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Document 62012CJ0133

Judgment of the Court (First Chamber) of 27 February 2014.
Stichting Woonlinie and Others v European Commission.
Appeal - State aid - Scheme for aid granted in favour of housing corporations - Compatibility decision - Commitments provided by the national authorities in order to comply with European Union law - Fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU - Action for annulment - Conditions governing admissibility - Interest in bringing proceedings - Locus standi - Beneficiaries who are individually and directly concerned - Notion of a ‘closed circle’.
Case C-133/12 P.

Digital reports (Court Reports - general)

ECLI identifier: ECLI:EU:C:2014:105

JUDGMENT OF THE COURT (First Chamber)

27 February 2014 ( *1 )

‛Appeal — State aid — Scheme for aid granted in favour of housing corporations — Compatibility decision — Commitments provided by the national authorities in order to comply with European Union law — Fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU — Action for annulment — Conditions governing admissibility — Interest in bringing proceedings — Locus standi — Beneficiaries who are individually and directly concerned — Notion of a ‘closed circle’’

In Case C‑133/12 P,

APPEAL under Article 56 of the Statute of the Court of Justice of the European Union, brought on 29 February 2012,

Stichting Woonlinie, established in Woudrichem (Netherlands),

Stichting Allee Wonen, established in Roosendaal (Netherlands),

Woningstichting Volksbelang, established in Wijk bij Duurstede (Netherlands),

Stichting WoonInvest, established in Leidschendam-Voorburg (Netherlands),

Stichting Woonstede, established in Ede (Netherlands),

represented by P. Glazener and E. Henny, advocaten,

appellants,

the other party to the proceedings being:

European Commission, represented by H. van Vliet, S. Noë and S. Thomas, acting as Agents, with an address for service in Luxembourg,

defendant at first instance,

THE COURT (First Chamber),

composed of A. Tizzano, President of the Chamber, A. Borg Barthet and E. Levits (Rapporteur), Judges,

Advocate General: M. Wathelet,

Registrar: M. Ferreira, Administrator,

having regard to the written procedure and further to the hearing on 17 April 2013,

after hearing the Opinion of the Advocate General at the sitting on 29 May 2013,

gives the following

Judgment

1

By their appeal, Stichting Woonlinie, Stichting Allee Wonen, Woningstichting Volksbelang, Stichting WoonInvest and Stichting Woonstede request the Court to set aside the order of the General Court of the European Union of 16 December 2011 in Case T‑202/10 Stichting Woonlinie and Others v Commission (‘the order under appeal’), by which the General Court dismissed their action for partial annulment of Commission Decision C(2009) 9963 final of 15 December 2009 relating to State aid No E 2/2005 and N 642/2009 – The Netherlands – Existing and special project aid to housing corporations (‘the contested decision’).

Background to the dispute and the contested decision

2

The facts of the dispute were set out as follows by the General Court in paragraphs 1 to 11 of the order under appeal:

‘1.

The applicants … are housing corporations (woningcorporaties; hereinafter referred to as “wocos”) established in The Netherlands. Wocos are not-for-profit bodies whose mission is to acquire, build and rent out dwellings aimed mainly at underprivileged individuals and socially disadvantaged groups. Wocos also engage in other activities, such as the construction and lease of apartments at higher rents, the construction of apartments for sale and the construction and lease of public purpose buildings.

2.

In 2002, the Netherlands authorities notified the Commission of the general scheme of State aid provided in favour of wocos. Since the Commission found that the funding measures for wocos could be classified as existing aid, the Netherlands authorities subsequently withdrew their notification.

3.

