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1st April 2020
Competition & State Aid Covid-19 General Development Institutional law

“A Moment of Truth for the EU: A Proposal for a State Aid Solidarity Fund” by Alfonso Lamadrid de Pablo and José Luis Buendía

The Covid-19 outbreak is putting societies, institutions, companies, families and individuals to the test. Like all major crises, it is exposing our strengths and weaknesses, our contradictions and limitations. A common threat of unprecedented scale has revealed, once again, that our societies are capable of the very best and the very worst. Over the past few days, we have witnessed inspiring examples of empathy and solidarity, but also prejudice, frustration and tension. We have the chance to show we are up to the task. How we collectively choose to react to this crisis will define our future.

Like all major crises, the Covid-19 outbreak is also straining the European Union, bringing once again unresolved tensions between Member States to the surface, and awakening dangerous currents of misunderstanding among citizens. Critics of EU integration have jumped on the occasion, failing to realise that the problem calls for more, not less EU. At the current stage of European integration, absent a fiscal union and with limited EU competences on public health, decisions remain mainly in the hands of national governments controlled by national Parliaments. Disagreements among EU Member States within the European Council are sometimes desirable, and sometimes not so much, but they are perhaps inevitable. It is not only a matter of attitude and prejudice, but also of institutional and political constraints. While we wait for consensus among national governments on a comprehensive political response, other constructive and complementary solutions must be explored.

The European Commission can be the driving force in the pursuit of EU solidarity. Unlike national governments, the Commission is entrusted with safeguarding the general interests of the EU as a whole. President von der Leyen has committed to exploring any options available within the limits of the Treaties. The Commission has both the responsibility and the power to take decisive action, and to shape the reactions of Member States to the crisis in line with the general interest. The Commission cannot require Member States to ignore or work around existing constraints, but it can impose proportionate ones.

Indeed, while the Commission’s powers may be limited in certain areas, they are strong and decisive in others. Notably, the Commission enjoys the exclusive competence to control, under State aid rules, the measures adopted by Member States to support economic operators. Over the past few days, the Commission has made a significant effort to exercise these powers swiftly and responsibly, adopting a Temporary Framework and authorising a considerable number of national measures to support the economy in the context of the pandemic. As we write, the Commission has announced an imminent amendment to the Temporary Framework aimed at enlarging the categories of permitted aid.

The unquestionable necessity of allowing the speedy authorisation of Covid-19-related national measures should, however, not blind us to their inevitable negative side-effects. The ‘full flexibility’ recognised by the Temporary Framework applies in theory to all Member States. In practice, however, it mostly benefits deeper-pocketed Member States with the means and the budget to spend the greatest resources. Note that the Member States that benefit disproportionately from this policy are also the champions of austerity Member States that, rightly or wrongly, oppose other solidarity instruments like corona bonds. Under the current Temporary Framework, all Member States enjoy the same freedom to unleash their economic arsenal, but some may end up using bazookas, while others are stuck using slingshots.

Massive capital injections by only certain Member States might lead to massive distortions of competition. Companies and sectors from wealthy Member States may enjoy much more support to weather the crisis than their competitors established elsewhere in the EU, regardless of where the ongoing crisis happens to hit harder. Under the current circumstances, this could trigger the market exit of companies that would have normally survived, and vice versa. Competitive asymmetries deriving from State aid would moreover be exacerbated should national governments fail to reach an agreement on mutualising budget risks.

This scenario is not inevitable. It is within the power of the European Commission to ensure sure that State aid is awarded in a way that minimises any distortions of competition and, by the same token, fosters EU solidarity. The Commission itself recognises in the Temporary Framework that a coordinated effort will make the measures adopted more effective and may even foster a quicker recovery. The Framework also emphasises that this is not the time for a harmful subsidies race.

Our proposal is that the Commission amend the Temporary Framework in order to make the compatibility of State aid conditional on the provision of compensation for the competitive distortions that they necessarily create. This compensation would take the form of a contribution to the support of companies established in other Member States. The contribution could be equivalent to a percentage (for example, 15%) of the public resources involved in the measures at issue. Each Member State would be able to propose specific ways to channel these contributions in a way that minimizes competitive distortions. The Commission would assess their sufficiency prior to authorising the aid, and it would also ensure that most of the compensation is received by those who need it the most.

In order to speed up the approval process, the Commission could also predetermine ex ante that contributions to a ‘European Solidarity Fund’ would be presumed an acceptable compensation in this regard. The Fund could be initially established by some Member States as a vehicle allowing financial solidarity among them, but would be open all  Member States. The Fund itself should also be notified under State aid rules and could obtain Commission approval as an ‘Important Project of Common European Interest’ (IPCEI).

We see no EU law impediment to implementing this proposal. Making the compatibility of State aid measures subject to compensatory conditions would not in itself entail any deviation from the Commission’s standard assessment. The rules adopted by the Commission to manage the support to financial institutions in the context of the past crisis were accompanied by strict conditions aimed at minimising distortions of trade and competition. To be sure, while requiring direct compensation from the State which granted the aid would constitute a novelty, this innovation would be justified. Indeed, the current circumstances do not permit the use of traditional safeguards, based on limiting the amounts of aid granted.

Several national measures have already been authorised, but it is not too late to take action. Public support measures are here to stay and are likely to materialise in unprecedented volumes of aid. Failure to prevent further asymmetries would only make matters worse. Under this proposal, Member States would retain the ability to support their national economies, subject only to the condition that they contribute, proportionately to their means and to their measures, to minimising distortions to the internal market. This way, State aid policy could better contribute to the solution, rather than the problem.

Important details should be ironed out following an urgent consultation with Member States. Some version of this formula would not only be sensible and feasible, but also indispensable. It would mitigate serious distortions and contribute to levelling the playing field. In the absence of a political agreement between Member States, it would create a proportionate legal obligation to prevent harm to companies established in other EU countries, easing ‘rich’ Member States’ task of justifying their solidarity efforts to their citizens and parliaments. It would show precisely what the European Union is for and would restore citizens’ trust in the ideals of European integration. Let us not forget that, as empathically stated in Article 3 of the TEU, one of the main tasks of the EU is to promote ‘economic, social and territorial cohesion, and solidarity among Member States’.

This proposal is not a silver-bullet, but it is an important step towards solidarity based on legal mechanisms. As proclaimed in the Schuman declaration, the EU “will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.” The European Commission has now the opportunity, the unique ability, and the historical responsibility to fulfill its mission.

 

Alfonso Lamadrid and José Luis Buendía are competition lawyers established in Brussels.

This article is published by kind permission of the authors and the Chillin’ Competition Blog, where the text was originally published and available here.

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