades fundamentales - Sentencia del TJUE (Sala Primera) de 15 de septiembre de 2011, Accor, Asunto C-310/09’, 153 Revista española de Derecho Financiero (2012) p. 326.

14 Conseil d’État 10 décembre 2012, n° 317074, Ministre de l’Économie et des finances c/ Société Rhodia, and n° 317075, Ministre de l’Économie et des finances c/ Société Accor.

15 ECJ 13 November 2012, C-35/11, Test Claimants in the FII Group Litigation. This judgment followed the earlier judgment of 12 December 2006, C-446/04, Test Claimants in the FII Group Litigation.

16 Concl. N. Escaut ss CE 10 décembre 2012, supra n. 14, para. 14. The Rapporteur public wrote that the internal logic of the tax systems at issue was fundamentally different because French law considers the taxes imposed on distributed profits only at the level of the distributing company, whereas British law took into account a system of ‘consolidation’ under which any taxes on such profits imposed at the level of any subsidiary or sub-subsidiary could be ‘transferred up’ to the British parent company.

17 Commission v France, supra n. 1, para. 14.

18 Ibid., paras. 15-17.

19 Ibid., paras. 24-27.

20 Ibid., paras. 20-23.

21 Ibid., paras. 48, 49 and 51 respectively.

22 Ibid., paras. 52-57.

23 Ibid., paras. 84-85 and 86-89.

24 Ibid., paras. 100-102.

25 The three exceptions were set out in paras. 10, 13-14, and 16 of the Court’s judgment in CILFIT (supra n. 4), and restated in para. 21: ‘a court or tribunal against whose decisions there is no judicial remedy under national law is required, where a question of Community law is raised before it, to comply with its obligation to bring the matter before the Court of Justice, unless it has established that the question raised is irrelevant or that the Community provision in question has already been interpreted by the Court or that the correct application of Community law is so obvious as to leave no scope for any reasonable doubt. The existence of such a possibility must be assessed in the light of the specific characteristics of Community law, the particular difficulties to which its interpretation gives rise and the risk of divergences in judicial decisions within the Community’.

26 Commission v France, supra n. 1, para. 104.

27 The second exception established in CILFIT, under which the national court is exempted from its obligation to refer if the ECJ has already dealt with the point of law in question.

28 Opinion of AG Wathelet delivered on 25 July 2018, C-416/17, Commission v France.

29 Ibid., paras. 67 and 79.

30 Ibid., paras. 31-39.

31 Ibid., para. 87.

32 ECJ 9 December 2003, Case C-129/00, Commission v Italy, and 12 November 2009, Case C-154/08, Commission v Spain. Concerning these cases, see L. Rossi and G. Di Federico, ‘Case C-129/00, Commission v. Repubblica Italiana, judgment of 9 December 2003, Full Court, nyr’, 42 CMLR (2005) p. 829; M. Lopez Escudero, ‘Case C-154/08, Commission v Spain, Judgment of the Court (Third Chamber) of 12 November 2009’, 48 CMLR (2011) p. 227.

33 ECJ 30 September 2003, Case C-224/01, Köbler. Concerning this case law, see P. Wattel, ‘Köbler, Cilfit and Welthgrove: We Can’t Go On Meeting Like This’, 41 CMLR (2004) p. 177; D. Ruiz-Jarabo Colomer, ‘Once Upon a Time - Francovich: From Fairy Tale to Cruel Reality?’, in M. Poiares Maduro and L. Azoulai (eds.), The Past and Future of EU Law. The Classics of EU Law Revisited on the 50th Anniversary of the Rome Treaty (Hart 2010) p. 405.

34 AG Wathelet Opinion, supra n. 28, paras. 88, 90, 91.

35 Ibid., para. 90, quoting Art. 19(1) TEU as well as ECJ 15 March 2017, C-3/16, Aquino, and the Opinion of AG Bot delivered on 11 June 2015, in Case C-160/14, Ferreira da Silva e Brito, para 102.

