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The EU State aid and Sport Saga - A legal guide to the bailout of Valencia CF

After a decade of financial misery, it appears that Valencia CF’s problems are finally over. The foreign takeover by Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim will be concluded in the upcoming weeks, and the construction on the new stadium will resume after five years on hold due to a lack of money. On 3 June Bankia, the Spanish bank that “saved” Valencia CF in 2009 by providing a loan of €81 million, gave the green light for the takeover. However, appearances can be deceiving. Indeed, Valencia CF has been the subject of numerous Spanish Court decisions since March 2013, the latest dating from 22 May 2014. The cases concern a guarantee given by the local authorities and whether this guarantee should be relied upon since Valencia CF is incapable of repaying its debt. Meanwhile, the European Commission announced that it will soon reach a final decision regarding the formal investigations into alleged State aid measures granted to the club. Strangely enough, the Spanish Courts are showing little interest in the pending Commission Decision and Mr Lim seems to be ignoring it as well. True, EU institutions have so far never sanctioned public authorities of Member States for granting aid to football clubs, but the evidence in this case is so damning that it will be difficult to overlook. Our aim in this blog-post is to disentangle the legal complexity of a case fought both at the national and the European level.  

Saving Valencia CF with public money

The aid measure has its origins in 2009, when Valencia CF, aiming to reduce the clubs total debt of €596 million and continue the construction works on a new stadium, decided to sell new shares for a total capital injection of €92 million. Unfortunately, club members only subscribed €18 million in shares. The majority of the shares were acquired by La Fundación del Valencia Club de Fútbol, (a foundation especially created by the club for this purpose) becoming majority shareholder of the club (70%) for the sum of €75 million. The money was loaned by BANCAJA, the largest financial institution of the autonomous region of Valencia. The loan was later increased to €81 million in November 2010. The Fundación and BANCAJA also agreed that the revenues for the old “Mestalla” stadium, which was for sale, would go to the bank. Furthermore, on 26 August 2009, the Instituto Valenciano de Finanzas (hereafter: IVF[1]) had issued a guarantee on the controversial loan.[2] In case of a default by the Fundación, the IVF was to pay back to the bank the outstanding amount. In return, the IVF would receive an annual premium of 0.5% and the Fundación is prevented to selling shares without the previous consent by the IVF.[3]

In September 2012, Bankia (the new name of the bank following a merger in 2010) was forced to restructure the deal it had with the Fundación. Bankia was suffering heavily from the financial crisis and, after being rescued by the Spanish Government, was forced to decrease its financial debt by increasing its liquidity and reducing its real estate portfolio. Thus, Valencia CF was to negotiate the refinancing of its debt, given that the Fundación was unable to repay the loan to Bankia.

By February 2013 the total of Valencia’s debts reached €387 million owed to different creditors, including the €81 million it owed to Bankia. In light of the guarantee issued, the Consell de la Generalitat de la Comunidad Autónoma de Valencia (the local government of the autonomous region of Valencia, also known as the Generalitat) was asked to transfer €4.8 million to Bankia to cover interest payments. Even worse, the Generalitat might have to bear the full debt of €81 million the Fundación owed to Bankia. As a result, the Generalitat would hold 70% of the shares in Valencia CF, thereby making the football club state-owned.[4]

Claiming that the guarantee breached both Spanish and EU law and should therefore be declared void, two club shareholders lodged a complaint against the local government of Valencia.[5] In its judgment, dating from 8 March 2013, the Administrative Court of Valencia annulled the guarantee, arguing inter alia that the operation would not generate benefits for the IVF and that the restrictions placed by the public authorities on the selling of shares by Valencia CF will distort competition.[6] Finally, the duty to evaluate whether the operation was subject to EU State aid rules had not been complied with.[7]

This last argument by the Administrative Court is no surprise, in light of the blatant State aid. Indeed, both the press and Members of the European Parliament quickly jumped onto the allegations that State aid in the form of loan guarantees was granted by Spanish public authorities. The European Commission forced by this judgment, press reports and a flood of information sent by Spanish citizens officially asked Spain to comment on these reports on 8 April 2013.[8] After analysing all the information the Commission decided to initiate the procedure laid down in Article 108(2) TFEU on alleged illegal State aid on 18 December 2013. Now that the Commission has announced in its Management Plan 2014 that the final decision will be published in 2014, one can reasonably expect the case to draw to its close.

The strategy of the Spanish Courts: Let’s ignore State aid rules and the Commission

The judgment by the Administrative Court of Valencia was only the first in a whole string of judgments by the Spanish Courts. The most important ones date from 15 November 2013, 19 December 2013, and 22 May 2014. 

