Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

I’m A Loser Baby, So Let’s Kill Transparency – Recent Changes to the Olympic Games Host City Selection Process - By Ryan Gauthier (Thompson Rivers University)

Editor's Note: Ryan Gauthier is Assistant Professor at Thompson Rivers University in Canada. Ryan’s research addresses the governance of sports organisations, with a particular focus on international sports organisations. His PhD research examined the accountability of the International Olympic Committee for human rights violations caused by the organisation of the Olympic Games.


Big June 2019 for Olympic Hosting

On June 24, 2019, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected Milano-Cortina to host the 2026 Winter Olympic Games. Milano-Cortina’s victory came despite a declaration that the bid was “dead” just months prior when the Italian government refused to support the bid. Things looked even more dire for the Italians when 2006 Winter Games host Turin balked at a three-city host proposal. But, when the bid was presented to the members of the IOC Session, it was selected over Stockholm-Åre by 47 votes to 34. 

Just two days later, the IOC killed the host selection process as we know it. The IOC did this by amending two sections of the Olympic Charter in two key ways. First, the IOC amended Rule 33.2, eliminating the requirement that the Games be selected by an election seven years prior to the Games. While an election by the IOC Session is still required, the seven-years-out requirement is gone.

Second, the IOC amended Rule 32.2 to allow for a broader scope of hosts to be selected for the Olympic Games. Prior to the amendment, only cities could host the Games, with the odd event being held in another location. Now, while cities are the hosts “in principle”, the IOC had made it so: “where deemed appropriate, the IOC may elect several cities, or other entities, such as regions, states or countries, as host of the Olympic Games.”

The change to rule 33.2 risks undoing the public host selection process. The prior process included bids (generally publicly available), evaluation committee reports, and other mechanisms to make the bidding process transparent. Now, it is entirely possible that the IOC may pre-select a host, and present just that host to the IOC for an up-or-down vote. This vote may be seven years out from the Games, ten years out, or two years out. More...


A New Chapter for EU Sports Law and European Citizenship Rights? The TopFit Decision - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a third year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.

 

1.     Introduction

Christmas has come very early this year for the EU sports law world in the form of the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) judgment in TopFit eV, Daniele Biffi v Deutscher Leichtathletikverband eV by exclusively analyzing the case on the basis of European citizenship rights and its application to rules of sports governing bodies that limit their exercise. The case concerned an Italian national, Daniele Biffi, who has been residing in Germany for over 15 years and participates in athletic competitions in the senior category, including the German national championships. In 2016, the Deutscher Leichtathletikverband (DLV), the German Athletics Federation, decided to omit a paragraph in its rules that allowed the participation of EU nationals in national championships on the same footing as German citizens. As a result, participation in the national championship was subject to prior authorization of the organizers of the event, and even if participation was granted, the athlete may only compete outside of classification and may not participate in the final heat of the competition. After having been required to compete out of classification for one national championship and even dismissed from participating in another, Mr. Biffi and TopFit, his athletics club based in Berlin, brought proceedings to a German national court. The national court submitted a request for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU in which it asked essentially whether the rules of the DLV, which may preclude or at least require a non-national to compete outside classification and the final heat, are contrary to Articles 18, 21 and 165 TFEU. Articles 18 and 21 TFEU, read together, preclude discrimination on the basis of nationality against European citizens exercising their free movement. The underlying (massive) question here is whether these provisions can be relied on by an amateur athlete against a private body, the DLV.

Covered in a previous blog, the Advocate General’s (AG) opinion addressed the case from an entirely different angle. Instead of tackling the potentially sensitive questions attached with interpreting the scope of European citizenship rights, the opinion focused on the application of the freedom of establishment because the AG found that participation in the national championships was sufficiently connected to the fact Mr. Biffi was a professional trainer who advertised his achievements in those competitions on his website. Thus, according to the AG, there was a sufficient economic factor to review the case under a market freedom. The CJEU, in its decision, sidelined this approach and took the application of European citizenship rights head on.

The following will dissect the Court’s decision by examining the three central legal moves of the ruling: the general applicability of EU law to amateur sport, the horizontal applicability of European citizenship rights, and justifications and proportionality requirements of access restrictions to national competitions. More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – April and May 2019. By Tomáš Grell

Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked.

