State Aid: some news and few open issues

Last June, EC released its new GBER known as “General Block Exemption Regulation (COMMISSION REGULATION (EU) No 651/2014 of 17 June 2014 declaring certain categories of aid compatible with the internal market in application of Articles 107 and 108 of the Treaty). Good news! And at last, the occasion to clarify and simplify application of state aid rules to some sensitive areas.

First of all, it clarifies complex situation at local level and introduces new possibilities of full public funding of “local interest” infrastructures. This is a clarification regarding the Leipzig-Halle case that gave the feeling that there was no possibility to separate the “public” status of the land/building and the “economic” use of it: full state aid rules to be applied! With the new GBER it will be still state aid but a specific exemption is introduced: there will be full possibilities of public funding of centres (such as incubators) or regeneration plans if all is organised to make it “open, transparent and non-discriminatory” for users, including economic operators. Open issues are:

– The method of calculation of the “viability gap” of the infrastructure (i.e. what is necessary to cover, as a deficit, with public money).

– And maybe how to combine GBER and SGEI (services of general economic interest) that are now two ways to finance economic activities that have a general interest for public bodies.

Secondly, it ensures sound exemption of sectors that used to be part of the “grey” area (between public duties and economic interest). Full exemption could be granted to sport, culture and multifunctional infrastructures where, once again, a sound viability gap is calculated and the condition of use by end-users clarified. The problem is that the stakeholders of these sectors were not maybe asking so much recognition and still prefer to be classified as “general interest” activities and not undertakings such as…simple merchants. This is the point: either you accept to be economic stakeholders – creating jobs and contributing to local and national GDP, and then welcome in the state aid world and its (new) exemptions. Either you still claim direct exemption as local or “non-economic” activities and therefore just prove that your activities are not tradable between member states!

Finally, it raises the status of the De minimis exemption. It used to be considered as “non state aid”. As far as the new financial perspectives are concerned, it will be “full state aid”. The question is now the order of application and cumulation of exemptions. The danger is still to apply straightforward De minimis exemption whatsoever the subject and object of the aid only because that’s a small amount. It sounds practical and interesting for both authorities and beneficiaries, even if still authorities must ensure the respect of the 200 000€ threshold at beneficiary level (including the risks of “forgotten” aides). But what if De minimis is applied just to get a higher support than the GBER? A small amount is a small amount…but fair competition within a particular sector (such as training, R&D, culture and sport…) is also to be taken into account.