On 14 July 2005, the Commission sent a letter to the Netherlands authorities under Article 17 of Council Regulation (EC) No 659/1999 of 22 March 1999 laying down detailed rules for the application of Article [107 TFEU] (OJ 1999 L 83, p. 1), classifying the general scheme of State aid provided in favour of wocos as existing aid (aid measure E 2/2005) and expressing doubts as to the compatibility of that aid with the common market. First, the Commission pointed out that the Netherlands authorities had to amend the public service mission entrusted to wocos, in such a way that social housing would be earmarked for a clearly defined target group of underprivileged individuals or socially disadvantaged groups. It stated that all commercial activities of wocos had to be carried out in accordance with market conditions and should not benefit from State aid. Finally, it stated that the offer of social housing had to be adapted to the requirements of underprivileged individuals or socially disadvantaged groups.

4.

After that letter had been sent, the Commission and the Netherlands authorities commenced negotiations in order to bring the aid scheme into line with Article 106(2) TFEU.

5.

On 16 April 2007, the Association of institutional property investors of the Netherlands (Vereniging van Institutionele Beleggers in Vastgoed, Nederland …) lodged a complaint with the Commission concerning the aid granted to wocos. In June 2009, Vesteda Groep BV became a party to that complaint.

6.

By letter of 3 December 2009, the Netherlands authorities proposed commitments to the Commission with a view to amending the general scheme of State aid in favour of wocos.

7.

On 15 December 2009, the Commission adopted the [contested] decision. The Commission took note in particular of the Netherlands authorities’ commitments concerning aid measure E 2/2005, in accordance with Article 19 of Regulation No 659/1999.

8.

The following measures are included in the general scheme for State aid paid by the [Kingdom of the] Netherlands to wocos and referred to in the E 2/2005 procedure:

(a)

State guarantees for loans granted by the Guarantee Fund for the construction of social housing;

(b)

State aid from the Central Housing Fund, project-based aid or aid for rationalisation in the form of loans at preferential rates or direct subsidies;

(c)

the sale by municipal authorities of land at prices below market value;

(d)

the right to obtain loans from the Bank Nederlandse Gemeenten.

9.

In the [contested] decision, the Commission classified each of those measures as State aid and took the view that the Netherlands scheme for financing social housing constituted existing aid, as that scheme had been created before the EC Treaty entered into force in the Netherlands and the subsequent reforms did not bring about any fundamental change.

10.

In recital 41 to the [contested] decision, the Commission stated:

“The Netherlands authorities have made commitments to amend the functioning of wocos and the measures favouring them. For several of the planned changes the Netherlands authorities have submitted draft rules to the Commission. The new rules will be implemented by way of a new ministerial decree from 1 January 2010 and a new housing Law from 1 January 2011. …”

11.

The Commission examined the compatibility of aid measure E 2/2005 relating to the scheme for financing wocos, as amended following the series of commitments provided by the Netherlands authorities. It concluded, in recital 72 to the [contested] decision, that “the aid for the provision of social housing, i.e. the activity of construction and renting out dwellings to individuals, including the building and maintenance of ancillary infrastructure, … is compatible with Article 106(2) TFEU”. As a result, the Commission accepted the commitments provided by the Netherlands authorities.’

Procedure before the General Court and the order under appeal

3

By application lodged at the Registry of the General Court on 29 April 2010, the appellants brought an action under Article 263 TFEU for annulment of the contested decision, in so far as it relates to aid measure E 2/2005.

4

In support of their action, the appellants relied on a variety of pleas in law.

5

Although not formally raising an objection to that effect, the Commission nevertheless contested, as a preliminary point, the admissibility of that application by contending that the appellants were not individually concerned, within the meaning of the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU, by the contested decision in so far as it relates to aid measure E 2/2005.

6

In that context, the General Court accordingly decided that it was first necessary to rule on that question.

7

Having established that the appellants were not the addressees of the contested decision in so far as it relates to aid measure E 2/2005, and having noted, in paragraph 27 of the order under appeal, that, in those circumstances, an undertaking could not be entitled to contest a Commission decision prohibiting a sectoral State aid scheme if that undertaking was concerned by such a decision only as a result of the fact that it belonged to the sector in question and that it was a potential beneficiary of that scheme, the General Court held, in paragraph 28 of that order, that the same was true with regard to the action seeking the annulment of a decision by which the Commission, taking note of the commitments provided by the national authorities, had declared the amendments made to the aid scheme at issue to be compatible with the internal market.

