Alexandros Bakos, LL.M. Candidate, Utrecht University
In a somewhat fortunate turn of events for the stability (or what is left of it in any case) of the intra-European Union (intra-EU) investment treaty system, the General Court of the European Union (GCEU) has annulled the EU Commission’s decision rendered against Romania for illegal state aid concerning the enforcement of the Micula arbitral award. Although the GCEU’s decision may be good news for the investors themselves, it does nothing to allay fears regarding the future of intra-EU ISDS. In the grand scheme of things, the effects which culminated with the Achmea judgement are still there.
This latest installment in the long-running saga of intra-EU investment treaties and their conflict with the EU legal order does not substantially change the paradigm. In fact, one may argue that it complicates the matters: the only certain conclusion that can be derived from the General Court’s decision is the fact that there can be no conflict between EU State Aid rules and intra-EU Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs)/awards based on such treaties if the compensation ordered by the tribunal relates to measures which were taken prior to the entry into force of EU law. However, the Court did not analyze what is the situation of compensation which needs to be paid for measures adopted after the entry into force of EU law.
In any case, before continuing with the decision’s analysis, a short recap of the major developments in this situation is in order.
How did we get here?
Prior to joining the EU, the Romanian state offered the Micula brothers and the companies controlled by them (the investors) certain custom duty exemptions and other tax breaks (the GCEU’s decision, paras. 5-6). Later, in 2004 and 2005, those exemptions and breaks were suddenly repealed, in an effort to ensure compliance with the EU laws on State Aid – which would become effective from 1 January 2007 (the GCEU’s decision, para 12). Because of this, the investors began ICSID arbitration proceedings, challenging the compliance of the measure with the applicable BIT (the 2002 Sweden-Romania BIT). The arbitral tribunal found in the investors’ favour and ordered Romania to pay compensation amounting to approximately €178 million. The court’s finding was based on a violation of the fair and equitable treatment standard. More specifically, on behaviour contrary to the legitimate expectations of the investors. This is of utmost importance, as what was considered to be in breach of the treaty was not the repealing of the exemptions itself, but the manner in which this occurred. The arbitral tribunal expressly found that ‘by repealing the […] incentives prior to 1 April 2009, Romania did not act unreasonably or in bad faith […] [H]owever […] Romania violated the Claimants’ legitimate expectations that those incentives would be available, in substantially the same form, until 1 April 2009. Romania also failed to act transparently by failing to inform the Claimants in a timely manner that the regime would be terminated prior to its stated date of expiration. As a result, the Tribunal finds that Romania failed to “ensure fair and equitable treatment of the investments” of the Claimants in the meaning of Article 2(3) of the BIT’ (para. 872 of the award).
Subsequently, the investors sought the enforcement of the award. However, this proved difficult because the EU Commission intervened and tried to prevent Romania from enforcing the award. The former argued that an enforcement would constitute a form of illegal state aid. After Romania, nonetheless, partially paid the award, the EU Commission officially adopted a decision against the Romanian state for breach of State Aid rules. The Commission’s argument was that this payment would, in essence, favour the investors in the same way in which the exemptions favoured them in the first place. Romania, thus, was under an obligation to stop paying the award and to recover the amount which had been paid so far. This was eventually challenged by the investors before the GCEU and the judgement analyzed here is the European Court’s decision regarding that challenge.
This turn of events determined other courts where enforcement of the award was sought to stay the proceedings until the European Court will have rendered an award concerning the challenge to the EU Commission’s decision on illegal state aid (see here for an example).
What does the GCEU’s decision entail and what does it not entail?
The GCEU found that the compensation rendered by the Micula arbitral award could not be considered illegal state aid, at least as it regards events which took place before Romania’s accession to the EU (para. 109 of the GCEU’s decision).
The essence of the GCEU’s arguments is based on a clear establishment of the temporal nexus to which the arbitral award referred (paras. 71-93 of the GCEU’s decision). To this end, the Court clarified that all the relevant issues (including the events which gave rise to the right to compensation) arose and produced effects before Romania’s accession to the EU (para. 71). In that respect, even if the arbitral tribunal’s award was rendered after EU law became applicable to Romania, it merely ‘retroactively produced definitively acquired effects which it merely ‘stated’ for the past, that is to say, effects which, in part, were already established before accession’ (para. 84 of the GCEU’s decision). Accordingly, even if the award was rendered after Romania’s accession to the EU, ‘the Commission retroactively applied the powers which it held under Article 108 TFEU and Regulation No 659/1999 to events predating Romania’s accession to the European Union. Therefore, the Commission could not classify the measure at issue as State aid within the meaning of Article 107(1) TFEU’ (para. 92 of the GCEU’s decision).
