European Commission Discovers The Hard Way That Corporate Sovereignty Provisions And EU Laws Are Incompatible

The US government and European Commission insist that the inclusion of a corporate sovereignty chapter in the TAFTA/TTIP treaty will not in any way diminish the ability of nations to pass laws as they wish. A fascinating case involving an investment in Romania shows why that’s just not true. It concerns a state aid scheme instituted by Romania to attract investments in the country, which offered tax breaks or refunds of customs duties on raw materials. The scheme was supposed to remain in place for 10 years. But as part of Romania’s accession to the EU, it was required to cancel this scheme, which was regarded by the European Commission as providing unfair state aid. So, obediently, Romania abolished the scheme in 2005, some years earlier than it had promised.

That didn’t go down too well with investors. Two of them were able to use the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clauses of a bilateral treaty between Sweden and Romania to sue the latter. Here’s what happened next, as described in the European Commission’s press release:

An arbitral award of December 2013 found that by revoking an investment incentive scheme in 2005, four years prior to its scheduled expiry in 2009, Romania had infringed a bilateral investment treaty between Romania and Sweden. The arbitral tribunal ordered Romania to compensate the claimants, two investors with Swedish citizenship, for not having benefitted in full from the scheme.

Just part of the price of joining the European Union, you might think. But the European Commission is unhappy that compensation has been paid:

By paying the compensation awarded to the claimants, Romania actually grants them advantages equivalent to those provided for by the abolished aid scheme. The Commission has therefore concluded that this compensation amounts to incompatible state aid and has to be paid back by the beneficiaries.

That is, both the original state aid and the subsequent compensation for not providing that aid for the full term of the agreement are regarded as forbidden under EU law. So the European Commission is ordering Romania somehow to pull back from the Swedish investors the compensation awarded by the ISDS tribunal. Leaving aside the difficulty of doing so, even if Romania manages that, it will then be in breach of the corporate sovereignty tribunal ruling, which could leave it open to further legal action, and further awards against it. On the other hand, if it doesn’t rescind the compensation, it will be fined by the European Commission.

This provides a perfect demonstration of how corporate sovereignty provisions in treaties take away the ability of national governments to act freely. Moreover, in this particular case, whatever Romania chooses to do, its people will suffer financially.

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