8

In the present case, the General Court held, in paragraphs 29 and 30 of the order under appeal, that status as a woco was granted on the basis of objective criteria which were capable of being satisfied by an indeterminate number of operators as potential beneficiaries under aid measure E 2/2005 referred to in the contested decision.

9

From this the General Court concluded that their status as wocos did not by itself allow the appellants to take the view that they were individually affected by the contested decision in so far as it related to aid measure E 2/2005.

10

Subsequently, in paragraphs 36 to 48 of the order under appeal, the General Court concerned itself with disproving the appellants’ arguments.

11

First of all, it stated that the cases which gave rise to the judgments of the Court relied on by the appellants in support of their position, namely Case 11/82 Piraiki-Patraiki and Others v Commission [1985] ECR 207 and Joined Cases C-182/03 and C-217/03 Belgium and Forum 187 v Commission [2006] ECR I-5479, differed from the case before the General Court in so far as, within the context of those two judgments of the Court, the applicants belonged to a group the size of which was not capable of increasing after the decisions at issue had been adopted.

12

The General Court then went on to hold that the appellants could not claim that the likelihood of a new approval of a body as a woco was minimal or that wocos previously approved would have been identifiable at the time at which the contested decision was adopted. It noted, in this regard, that the possibility of determining the number or even the identity of the individuals to whom a measure applies does not imply that those individuals must be regarded as being individually concerned by that measure.

13

In response to the appellants’ argument that existing wocos are not affected in the same way by the contested decision as wocos which will be approved in future, the General Court first pointed out that the aid scheme referred to in that decision had been declared compatible, for the future, with the internal market. Next, it noted that the fact that an operator was economically more affected by a measure than its competitors does not enable that operator to be individually distinguished. Finally, the General Court held that the appellants belonged to a category of economic operators defined on the basis of objective criteria which did not distinguish them.

14

The General Court concluded, in paragraph 50 of the order under appeal, that the appellants were not individually concerned by the contested decision in so far as it related to aid measure E 2/2005.

15

Consequently, the General Court dismissed the action as inadmissible.

Forms of order sought

16

By their appeal, the appellants claim that the Court should:

set aside the order under appeal;

refer the case back to the General Court; and

order the Commission to pay the costs.

17

The Commission contends that the Court should dismiss the appeal and order the appellants to pay the costs.

The appeal

18

In support of their appeal, the appellants put forward two grounds. The first alleges an error of law, an inaccurate appraisal of the relevant facts and a failure to provide reasons, inasmuch as the General Court made the admissibility of the action against the contested decision dependent, in so far as it relates to aid measure E 2/2005, on the issue of the appellants’ status as actual or potential beneficiaries. The second ground alleges an error of law, an inaccurate appraisal of the relevant facts and a failure to provide reasons, to the extent to which the General Court held, with regard to the contested decision, in so far as it relates to aid measure E 2/2005, that the appellants did not belong to a ‘closed circle’ of existing wocos.

19

Inasmuch as the two grounds in support of the appeal challenge the General Court’s assessment as to the appellants’ locus standi, it is appropriate to examine them together

Arguments of the parties

20

In the first place, the appellants claim that, since they were beneficiaries of aid measure E 2/2005 before it was amended by the contested decision, the General Court erred in relying, in paragraphs 42 and 43 of the order under appeal, on their status as potential beneficiaries of the amended aid scheme in order to refuse them the status of parties individually concerned by that decision. Their previous situation is, they submit, significantly affected by the new conditions for the grant of the aid as they result from the amendments made by the contested decision.

21

First, the existing loans granted on the basis of the previous scheme and falling due after the adoption of the contested decision could, where they must be refinanced, be guaranteed only if the woco satisfies the conditions newly defined in the context of aid measure E 2/2005.