What is interesting, though, is that the GCEU referred only to a part of the compensation as not being under the Commission’s power of review. It did not exclude the entirety of the award from the Commission’s reach: ‘as regards the amounts granted as compensation for the period subsequent to Romania’s accession to the European Union, namely, the period from 1 January 2007 to 1 April 2009, even assuming that the payment of compensation relating to that period could be classified as incompatible aid, given that the Commission did not draw a distinction between the periods of compensation for the damage suffered by the applicants before or after accession, the Commission has, in any event, exceeded its powers in the area of State aid review’ (para. 91 of the GCEU’s decision). In other words, had the Commission distinguished between the pre-accession and the post-accession periods, the decision may not have been annulled after all (or may have been only partially annulled).
Clearly, the GCEU left open the possibility of finding an incompatibility between State Aid rules and the observance of an arbitral award rendered for acts which occurred after EU law became applicable. And this is what the decision does not entail: it does not clarify whether compensation payable on the basis of an arbitral award is contrary to EU State Aid rules.
It is true that the Court began an analysis of whether compensation offered on the basis of an arbitral award can be considered State Aid, but it stopped short of drawing any relevant conclusions. It limited itself to referring to the general conditions necessary for State Aid to arise (paras. 100-103 of the GCEU’s decision) and concluded that it cannot be considered that the compensation amounted to a form of illegal State Aid, at least not until the accession period. However, after the accession period, the analysis would advance to the issue of whether the objective elements of illegal State Aid were present: this, however, was not undertaken by the Court. It never determined whether the measure was imputable to Romania. And one can clearly see why the Court avoided this. It would be very hard to argue that the compensation ordered by the arbitral award can amount to illegal state aid.
Firstly, how can one impute an investment tribunal’s award to Romania? This would mean that Romania had control over the arbitrators, which is clearly not the case. Quite the opposite, as otherwise arbitration would not have been used so often in the settlement of investor-state disputes. Neutrality is one of the reasons ISDS exists. Additionally, for state aid to exist, one needs to demonstrate effective control of the state over the body which adopts the decision alleged to constitute such state aid (para. 52 of the Stardust case – France v. Commission, Case C-482/99). As shown earlier, this is clearly not the case with an investment arbitral tribunal.
Moreover, the GCEU mentioned that ‘compensation for damage suffered cannot be regarded as aid unless it has the effect of compensating for the withdrawal of unlawful or incompatible aid’ (para. 103 of the GCEU’s decision). This must be read together with the Court’s earlier judgment in the Asteris case. The basis of this case-law is that ‘State Aid […] is fundamentally different in its legal nature from damages which the competent national authorities may be ordered to pay individuals in compensation for the damage which they have caused to those individuals’ (para. 23 of the Asteris judgment). In this context, one must tread carefully before concluding that the subsequent compensation is, in fact, a hidden form of State Aid. Given the evident difference between the two, it is of utmost importance to demonstrate in-depth that in a specific case this difference is diluted.
One underlying premise for this difference to be able to disappear is for the EU Member State to actually be the one which formally re-institutes the illegal aid through the formal measure of compensation. The two measures – the initial state aid and, subsequently, the compensation for the withdrawal of the unlawful measure – must be seen as a whole, as having one purpose and as being able to be imputed to one entity – in this case, the Romanian state. In the Micula case, though, this was not present. The initial measure was indeed adopted by the Romanian state. The compensation, though, was decided by an objective and neutral tribunal. They are related, but they do not constitute one whole. Not to mention the fact that it can be very hard to argue that compensation on the basis of an award could offer unjustified economic advantages.
Secondly, one other condition for the compensation to be considered as re-instituting the illegal State Aid is for the compensation to be structured so as to replace the illegal measure itself. Nonetheless, this was not the case with the Micula award. One aspect must be taken into consideration in order to understand the difference between the customs and tax incentives themselves (the illegal State Aid) and the arbitral award. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, it was not the withdrawal of the incentive schemes that was considered to be the basis of compensation. What led to the present outcome was the manner in which the withdrawal took place, essentially leading to an infringement of legitimate expectations. Those are different and it is clear that, in any case, this would not be a case of re-instituting said state aid through the backdoor.
As such, the GCEU’s award is clearly not a silver lining for intra-EU ISDS, as it does not clarify – in the end – the most important aspect: can compensation rendered by an arbitral award be considered illegal state aid? In this context, when one thinks about the general scheme of things, it becomes evident that nothing has really changed: Achmea is alive (the effects have come sooner rather than later). Additionally, nobody knows its scope, especially when it comes to the Energy Charter Treaty’s (ECT) arbitration mechanism. Although arbitral practice seems to insist that Achmea does not preclude intra-EU ISDS on the basis of the ECT, what is eagerly waited is the CJEU’s position on this. After this, the CETA opinion – although reconciling ISDS with EU law when there is a third party (a party outside the EU) involved – does not mean the endorsement of intra-EU ISDS; it can clearly be seen that the EU’s position within UNCITRAL’s Working Group III is still the one we have been used to for so long: ISDS must be replaced with a standing court.
 LL. M. candidate in Law and Economics at Utrecht University.