 

The Headlines 

Caster Semenya learns that it is not always easy for victims of discrimination to prevail in court

The world of sport held its breath as the Secretary General of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) Matthieu Reeb stood before the microphones on 1 May 2019 to announce the verdict reached by three arbitrators (one of them dissenting) in the landmark case involving the South African Olympic and world champion Caster Semenya. Somewhat surprisingly, the panel of arbitrators came to the conclusion that the IAAF’s regulations requiring female athletes with differences of sexual development to reduce their natural testosterone level below the limit of 5 nmol/L and maintain that reduced level for a continuous period of at least six months in order to be eligible to compete internationally at events between 400 metres and a mile, were necessary, reasonable and proportionate to attain the legitimate aim of ensuring fair competition in female athletics, even though the panel recognised that the regulations were clearly discriminatory. Ms Semenya’s legal team decided to file an appeal against the ruling at the Swiss Federal Tribunal. For the time being, this appears to be a good move since the tribunal ordered the IAAF at the beginning of June to suspend the application of the challenged regulations to Ms Semenya with immediate effect, which means that Ms Semenya for now continues to run medication-free.

 

Champions League ban looms on Manchester City

On 18 May 2019, Manchester City completed a historic domestic treble after defeating Watford 6-0 in the FA Cup Final. And yet there is a good reason to believe that the club’s executives did not celebrate as much as they would under normal circumstances. This is because only two days before the FA Cup Final the news broke that the chief investigator of the UEFA Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) had decided to refer Manchester City’s case concerning allegations of financial fair play irregularities to the CFCB adjudicatory chamber for a final decision. Thus, the chief investigator most likely found that Manchester City had indeed misled UEFA over the real value of its sponsorship income from the state-owned airline Etihad and other companies based in Abu Dhabi, as the leaked internal emails and other documents published by the German magazine Der Spiegel suggested. The chief investigator is also thought to have recommended that a ban on participation in the Champions League for at least one season be imposed on the English club. The club’s representatives responded to the news with fury and disbelief, insisting that the CFCB investigatory chamber had failed to take into account a comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence it had been provided with. They eventually decided not to wait for the decision of the CFCB adjudicatory chamber, which is yet to be adopted, and meanwhile took the case to the CAS, filing an appeal against the chief investigator’s referral.

 

The Brussels Court of Appeal dismisses Striani’s appeal on jurisdictional grounds

The player agent Daniele Striani failed to convince the Brussels Court of Appeal that it had jurisdiction to entertain his case targeting UEFA’s financial fair play regulations. On 11 April 2019, the respective court dismissed his appeal against the judgment of the first-instance court without pronouncing itself on the question of compatibility of UEFA’s financial fair play regulations with EU law. The court held that it was not competent to hear the case because the link between the regulations and their effect on Mr Striani as a player agent, as well as the link between the regulations and the role of the Royal Belgian Football Association in their adoption and enforcement, was too remote (for a more detailed analysis of the decision, see Antoine’s blog here). The Brussels Court of Appeal thus joined the European Court of Justice and the European Commission as both these institutions had likewise rejected to assess the case on its merits in the past.

 

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League of Legends European Championships - Challenging the Boundaries of Sport in EU Law - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a third year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.


1.     Introduction

The surge of e-sports has stimulated a lively discussion on the essential characteristics of sport and whether e-sports, in general, can be considered a sport. However, one should not overlook the fact that e-sports encompass a broad range of video games that fundamentally differ from one another. Thus, as one commentator recently underlined, “the position of video games and the e-sport competitions based on them should be analysed on a case-by-case basis.”[1] In this spirit, this blog aims to provide a concise analysis of one of these e-sports, League of Legends (LoL), and one of its main competitions, the League of Legends European Championship (LEC), to assess whether it could be considered a sport in the sense of EU law. The LEC offers a fascinating opportunity to examine this issue especially since the previous European League of Legends Championship Series (EU LCS) was rebranded and restructured this year into the LEC. More...



Will the World Cup 2022 Expansion Mark the Beginning of the End of FIFA’s Human Rights Journey? - By Daniela Heerdt

Editor's note: Daniela Heerdt is a PhD candidate at Tilburg Law School in the Netherlands. Her PhD research deals with the establishment of responsibility and accountability for adverse human rights impacts of mega-sporting events, with a focus on FIFA World Cups and Olympic Games.


About three years ago, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) adopted a new version of its Statutes, including a statutory commitment to respect internationally recognized human rights. Since then, FIFA undertook a human rights journey that has been praised by various stakeholders in the sports and human rights field. In early June, the FIFA Congress is scheduled to take a decision that could potentially undo all positive efforts taken thus far.