22

Secondly, if loans related to previously eligible investments which, after the adoption of the contested decision, are no longer eligible for financing guaranteed by the fund, those investments would, after those loans become repayable, have to be financed by external funds without guarantee.

23

It follows, in the appellants’ view, that their factual situation differs from that of wocos which were not approved prior to the adoption of the contested decision.

24

In the second place, the appellants claim, the General Court relied on a definition of the notion of a ‘closed circle’ which is too strict.

25

Thus, they submit, the General Court, in paragraph 44 of the order under appeal, wrongfully rejected, on the ground that it was conjecture, the argument that no new body would in the future be approved as a woco in the Netherlands.

26

The General Court, in the appellants’ view, also erred in law by requiring, in paragraph 49 of the order under appeal, that the appellants be distinguished from other wocos which existed before the adoption of the contested decision.

27

The Commission contends that the commitments provided by the Netherlands authorities relate only to the period following the adoption of the contested decision. For that reason, it argues, the appellants’ initial situation is not affected by that decision. Furthermore, the Commission did not seek repayment of the amounts paid under the initial aid scheme.

28

The Commission points out that the Netherlands legislation provides for the approval of new bodies on the basis of objective criteria. Consequently, the appellants necessarily belong to a circle of economic operators which is liable to be enlarged.

Findings of the Court

29

As a preliminary point, it is necessary to point out that the contested decision was adopted on 15 December 2009, that is to say, after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty amending the EC Treaty.

30

As well as other amendments, the Treaty of Lisbon, under the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU, relaxed the conditions governing the admissibility of actions for annulment brought by natural and legal persons against acts of the European Union by adding a third limb to that provision. Since the effect of that limb is that the admissibility of actions for annulment brought by natural and legal persons is not subject to the condition of individual concern, it also makes possible legal actions against regulatory acts which do not entail implementing measures and are of direct concern to an applicant (see, to that effect, Case C‑583/11 P Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Others v Parliament and Council [2013] ECR, paragraph 57).

31

The fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU provides, therefore, for two situations in which natural or legal persons are accorded standing to institute proceedings against an act which is not addressed to them. First, such proceedings may be instituted if the act is of direct and individual concern to them. Second, such persons may bring proceedings against a regulatory act not entailing implementing measures if that act is of direct concern to them (Case C‑274/12 P Telefónica v Commission [2013] ECR, paragraph 19).

32

In this context, it should be recalled that the criterion which makes the admissibility of an action brought by a natural or legal person against a decision addressed to another person subject to the conditions governing admissibility laid down in the fourth subparagraph of Article 263 TFEU raises an absolute bar to proceeding which the European Union Courts may consider at any time, even of their own motion (see, to that effect, Case C-362/06 P Sahlstedt and Others v Commission [2009] ECR I-2903, paragraph 22).

33

In the order under appeal, the General Court, with a view to declaring inadmissible the action brought by the appellants, limited itself to an examination of the condition that they must be individually concerned, within the meaning of the second limb of the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU, thereby failing to carry out an examination as to the admissibility of that action in the light of the other, less stringent, conditions set out in the third limb of the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU, and the examination of which was in no way prejudiced by the finding that the appellants were not individually concerned.

34

By acting in this way, the General Court erred in law.

35

However, such an error is irrelevant if it transpires that the appellants’ action did not satisfy the conditions governing admissibility set out in the third limb of the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU.

36

In accordance with the provision just mentioned, actions for annulment may in particular be brought against regulatory acts which do not entail implementing measures and are of direct concern to an applicant.

37

In this regard, the Court has already held that the question whether a regulatory act entails implementing measures should be assessed by reference to the position of the person pleading the right to bring proceedings under the third limb of the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU (Telefónica v Commission, paragraph 30).

38

Furthermore, in order to determine whether the measure being challenged entails implementing measures, reference should be made exclusively to the subject-matter of the action (Telefónica v Commission, paragraph 31).