36 Ibid., para. 92.

37 This freedom has always been recognised by the Court, see ECJ 27 March 1963, Joined Cases 28 to 30/62, Da Costa.

38 AG Wathelet Opinion, supra n. 28, para. 93.

39 Ibid., para. 99.

40 The Court explicitly refers to the AG’s Opinion concerning the second complaint (para. 79 of the judgment), the third complaint (para. 93) and the fourth complaint (para. 111).

41 Commission v France, supra n. 1, paras. 80-82.

42 Ibid., paras. 95-98.

43 Ibid., paras. 31-32.

44 Supra n. 15. The 2012 judgment is quoted six times at paras. 35-37 and 44 of Commission v France.

45 Commission v France, supra n. 1, para 37.

46 Ibid., paras. 44-45.

47 Ibid., para. 107. The Court refers to Commission v Italy and Commission v Spain, supra n. 32.

48 The Court refers to its judgment of 15 March 2017, Case C-3/16, Aquino.

49 See below.

50 Commission v France, supra n. 1, para. 111.

51 Ibid., para. 112. The criterion is rephrased in para. 114 as a case in which the interpretation of Union law is not ‘so obvious as to leave no scope for doubt’.

52 ECJ 9 September 2015, Case C-160/14, Ferreira da Silva e Brito e.a.

53 Supra n. 15.

54 Combrexelle, supra n. 6.

55 D. Sarmiento, ‘On Constitutional Mode’, Despite Our Differences, 6 March 2018, ⟨despiteourdifferencesblog.wordpress.com/2018/03/06/on-constitutional-mode/⟩, visited 29 April 2019.

56 Several detailed analyses of this phenomenon have been provided; see, notably, Komárek, J., ‘Federal Elements in the Community Judicial System – Building Coherence in the Community Legal Order’, 42 CMLR (2005) p. 9 ; and for a more general approach D. Halberstam, ‘Comparative Federalism and the Role of the Judiciary’, in Whittington, K. et al. (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Law and Politics (Oxford University Press 2008) p. 142-164 .

57 Sarmiento, supra n. 3; Gervasoni, supra n. 7.

58 Supra n. 32.

59 In that case, the infringement was caused by the way in which the Corte suprema di cassazione had interpreted and applied a statutory provision which, under a different interpretation, would not have been incompatible with Union law.

60 Commission v Italy, supra n. 32, paras. 11-14 and 34-35.

61 Opinion of AG Geelhoed delivered on 3 June 2003 in the case Commission v Italy, supra n. 32, paras. 2 and 3.

62 Supra n. 32.

63 Ibid., para. 44.

64 Ibid., paras. 64-66.

65 Köbler, supra n. 33, paras. 117-118.

66 Ibid., paras. 119 ff.

67 Ferreira da Silva e Brito e.a., supra n. 52.

68 The Court never explicitly stated that the national court had violated its obligation under Art. 267(3) but maintained the veneer of neutrality which is supposed to characterise preliminary rulings. AG Bot was not as scrupulous, stating that ‘Article 267 TFEU must be interpreted as meaning that a national court or tribunal against whose decisions there is no judicial remedy under national law, such as the Supremo Tribunal de Justiça, was obliged, in circumstances such as those at issue in the main proceedings, to make a reference to the Court for a preliminary ruling’, and stressing the need for the Court to adopt a strict position in reminding national courts of last resort of their obligation (Opinion of AG Bot delivered on 11 June 2015, supra n. 35, paras. 3 and 101).

69 Köbler, supra n. 33, para. 122.

70 Locatelli, supra n. 11, at p. 14, quoting V. Daumas, ‘Distributions transfrontalières de dividendes : avec avoir... ou pas ?’, RJF (2009) p. 715.

71 Concl. L. Olléon ss CE, 23 juillet 2009, supra n. 15. The Rapporteur public did encourage the Conseil d’État to refer a question to the Court of Justice on the matter of reimbursement, notably on the applicability of unjust enrichment, however he did not deem it necessary to refer a question concerning the amount to be reimbursed (paras. 10-11).

72 Concl. N. Escaut, supra n. 16.

73 AG Wathelet Opinion, supra n. 28, para. 100.

74 ECtHR 20 September 2011, n° 3989/07 and 38353/07, Ullens de Schooten v Belgium; 6 December 2012, n° 12323/11, Michaud v France; 8 April 2014, n° 17120/09, Dhahbi v Italy.