FIFA already decided in January 2017 to increase the number of teams participating in the 2026 World Cup from 32 to 48. Shortly after, discussions began on the possibility to also expand the number of teams for the 2022 World Cup hosted in Qatar. Subsequently, FIFA conducted a feasibility study, which revealed that the expansion would be feasible but require a number of matches to be hosted in neighbouring countries, explicitly mentioning Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). One does not have to be a human rights expert to be highly alarmed by this list of potential co-hosting countries. Nevertheless, the FIFA Council approved of the possibility to expand in March 2019, paving the way for the FIFA Congress to take a decision on the matter. Obviously, the advancement of the expansion decision raises serious doubts over the sincerity of FIFA’s reforms and human rights commitments. More...



How Data Protection Crystallises Key Legal Challenges in Anti-Doping - By Marjolaine Viret

Editor's Note: Marjolaine is a researcher and attorney admitted to the Geneva bar (Switzerland) who specialises in sports and life sciences. Her interests focus on interdisciplinary approaches as a way of designing effective solutions in the field of anti-doping and other science-based domains. Her book “Evidence in Anti-Doping at the Intersection of Science & Law” was published through T.M.C Asser Press / Springer in late 2015. She participates as a co-author on a project hosted by the University of Neuchâtel to produce the first article-by-article legal commentary of the 2021 World Anti-Doping Code. In her practice, she regularly advises international federations and other sports organisations on doping and other regulatory matters, in particular on aspects of scientific evidence, privacy or research regulation. She also has experience assisting clients in arbitration proceedings before the Court of Arbitration for Sport or other sport tribunals.


Since the spectre of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (‘GDPR’) has loomed over the sports sector,[1] a new wind seems to be blowing on anti-doping, with a palpable growing interest for stakes involved in data processing. Nothing that would quite qualify as a wind of change yet, but a gentle breeze of awareness at the very least.

Though the GDPR does mention the fight against doping in sport as a potential matter of public health in its recitals,[2] EU authorities have not gone so far as to create a standalone ground on which anti-doping organisations could rely to legitimise their data processing. Whether or not anti-doping organisations have a basis to process personal data – and specifically sensitive data – as part of their anti-doping activities, thus remains dependent on the peculiarities of each national law. Even anti-doping organisations that are incorporated outside the EU are affected to the extent they process data about athletes in the EU.[3] This includes international sports federations, many of which are organised as private associations under Swiss law. Moreover, the Swiss Data Protection Act (‘DPA’) is currently under review, and the revised legal framework should largely mirror the GDPR, subject to a few Swiss peculiarities. All anti-doping organisations undertake at a minimum to abide by the WADA International Standard for Privacy and the Protection of Personal Information (‘ISPPPI’), which has been adapted with effect to 1 June 2018 and enshrines requirements similar to those of the GDPR. However, the ISPPPI stops short of actually referring to the GDPR and leaves discretion for anti-doping organisations to adapt to other legislative environments.

The purpose of this blog is not to offer a detailed analysis of the requirements that anti-doping organisations must abide by under data protection laws, but to highlight how issues around data processing have come to crystallise key challenges that anti-doping organisations face globally. Some of these challenges have been on the table since the adoption of the first edition of the World Anti-Doping Code (‘WADC’) but are now exposed in the unforgiving light of data protection requirements. More...



What happens in Switzerland stays in Switzerland: The Striani Judgment of the Brussels Court of Appeals

In the last five years, the Striani case has been the main sword of Damocles hanging over UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations. At the very least, the only real judicial threat they have faced (apart from the relatively harmless challenge mounted in the Galatasaray case at the CAS). Indeed, a Belgian player agent, Daniele Striani, represented by Bosman’s former lawyer Jean-Louis Dupont, attempted, in various fora, to challenge the compatibility of UEFA’s CL&FFP Regulations with EU law. Striani lodged a complaint with the European Commission (which was quickly rejected in October 2014) and initiated a private action for damages before the Brussels Court of First Instance. The latter deemed itself not competent to decide on the matter, but nevertheless accepted to order a provisory stay of the enforcement of the UEFA FFP Regulations pending a preliminary reference to the Court of Justice of the EU (see Ben van Rompuy’s blog on the case here). The CJEU unsurprisingly rejected to enter into the matter, but UEFA and Striani decided to appeal the first instance ruling to the Court of Appeal, which rendered its decision on 11 April. It is unclear at this stage whether Striani will attempt to challenge it at the Belgian Cour de Cassation (Highest Civil Court), however this would entail considerable risks and costs and his lawyers to date have not indicated that they would do so (see here). 