39

In the present case, first, the appellants seek, by their action, the annulment of the contested decision by which the Commission confirms that aid measure E 2/2005 is compatible with the common market, following the commitments provided by the Netherlands authorities amending the aid scheme from which the appellants benefitted. It is apparent from recital 41 to the contested decision that those commitments will be implemented by a ministerial decree and by a new housing law.

40

Secondly, the contested decision does not define the specific and actual consequences, for the appellants’ activities, of the application of commitments by the Netherlands authorities in the context of aid measure E 2/2005. Those consequences will materialise by way of measures adopted to implement the ministerial decree and the new housing law, which, as such, are themselves implementing measures entailed by the contested decision within the meaning of the third limb of the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU.

41

Accordingly, independently of the question whether the contested decision is a ‘regulatory act’ within the meaning of the aforementioned provision, since the appellants’ action does not satisfy the conditions governing admissibility set out in the third limb of the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU, the error of law which the General Court made in the order under appeal in failing to examine the admissibility of that action also in the light of those other conditions is of no consequence.

42

That said, it is necessary to examine the appellants’ grounds in support of their appeal.

43

In this regard, it is common ground that the contested decision is addressed solely to the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

44

As the General Court pointed out in paragraph 26 of the order under appeal, third parties may be individually concerned by a decision addressed to another person only if that decision affects them by reason of certain attributes which are peculiar to them or by reason of circumstances in which they are differentiated from all other persons and by virtue of these factors distinguishes them individually just as in the case of the person addressed (Case 25/62 Plaumann v Commission [1963] ECR 95, 107; Case C-298/00 P Italy v Commission [2004] ECR I-4087, paragraph 36; Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Others v Parliament and Council, paragraph 72; and Telefónica v Commission, paragraph 46).

45

In this regard, it is true, as the General Court pointed out in paragraph 29 of the order under appeal, that the mere possibility of determining more or less precisely the number, or even the identity, of the persons to whom a measure applies by no means implies that it must be regarded as being of individual concern to those persons as long as that measure is applied in accordance with an objective legal or factual situation defined by the act in question (see Telefónica v Commission, paragraph 47).

46

It is, however, clear from settled case-law that where the decision affects a group of persons who were identified or identifiable when that measure was adopted by reason of criteria specific to the members of the group, those persons may be individually concerned by that measure inasmuch as they form part of a limited class of traders and that that can be the case particularly when the decision alters rights acquired by the individual prior to its adoption (see, to that effect, Case C-125/06 P Commission v Infront WM [2008] ECR I-1451, paragraphs 71 and 72 and the case-law cited).

47

In the present case, it should be noted, as the General Court found in paragraph 47 of the order under appeal, that, since the status of wocos is granted through a system of approval by royal decree, their number and identity were precisely determined at the time when the contested decision was adopted.

48

Furthermore, it is not disputed that the contested decision had the effect of amending, as from 1 January 2011, the date on which the new housing law entered into force, the aid scheme from which, until that date, the approved wocos had benefitted, by making the conditions for the exercise of their activities less favourable than had previously been the case, in particular in light of the fact that, as the appellants stated at the hearing, under the amended scheme the latitude relating to the choice of tenants eligible for housing managed by wocos is reduced and the guarantee fund for loans which benefitted them ceases to exist.

49

In those circumstances, it must be held that the appellants belong to a closed circle of operators, a fact which distinguishes them individually in relation to that decision, in so far as it concerns aid measure E 2/2005.

50

The General Court consequently erred in law by holding that the appellants were not individually concerned by the contested decision in so far as it relates to aid measure E 2/2005.

51

It follows that the order under appeal must be set aside to the extent to which it was held therein that the appellants are not individually concerned by the contested decision relating to aid measure E 2/2005.

Admissibility of the action at first instance

52

In accordance with the second sentence of the first paragraph of Article 61 of the Statute of the Court of Justice of the European Union, the Court of Justice may, if the decision of the General Court is set aside, give final judgment in the matter where the state of the proceedings so permits.