Bankia appealed the judgment of 8 March 2013, claiming it should have been invited as a party at the trial. At first, the Administrative Court of Valencia upheld the previous decision annulling the guarantee, but Bankia’s second appeal, this time in front of the Tribunal Superior de Justicia de la Comunidad Valenciana, sala de lo Contencioso (the High Administrative Court of the autonomous region of Valencia) was successful. On 15 November 2013, the High Court, found the judgments by the Administrative Court to be void due to a procedural deficiency. Indeed, as Bankia was not provided the opportunity to present its views at the first trial, the tribunal violated Bankia’s right to be heard. More precisely the High Court considered that the IVF had not informed Bankia adequately when, as a public authority, it had the obligation to do so; Bankia’s own financial troubles and instability were too important for it to be left out of the procedure; and the fate of the football club would be at stake if the guarantee is revoked.[9] Hence, the guarantee provided by the local authorities on the loan was considered legally valid and Valencia CF’s bankruptcy risk dismissed. That the guarantee probably is in breach of EU State aid rules was irrelevant to the High Court.

In response to this latest judgment the same shareholders demanded an injunction that consisted in suspending the execution of the guarantee since it could constitute illegal State aid. Once again the demanding parties won the day and the execution of the guarantee was suspended in a decision dating from 19 December 2013. The timing by the Administrative Court to suspend the execution could not have been better. Indeed, the decision occurred only 24 hours after the Commission announced a formal investigation into the Valencia F.C case, thus, the alleged state aid could have been used as a fitting legal justification to suspend the guarantee. However, strangely enough, the Administrative Court did not refer to the State aid constellation. In the fourth paragraph of its judgment, the Court did recognize that procedural rules were breached including the European procedural rules on State aid[10], but the reasoning used to freeze the guarantee was based on national law. 

Peter Lim appears on stage: the end of all the trouble?

By January of this year, the IVF received a formal offer from Mr Lim to invest €210 million in the club. Mr Lim would, thus, take over IVF’s debt with Bankia. The Valencian government must have hoped for the end of their troubles. Indeed, it appeared that it was only the Commission decision it had to worry about.

But, Bankia, on the other hand, still believed it had a right to compensation by the Valencian government for refusing to execute the guarantee and launched a new civil procedure. In a ruling dating from 22 May 2014, the high Civil Court in Valencia sided with the bank and upheld the validity of the guarantee (yet again). Furthermore, the judge ordered the local government to pay €4.2 million as a compensation for loss of opportunities.[11] To make the legal uncertainty certain, the Valencian government quickly reaffirmed its refusal to pay any compensation to Bankia since it considered the execution of the guarantee as suspended by the Administrative Court.[12]

The ball in the Commission’s Court

From a substantive perspective, the Valencia State aid case seems quite straightforward. Valencia CF is a professional football club engaged in economic activities and should therefore be considered an undertaking under EU State aid rules. The guarantee provided by the local government constitutes an economic advantage for the football club over its competitors, as it is technically shield from the possibility of going bankrupt. The measure is selective, distorts competition towards clubs not enjoying a similar guarantee and is funded by State (more precisely the regional governments) resources. In other words, the criteria of article 107(1) TFEU can be considered as fulfilled. Finally, the measure does not appear to fall under any of the exemptions of articles 107(2) and 107(3) nor under any provisions of the General Block Exemption Regulation. 

It remains to be seen, however, whether the Commission will take an unprecedented action and sanction the local authorities of a Member State for supporting financially a professional football club. The Valencia case certainly provides an outstanding opportunity to do so. First of all, the facts of the case cast little doubt as to whether or not the measure breached EU State aid law. Second, even though the Commission cannot decide the matter in place of the Spanish Courts, any decision will create a guiding precedent hopefully putting a final point to the prevailing legal uncertainty of a long-lasting and protracted legal saga.

[1] The IVF is the Public Entity that  performs the public credit policy of the government of the autonomous region of Valencia

[2] Memoria de Actividades: Institut Valencià de Finances, Informe Anual 2009, page 48

[3] Sentencia N° 103/2013, N° de Recurso 239/2010, 8 March 2013, §5

[4] Ibid

[5] J. M. Bortvalencia, “Creo que Bankia no puede recurrir esta sentencia”, Levante – EMV, 21 March 2013

[6] Supra Nº3, §7

[7] Ibid

[8] Commission Decision State aid SA.36387 – Spain: Alleged aid in favour of three Valencia football clubs

[9] Las Provincias, El Valencia gana tranquilidad al decretar el TSJ que la Generalitat vuelve a ser avalista, 16 November 213

[10] Auto N° 239/2010,  19 December 2013, §4

[11] Iusport, Bankia levanta el hacha de guerra y ejecuta parte del aval del Valencia, 27 May 2014

[12] Las Provincias, La Generalitat «no se plantea pagar nada» por el aval a la Fundación del Valencia CF, 27 May 2014

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