While the ruling of the Court of Appeal does not touch upon the much-discussed question of the compatibility of UEFA’s FFP Regulations with EU law (see our many blogs on the question here, here and here), it remains an interesting decision to discuss broader questions related to the procedural ease in challenging regulatory decisions passed by sports governing bodies (SGBs) based in Switzerland. Competition law constitutes the main legal tool available to sports stakeholders looking to challenge existing regulatory arrangements from the outside (e.g. not going through the internal political systems of the SGBs or the CAS route). Recent cases, such as the ISU decision of the European Commission, the Pechstein case in front of the German courts or the Rule 40 decision of the German competition authority, have demonstrated the potency of competition law to question the legality of the rules and decisions of the SGBs.[1] In this regard, the decision of the Brussels Court of Appeal narrows the range of parties allowed to challenge in European courts the SGBs’ rules and decisions on the basis of competition law. More...

Can European Citizens Participate in National Championships? An Analysis of AG Tanchev’s Opinion in TopFit e.V. Daniele Biffi v Deutscher Leichtathletikverband e.V. - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a third year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.


1.     Introduction

To many it may seem obvious that athletes in a national championship should only be able to participate if they have the nationality of the relevant state. The Dutch Road Cycling National Championships should have Dutch cyclists, and the German Athletics Championships should have German athletes and so forth. However, in reality, foreign competitors are allowed to participate in many national championships in the EU, and there is a wide discrepancy between the rules of national sport governing bodies on this issue. There is no unified practice when investigating this point by country or by sport, and rules on participation range from a complete ban on foreign competitors to absolutely no mention of foreign athletes.[1] Thus, the question arises: should foreign athletes be able to participate in national sport championships?

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) will soon be required to provide an, at least partial, answer to this dilemma as a result of an application for a preliminary ruling.  A German Court has referred three questions to the CJEU on the case TopFit e.V. Daniele Biffi v Deutscher Leichtathletikverband e.V. (DLV) which in essence ask whether EU citizenship rights and in particular, the requirement of non-discrimination on the basis of nationality, should be applied to non-nationals wishing to participate in an athletics national championship in Germany. In the meantime, the Advocate General (AG), who provides a non-binding opinion to the Court before a decision is delivered, Evgeni Tanchev has delivered an interesting opinion on the case. It addresses the claims from the applicants based on EU citizenship rights and urges the CJEU to instead review the case on the basis of the freedom of establishment.

This blog will dissect the AG’s opinion to assess the main arguments put forward in relation to freedom of establishment and EU citizenship. Furthermore, it will weigh the ramifications this case may have on the boundaries of EU law in relation to sport. To fully appreciate the AG’s opinion, it is necessary to first discuss the intriguing factual and legal background colouring this case. After all, this will not be the first time the CJEU faces thorny issues concerning discrimination on the basis of nationality and sport. More...


International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – February and March 2019. By Tomáš Grell

Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked.

 

The Headlines

The Court of Arbitration for Sport bans 12 Russian track and field athletes

On 1 February 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) communicated that it had rendered another 12 decisions in the seemingly endless saga concerning the state-sponsored doping programme in Russia. These first-instance decisions of the CAS involve 12 Russian track and field athletes who were all found guilty of anti-doping rule violations based on the evidence underlying the reports published by professor Richard McLaren and suspended from participating in sports competitions for periods ranging from two to eight years. Arguably the most prominent name that appears on the list of banned athletes is Ivan Ukhov, the 32-year-old high jump champion from the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

The case was brought by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) that sought to convince the arbitrators that the athletes in question had participated in and/or benefited from anabolic steroid doping programmes and benefited from specific protective methods (washout schedules) in the period between the 2012 Olympic Games in London and the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow. The CAS was acting in lieau of the Russian Athletics Federation that remains suspended and thus unable to conduct any disciplinary procedures. The athletes have had the opportunity to appeal the decisions to the CAS Appeals Arbitration Division.

Federal Cartel Office in Germany finds Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter disproportionately restrictive

At the end of February, the German competition authority Bundeskartellamt announced that it had entered into a commitment agreement with the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in which these two organisations had agreed to considerably enhance advertising opportunities for German athletes and their sponsors during the Olympic Games. The respective agreement is a direct consequence of the Bundeskartellamt’s finding that the IOC and the DOSB had abused their dominant position on the market for organising and marketing the Olympic Games by demanding that the athletes refrain from promoting their own sponsors while the Games are ongoing, as well as shortly before and after the Games. This restriction stems from Rule 40(3) of the Olympic Charter under which no competitor who participates in the Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes, unless the IOC Executive Board allows him/her to do so.