75 See the constant inclusion of national courts in a multilevel EU judiciary in order to meet the test of effective judicial protection, e.g. in ECJ 3 October 2013, Case C-583/11 P, Inuit e.a. v European Parliament and Council, para. 94 ff, see K. Lenaerts, ‘La systémique des voies de recours dans l’ordre juridique de l’Union européenne’, in Promenades au sein du droit européen. Mélanges en hommage à Georges Vandersanden (Bruylant 2009).

76 Concerning the problematic application of CILFIT by national courts, see A. Arnull, ‘The Use and Abuse of Article 177 EEC’, 52 Modern Law Review (1985) p. 622; Sarmiento, D., ‘Cilfit and Foto-Frost: Constructing and Deconstructing Judicial Authority in Europe’, in Poiares Maduro and Azoulai, supra n. 33, p. 192 at 196-197; and more recently Guiot, F.-V., ‘La responsabilité des juridictions suprêmes dans le renvoi préjudiciel: with great(er) power, (at last) comes great responsibility ?’, CDE (2016) p. 575 .

77 Combrexelle, supra n. 6.

78 ‘Il leur appartenait d’appliquer et d’interpréter tant le droit primaire que le droit dérivé […] ceci dans le respect des grands principes définis par Luxembourg’ (our translation).

79 ‘L’interprétation de l’évidence’ (our translation).

80 Sarmiento, supra n. 76, p. 195.

81 CILFIT, supra n. 4.

82 The Conseil d’État famously only agreed to carry out judicial review of national legislative acts against European law in its judgment of 20 October 1989, Nicolo (Rec. Lebon p. 190). The direct effect of directives was only recognised in CE Ass., 30 October 2009, n° 298348, Mme C.

83 ECJ 19 November 1991, Joined Cases 6 and 9/90, Francovich and Bonifaci e.a. v Italy.

84 The Conseil d’État introduced a principle of liability for violations of international law by legislative acts in 2007 (CE Ass., 8 février 2007, n° 279522, Gardedieu), and for violations of European Union law by judicial decisions in 2008 (CE, 18 juin 2008, n° 295831, M. A.).

85 Gervasoni, supra n. 7.

86 See the examples of the Dutch Hoge Raad (cited in H. van Harten, ‘The Application of Community Precedent and acte clair by the Hoge Raad, A Case Study in the Field of Establishment and Services’, in D. Obvradovic and N. Lavranos (eds.), Interface between EU Law and National Law (Europa Law Publishing 2007) p. 237); the Court of Appeal of England and Wales (cited in the General Report for the 18th Colloquium of the Association of the Councils of State and Supreme Administrative Courts (ACA-Europe) held in Helsinki in 2002, ⟨www.aca-europe.eu/images/media_kit/colloquia/2002/gen_report_en.pdf⟩, visited 29 April 2019); and others cited in Gervasoni, supra n. 7.

87 Simon, D., ‘Une première historique: La France condamnée en manquement pour défaut de renvoi préjudiciel par le Conseil d’État’, Europe (2018) n° 11, repère 10.

88 Contra Combrexelle, supra, n. 6.

89 See, e.g., the criticisms presented by Dutch authors in P. Wattel, ‘Köbler, CILFIT and Welthgrove: We can’t go on Meeting Like This’, 41 CMLR (2004) p. 177 at p. 179-181; J.H. Jans, ‘State Liability and Infringements attributable to National Courts: A Dutch Perspective on the Köbler Case’, in J.W. de ZWAAL (eds.), The European Union, an Ongoing Process of Integration: Liber amicorum Alfred E. Kellermann (T.M.C. Asser Press 2004) p. 165-176.

90 The Conseil d’État introduced the Köbler principle into French law, calling into question fundamental principles of French administrative law related to the specificity of judicial institutions and the limited conditions for State liability, through its ruling of 18 June 2008, Gestas, n° 295831, concl. De Salins, RFDA (2008) p.755, note D. Pouyaud, RFDA (2008) p. 1178.

91 AG Wathelet Opinion, supra n. 28, paras. 92-93.

92 Locatelli, supra n. 11, paras. 4-11.

* Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Nantes.

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