53

While the Court is not in a position, at the present stage of the proceedings, to give judgment on the substance of the action before the General Court, it does, by contrast, have the information necessary to enable it to give final judgment on the admissibility of that action against the contested decision, in so far as the latter relates to aid measure E 2/2005.

54

In this regard, it should be noted, first, that an action for annulment brought by a natural or legal person is admissible only in so far as that person has an interest in having the contested act annulled. Such an interest requires that the annulment of that act must be capable, in itself, of having legal consequences and that the action may therefore, through its outcome, procure an advantage to the party which brought it (see, to that effect, Case C-519/07 P Commission v Koninklijke FrieslandCampina [2009] ECR I-8495, paragraph 63).

55

Secondly, the appellants must, under the second limb of the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU, be concerned not only individually but also directly by the act which they are seeking to have annulled, in the sense that that act must directly affect the legal situation of those parties and leave no discretion to the authorities responsible for implementing that act, such implementation being purely automatic and resulting from European Union law alone, without the application of any other intermediate rules (see, to that effect, Commission v Koninklijke FrieslandCampina, paragraphs 48 and 49).

56

In the present case, first, to the extent to which it follows from paragraph 54 of the present judgment that the amendments to aid measure E 2/2005 make the conditions for the exercise of the activities of wocos less favourable than had previously been the case, the annulment of the contested decision, in so far as it concerns that aid scheme, would have the effect of maintaining the previous conditions which were more favourable to approved wocos.

57

Consequently, it must be held that the appellants have a legitimate interest in having the contested decision annulled in so far as it concerns aid measure E 2/2005.

58

Secondly, it should be pointed out that the contested decision was adopted by the Commission, as is apparent from recital 74 to that decision, in accordance with Article 19(1) of Regulation No 659/1999.

59

As was noted by the Advocate General in points 43 to 45 of his Opinion, in the context of the procedure under Article 19(1) of Regulation No 659/1999, it is the Commission’s decision recording the proposals of the Member State which renders those proposals binding.

60

In that regard, the fact that the amendments recorded by the contested decision were adopted by the Netherlands legislation cannot call that finding into question. As was also observed by the Advocate General in points 94 and 98 of his Opinion, the Kingdom of the Netherlands does not have any discretion when implementing the contested decision.

61

Consequently, it must be held that the contested decision, in so far as it concerns aid measure E 2/2005, directly affects the appellants’ legal position.

62

It follows from all of those considerations that the action for annulment brought by the appellants before the General Court must be declared admissible, to the extent to which, first, they have an interest in bringing proceedings against the contested decision in so far as it relates to aid measure E 2/2005, and, secondly, they are individually and directly concerned by the contested decision in so far as it relates to aid measure E 2/2005.

Costs

63

As the case is to be referred back to the General Court, the costs relating to the present appeal proceedings must be reserved.

 

On those grounds, the Court (First Chamber) hereby:

 

1.

Sets aside the order of the General Court of the European Union of 16 December 2011 in Case T‑202/10 Stichting Woonlinie and Others v Commission in so far as it declares inadmissible the action brought by Stichting Woonlinie, Stichting Allee Wonen, Woningstichting Volksbelang, Stichting WoonInvest and Stichting Woonstede for annulment of Commission Decision C(2009) 9963 final of 15 December 2009 relating to State aid No E 2/2005 and N 642/2009 – The Netherlands – Existing and special project aid to housing corporations, in so far as that decision concerns aid measure E 2/2005;

 

2.

Declares the action for annulment referred to in paragraph 1 of the present operative part to be admissible;

 

3.

Refers the case back to the General Court of the European Union for a decision on the merits concerning the action for annulment referred to in paragraph 1 of the present operative part;

 

4.

Reserves the costs.

 

[Signatures]


( *1 )   Language of the case: Dutch.

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