As part of fulfilling its obligations under the commitment agreement, the DOSB has relaxed its guidelines on promotional activities of German athletes during the Olympic Games. For its part, the IOC has declared that these new guidelines would take precedence over Rule 40(3) of the Olympic Charter. However, it still remains to be seen whether in response to the conclusions of the German competition authority the IOC will finally change the contentious rule.

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights refuses to pronounce itself on Claudia Pechstein’s case

Claudia Pechstein’s challenge against the CAS brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has not yielded the desired result for the German athlete. On 5 February 2019, a Panel of the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR decided that the Grand Chamber would not entertain the case. This means that the judgment handed down by the 3rd Chamber of the ECtHR on 2 October 2018, in which the ECtHR confirmed that except for the lack of publicity of oral hearings the procedures of the CAS are compatible with the right to a fair trial under Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, has now become final and binding. However, the protracted legal battle between the five-time Olympic champion in speed skating and the CAS is not over yet since there is one more challenge against the CAS and its independence pending before the German Constitutional Court.  More...

New Event! FIFA and Human Rights: Impacts, Policies, Responsibilities - 8 May 2019 - Asser Institute

In the past few years, FIFA underwent intense public scrutiny for human rights violations surrounding the organisation of the World Cup 2018 in Russia and 2022 in Qatar. This led to a reform process at FIFA, which involved a number of policy changes, such as:

  • Embracing the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights;
  • The inclusion of human rights in the FIFA Statutes;
  • Adopting new bidding rules including human rights requirements;
  • And introducing a Human Rights Advisory Board.

To take stock of these changes, the Asser Institute and the Netherlands Network for Human Rights Research (NNHRR), are organising a conference on the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and human rights, which will take place at the Asser Institute in The Hague on 8 May 2019.

This one-day conference aims to take a deeper look at FIFA’s impacts on human rights and critically investigate the measures it has adopted to deal with them. Finally, we will also address FIFA’s potential legal responsibilities under a variety of human rights laws/instruments.


Preliminary Programme

9:00 Registration & Coffee

9:45 Welcome by Antoine Duval (Asser Institute) & Daniela Heerdt (Tilburg University)

10:00 Opening Remarks by Andreas Graf (Human Rights Officer, FIFA)

10:30 Panel 1: FIFA & Human Rights: Impacts

  • Zoher Shabbir (University of York) – The correlation between forced evictions and developing nations hosting the FIFA World Cup
  • Roman Kiselyov (European Human Rights Advocacy Centre) - FIFA World Cup as a Pretext for a Crackdown on Human Rights
  • Eleanor Drywood (Liverpool University) - FIFA and children’s rights: theory, methodology and practice 

12:00 Lunch

13:00 Panel 2: FIFA & Human Rights: Policies

  • Lisa Schöddert & Bodo Bützler (University of Cologne) – FIFA’s eigen-constitutionalisation and its limits
  • Gigi Alford (World Players Association) - Power Play: FIFA’s voluntary human rights playbook does not diminish Switzerland’s state power to protect against corporate harms
  • Brendan Schwab (World Players Association) & Craig Foster - FIFA, human rights and the threatened refoulement of Hakeem Al Araibi 

14:30 Break

15:00 Panel 3: FIFA & Human Rights: Responsibilities

  • Daniel Rietiker (ECtHR and University of Lausanne) - The European Court of Human Rights and Football: Current Issues and Potential
  • Jan Lukomski (Łukomski Niklewicz law firm) - FIFA and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights : Obligations, duties and remedies regarding the labour rights         protected under the ICESCR
  • Raquel Regueiro Dubra (Complutense University of Madrid) - Shared international responsibility for human rights violations in global events. The case of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
  • Wojciech Lewandowski (Polish Academy of Sciences/University of Warsaw) - Is Bauer the new Bosman? – The implications of the newest CJEU jurisprudence for FIFA and other sport governing bodies

17:00 Closing Remarks by Mary Harvey (Chief Executive, Centre for Sports and Human Rights)


More information and registration at https://www.asser.nl/education-events/events/?id=3064

Asser International Sports Law Blog | Bailing out your local football club: The Willem II and MVV State Aid decisions as blueprint for future rescue aid (Part 1)

Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

Bailing out your local football club: The Willem II and MVV State Aid decisions as blueprint for future rescue aid (Part 1)

The European Commission’s decisions of 4 July 2016 to order the recovery of the State aid granted to seven Spanish professional football clubs[1] were in a previous blog called historic. It was the first time that professional football clubs have been ordered to repay aid received from (local) public authorities. Less attention has been given to five other decisions also made public that day, which cleared support measures for five football clubs in the Netherlands. The clubs in question were PSV Eindhoven, MVV Maastricht, NEC Nijmegen, FC Den Bosch and Willem II.

