Analysis: “Wine imports to the EU – conformity certificates from third-state authorities cannot be trusted to prove compliance with the EU’s oenological practices: case Vinařství U Kapličky (C-86/20),” by Johanna Jacobsson
On 28 April 2022, the Court of Justice gave its judgment in Vinařství U Kapličky (C-86/20), a preliminary ruling requested by the Brno Regional Court in the Czech Republic. The referring court’s questions arise from an action brought by a Czech company against Czech authorities for having imposed on it a fine of approximately 80,000 euros for non-compliance with the EU’s oenological practices. The company had placed on the market in the Czech Republic Moldovan wine that did not comply with the EU’s rules on wine-making practices as laid out in the Regulation on the Markets in Agricultural Products (Regulation 1308/2013). The company argued that it should have been exempted from its liability for the offence at issue because the Moldovan authorities had certified with an EU-mandated certificate (Regulation 555/2008) that the consignments of wine concerned complied with those practices.
Two questions were submitted to the Court of Justice. First, whether the certificate issued by the Moldovan authorities was relevant for the purposes of assessing whether the wine consignments complied with the EU’s oenological practices. Moreover, the national court wished to ascertain whether national legislation imposing on the Czech authorities the burden of proof to show that the wine merchant was at fault was consistent with another piece of EU’s agricultural legislation, the Regulation on the Financing, Management and Monitoring of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) (Regulation 1306/2013). Interestingly, the questions to the Court of Justice stem from a situation in which the Czech Constitutional Court had a few months earlier decided that the company’s rights of due process had been violated when the Czech Supreme Administrative Court had put aside the company’s argument about the binding nature of the certificate without first making a preliminary reference request on that question to the Court of Justice.
In its answers to the Brno Regional Court, to which the case was sent back, the Court of Justice found that the certificate drawn up by the Moldovan authorities was indeed designed to be given to the authorities of the importing EU Member State upon completion of the custom formalities. However, the Court of Justice differentiated importation of the wine from the marketing of it in the EU. According to the Court, the Regulation on the Markets in Agricultural Productsrequires that the EU’s oenological practices have to be observed in both contexts. The certificate was of relevance during importation. However, even if it was of certain significance after that as well, the certificate did not by itself constitute evidence that the oenological practices had been complied with also for the purposes of marketing the product in the EU. That was, first, because EU legislation did not confer such an effect on that certificate. Moreover, the non-compliance with the EU rules on wine could result from circumstances taking place after the issuance of the certificate. Such circumstances might occur for instance during the consignment’s transportation.
Any third-country wine sellers in the EU should therefore not trust that they have complied with the applicable EU rules for the marketing of the product in any EU country solely because they hold a compliance certificate issued by the exporting country.
The second issue about the burden of proof was also favourable to the Czech authorities. The Court of Justice referred to the procedural autonomy of the Member States. It recalled that subject to the principles of equivalence and effectiveness it is for the national legal order of each Member State to establish the ways in which evidence is treated in national courts (W and Others, C-621/15, paragraphs 24 and 25). However, any rules regarding evidence included in EU legislation should be respected (W and Others, paragraph 27). It follows from Article 64(2)(d) of the Regulation on the Financing, Management and Monitoring of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that a person accused of marketing non-compliant wines has to show that he or she was not at fault for the non-compliance. The onus to prove compliance with the rules was therefore on the company and the Czech legislation imposing that burden of proof on the national authorities was, as a result, inconsistent with that Regulation.
Johanna Jacobsson is Assistant Professor at IE University in Madrid, Spain. Her recent publications include Preferential Services Liberalization: The Case of the European Union and Federal States (Cambridge University Press 2019).