Given the inherent political sensitivity of State aid recovery decisions, it is logical that the “Spanish decisions” were covered more widely than the “Dutch decisions”. Furthermore, clubs like Real Madrid and FC Barcelona automatically get more media attention than FC Den Bosch or Willem II. Yet, even though the “Dutch decisions” are of a lower profile, from an EU State aid law perspective, they are not necessarily less interesting.

A few days before entering the quiet month of August, the Commission published the non-confidential versions of its decisions concerning PSV Eindhoven, Willem II and MVV Maastricht (hereinafter: “MVV”). The swiftness of these publications is somewhat surprising, since it often takes at least three months to solve all the confidentiality issues. Nonetheless, nobody will complain (especially not me) about this opportunity to analyze in depth these new decisions.

In the case of PSV, the Dutch State argued successfully that the measure implemented by the city of Eindhoven was in line with the so-called ‘Market Economy Investor Principle’ (MEIP), thereby not constituting a selective advantage to PSV. In other words, the measure did not fulfill the criteria of Article 107(1) TFEU and was not considered State aid. The aid measures granted by the cities of Tilburg and Maastricht to Willem II and MVV respectively were considered compatible State aid under Article 107(3)c) TFEU. Interestingly enough, in the Willem II and MVV cases, the Dutch authorities also argued that the respective measures did not confer any selective advantage to the clubs, but they failed to convince the Commission.

A comparison between the PSV decision on the one hand, and the other “Dutch” decisions on the other, taking into account the definition and operation of the MEIP in the (professional) football sector, will be left for a future blog. This two-part blog, instead, will focus on the compatibility assessment under Article 107(3)(c) done by the Commission in the Willem II and MVV cases and explain why it considered the State aid measure justified.

Part one will serve as an introduction on the two cases. It will provide background information on the compatibility assessment. In part two, the compatibility assessment conducted by the Commission in the two decisions will be analyzed. As will be argued, the conditions set out by the Commission can serve as a blueprint for all public authorities within the EU willing to grant State aid to football clubs in financial difficulties.  


Background

Willem II

In 2004, the municipality of Tilburg and football club Willem II concluded a contract, by which Tilburg became the owner of Willem II’s stadium and the club obtained a lease for the use of the stadium.[2] The annual rent of the stadium was established at €1 million, based on a depreciation period of 30 years, investment costs and an interest rate of 5.5%.[3]

In May 2010, Willem II found itself on the verge of bankruptcy. The municipality was quick to realize the potential negative effects a bankruptcy could have for Tilburg. These negative effects consisted of (1) the loss of rental income; (2) the absence of a tenant for the stadium; (3) the absence of professional football in Tilburg; and (4) the necessity to demolish the stadium and all the costs it would entail.[4] As a result, on 31 May 2010 the municipality decided to lower the rent to €905,000 per year and to decrease the variable costs. Both measures were taken with retroactive effect till 1 July 2004, which resulted in Willem II receiving a total of €2.4 million from the municipality.[5]

Tilburg’s rescue operation of Willem II was never notified to the Commission.[6] Instead, a citizen informed DG Competition shortly after the measure was implemented by means of a letter. This prompted the Commission to send a request for information to the Netherlands on 14 March 2011.[7]

In response to the Commission, the Dutch authorities argued that the new rent agreement was in conformity with the current municipal calculation methods and that the basic principles of the 2004 agreement were still respected. Moreover, the costs Tilburg would suffer for letting Willem II go bankrupt would be higher than the rescue costs. Consequently, the municipality believed it acted in accordance with the so-called ‘Market Economy Investor Principle’ (MEIP).[8] Moreover, the municipality imposed a restructuring plan that aimed at restoring the club’s long-term viability. The conditions of this plan included finding a way to clean up its balance sheet and the need to respect the national football association's norms for salaries of players.[9]

In its decision to open a formal investigation, the Commission counter argued that the depreciation of the stadium’s rent was already adjusted in 2007, and would not justify the retroactive application until 2004. Additionally, the lowering of the variable costs with retro-active effects ended up to be lower than the actual maintenance costs for that period, and should therefore be considered as State aid in accordance with Article 107(1) TFEU.[10] Finally, at the time the Commission launched the formal investigation, it nourished doubts whether the aid measure could be considered compatible with the internal market pursuant Article 107(3)(c). Having received no notification of the rescue measure, the Commission was unable to carry out a proper compatibility assessment. 


MVV

In 2010, football club MVV was facing severe financial difficulties: its total debt amounted to €6.5 million, including €1.7 million to the municipality of Maastricht. As a means of aiding its local football club, the municipality decided to waive its claim of €1.7 million and bought the stadium for €1.85 million.[11] The municipality held that the purchase was done in accordance with the MEIP and that the stadium would be used for multifunctional purposes. The parties agreed that MVV would use the €1.85 million to finance preferential claims, such as taxes and pensions.[12] 

The Commission opened a formal investigation procedure, because it was unable to conclude on the basis of the available information (the rescue measures were not notified[13]) that the behaviour of the municipality had been that of the typical creditor in a market economy.[14] Firstly, it doubted whether a total remission of the claim (€1.7 million) was entirely necessary, since other creditors transformed their claim into a claim on future income from transfer payments or “only” waived 50% of their claim. Secondly, according to the Commission, the purchase price of the stadium was estimated on the basis of replacement value rather than the real market value. It further raised doubts as to whether the municipality acted in accordance with the MEIP since investing in a football stadium depending on one captive user entails a very high risk, even when claiming that you want to make it multifunctional.[15] Similar to the Willem II case, no compatibility assessment of the aid measure in favour of MVV was carried out, because the measure was not notified.[16] 


The rules on compatibility

Pursuant to Article 107(3)(c) TFEU, aid to facilitate the development of certain economic activities, where such aid does not adversely affect trading conditions to an extent contrary to the common interest, may be considered compatible with the internal market. Only the Commission has the competence (subject to control by the EU Courts) to determine whether or not certain aid merits derogation from the general prohibition of Article 107(1).[17] However, it is settled case law that it is up to the Member State to invoke possible grounds of compatibility and to demonstrate that the conditions for such compatibility are met.[18] Due to its own wide discretion to assess the compatibility, the Commission has developed its own methodologies and approaches over the years, found in the decisional practice, policy documents[19] and sector specific guidelines.[20] 


The Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines

The Community Guidelines of 1 October 2004 on State aid for rescue and restructuring firms in difficulty (hereinafter: “Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines”) primarily serve as a tool for the Commission to assess similar cases in a similar way.[21] The criteria and conditions laid down in the Guidelines are mostly based on the Commission’s own experience in dealing with cases involving State aid in favour of firms in difficulty and case law by the Court of Justice of the EU. Due to the continuous developments in the area of EU State aid law, the Guidelines are regularly updated.[22] In the Guidelines, the Commission sets out the conditions under which State aid for rescuing and restructuring undertakings in difficulty may be considered compatible with the internal market. These conditions include the notification obligation for the Member State,[23] as well as demonstrating that the firm qualifies as ‘a firm in difficulty’. As is stipulated in point 11 of the Guidelines, a firm is considered to be in difficulties where the usual signs of a firm being in difficulty are present, such as increasing losses, diminishing turnover and mounting debt.

In order to rescue a firm from bankruptcy, the Member State has to show that it limits the amount of aid provided to that which is strictly necessary to keep the firm in business.[24] Section 3.2 of the Guidelines requires that the grant of the aid must be conditional on the implementation of a restructuring plan that restores the long term viability of the firm.[25] The restructuring plan needs to be approved by the Member State concerned and communicated to the Commission.[26]

The Member States granting the restructuring aid will have to limit the amount and intensity of the aid to the strict minimum of the restructuring costs necessary to enable restructuring to be undertaken in the light of the existing financial resources of the firm. This also means that the beneficiaries are expected to make a significant contribution to the restructuring plan from their own resources.[27] The Commission will normally consider the following contributions to the restructuring to be appropriate: at least 25 % in the case of small enterprises, at least 40 % for medium-sized enterprises and at least 50 % for large firms.[28]

The Guidelines also stipulate that, in case the firm in difficulty is considered a medium-sized enterprise or larger[29], compensatory measures must be taken by the Member State that grants the rescue and/or restructuring aid in order to ensure that the adverse effects on trading conditions are minimized as much as possible, so that the positive effects pursued outweigh the adverse ones.[30] These last two conditions (i.e. limiting the aid to what is strictly necessary and introducing compensatory measures) have the aim of ensuring that the State aid measure is proportionate to the objective tackled, namely rescuing and/or restructuring a firm in difficulty.

Last but not least, the so-called ‘one time, last time’ principle has to be applied. According to this principle, rescue aid should only be granted once.[31] 


In the coming days, the key part of the Commission’s decisions, the compatibility assessment, will be discussed in part two of this blog.



[1] Real Madrid (twice), FC Barcelona, Valencia CF, Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Osasuna, Elche and Hércules.

[2] Commission Decision on State Aid SA.40168 of 4 July 2016 implemented by the Netherlands in favour of the professional football club Willem II in Tilburg, para. 10.

[3] Commission Decision SA.33584 of 6 March 2013 – The Netherlands Alleged municipal aid to the Professional Dutch football clubs Vitesse, NEC, Willem II, MVV, PSV and FC Den Bosch in 2008-2011, para. 29.

[4] Ibid, para. 30.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, para. 67.

[7] Ibid, paras. 3-4. To find out how a citizen’s letter can instigate a preliminary State aid investigation, see Ben Van Rompuy and Oskar van Maren, “EU Control of State Aid to Professional Sport: Why Now?” In: “The Legacy of Bosman. Revisiting the relationship between EU law and sport”, T.M.C. Asser Press, 2016.

[8] The essence of this principle is that when a public authority invests in an enterprise on terms and in conditions that would be acceptable to a private investor operating under normal market economy conditions, the investment is not State aid.

[9] SA.40168, para. 12.

[10] SA.33584, paras. 29-31 and 51-53.

[11] Ibid, para. 32.

[12] Ibid, para. 57.

[13] Ibid, para. 67.

[14] Commission Decision on State Aid SA.41612 of 4 July 2016 implemented by the Netherlands in favour of the professional football club MVV in Maastricht, para. 12.

[15] SA.33584, paras. 54-57.

[16] SA.41612, para. 11.

[17] According to settled case law, national courts do not have the power to declare a State aid measure compatible with the internal market. See e.g. C-354/90, Fédération Nationale du Commerce Extérieur des Produits Alimentaires and Syndicat National des Négociants et Transformateurs de Saumon v French Republic, ECLI:EU:C:1991:440, para. 14.

[18] SA.41612, para. 42; see also Case C-364/90, Italy v Commission, ECLI:EU:C:1993:157, point 20.

[19] See for example Communication from the Commission COM(2012) of 8 May 2012 to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions – EU State Aid Modernisation (SAM), para. 12.

[20] See for example the Communication from the Commission OJ C25/01 of 26 January 2013 on the EU Guidelines for the application of State aid rules in relation to the rapid deployment of broadband networks, paras. 32-34.

[21] In July 2014, the Commission published new Guidelines on State aid for rescuing and restructuring undertakings in difficulty, but they are not applicable to aid granted in 2010.

[22] The Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines published in 2014 are the fourth of its sort after earlier versions published in 1994, 1999 and 2004.

[23] Communication from the Commission of 1 October 2004 (2004/C 244/02) Community Guidelines on State Aid for Rescuing and Restructuring firms in difficulty, point 25(c).

[24] Ibid, point 25(d).

[25] Ibid, poins 34-37.

[26] Ibid, point 59. In this regard, it should be noted that the Commission does not need to endorse the restructuring plan.

[27] By “own resources” the Commission also understands funding from external financiers at market conditions.

[28] Guidelines on State Aid for Rescuing and Restructuring firms in difficulty, points 43-44.

[29] The Commission’s definition of Small and Medium-Sized enterprises (SMEs), as stipulated in the Annex of the Commission Recommendation concerning the definition of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, is also used in the Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines. Pursuant to Article 2 of the SME Recommendation, a small enterprise is defined as an enterprise which employs fewer than 50 persons and whose annual turnover and/or annual balance sheet total does not exceed €10 million, whereas a medium-seized enterprise is defined as an enterprise which employs fewer than 250 persons and which has an annual turnover not exceeding €50 million, and/or an annual balance sheet total not exceeding €43 million.

[30] Guidelines on State Aid for Rescuing and Restructuring firms in difficulty, point 38.

[31] Ibid, point 25(e) and section 3.3. In practice, this actually means that rescue or restructuring aid can only be granted once every 10 years.

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