Summaries of judgments made in collaboration with the Portuguese judge and référendaires of the CJEU (Nuno Piçarra, Mariana Tavares and Sophie Perez)
Judgment of the Court (Fourth Chamber) of 29 January 2020, GAEC Jeanningros v Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO) and Others – Case C-785/18, EU:C:2020:46
Reference for a preliminary ruling – Agriculture – Protection of geographical indications and designations of origin for agricultural products and foodstuffs – Protected designation of origin ‘Comté’ – Minor amendment to a product specification – Action before national courts contesting an application for an amendment – Case-law of the national courts according to which the action becomes devoid of purpose when the European Commission has approved the amendment – Effective judicial protection – Obligation to rule on the action
The request for a preliminary ruling concerned the interpretation of, inter alia, Article 53 of Regulation (EU) No 1151/2012 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 November 2012 on quality schemes for agricultural products and foodstuffs (OJ 2012 L 343, p. 1). The main proceedings concerned the amendment of the product specification for the protected designation of origin (PDO) ‘Comté’.
On 8 September 2017, the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the Minister for Economic Affairs and Finance (France) issued a decree approving a minor amendment to the product specification for the ‘Comté’ PDO with a view to submitting that minor amendment to the Commission for approval, in accordance with the procedure laid down in Article 53 of Regulation No 1151/2012. By an action brought on 16 November 2017 before the Conseil d’État (Council of State, France), GAEC Jeanningros sought the annulment of the decree, in so far as it approved that minor amendment. While those proceedings were still pending, by decision published on 1 June 2018 (OJ 2018 C 187, p. 7), the Commission approved the application for a minor amendment to the product specification for the ‘Comté’ PDO at issue, in accordance with the second subparagraph of Article 53(2) of Regulation No 1151/2012.
According to settled case-law of the Conseil d’État, this circumstance has as a consequence that no ruling would be given on the lawfulness of the product specification in question. Indeed, the approval given by the Commission to an application for a minor amendment to the product specification for a PDO, in accordance with the second subparagraph of Article 53(2) of Regulation No 1151/2012, may result, according to that case-law, in the action, brought before it against the measure by which the competent national authorities submitted the new product specification containing the minor amendment to the Commission for approval, being rendered devoid of purpose.
The Conseil d’État thus entertained doubts as to the compatibility of its own case-law with EU law, particularly Article 47 CFREU, bearing in mind the impact that annulment of a decision made by national authorities concerning an application for an amendment to the product specification for a PDO may have on the validity of the registration thereof by the Commission.
The Court of Justice interpreted Article 53(2) of Regulation No 1151/2012, read in conjunction with Article 47 CFREU, as meaning that, when the European Commission has granted an application made by the authorities of a Member State seeking a minor amendment to a product specification for a PDO, the national courts hearing an action concerning the lawfulness of the decision made by those authorities on that application with a view to submitting it to the Commission, in accordance with Article 53(2) of Regulation No 1151/2012, cannot, on that ground alone, decide that there is no longer any need to adjudicate on the dispute pending before them.
The Court of Justice based its decision, on the one hand, on the system of division of powers between the Commission and the authorities of the Member States in the procedures for the registration of a name as a PDO and for minor or not minor amendments to a product specification for a PDO established by Regulation No 1151/2012. Taking into account the decision-making power which belongs to national authorities under that system, it is for national courts alone to rule on the lawfulness of measures adopted by those authorities, such as measures relating to the application to register a name as a POD or measures relating to an application for minor or not minor amendment to a product specification for a PDO. Though these acts constitute a necessary step in the procedure for adopting an EU act, such as registration decisions or decisions approving a minor or a not minor amendment to a product specification for a PDO, the EU institutions have only limited, if any, discretion. In particular, the decision by which, as in the circumstances at issue in the main proceedings, the Commission approves an application for a minor amendment is based on the decision made by the authorities of the Member State concerned in respect of that application and, accordingly, is necessarily influenced by the latter decision, particularly since the discretion conferred on the Commission at the time of that approval is, in essence, limited to checking that the application contains the information required and does not appear to be vitiated by manifest errors.
On the other hand, the Court of Justice recalled in this context its settled case-law by which it is for the courts of the Member States, under Articles 4(3) and 19(1) TEU and Article 47 CFREU, to ensure that a person’s rights enjoy judicial protection under EU law. Thus, in procedures for the registration of a name as a PDO and for minor or not minor amendments to a product specification for a PDO established by Regulation No 1151/2012, it is for national courts to rule on any irregularity that may vitiate a national act, making a reference to the Court for a preliminary ruling where appropriate under Article 267 TFEU. The EU Courts do not in fact have jurisdiction, in actions brought under Article 263 TFEU, to rule on the lawfulness of measures adopted by national authorities, even if the measure in question forms part of a Union decision-making procedure. Moreover, the Court of Justice pointed out that, unlike the procedure regarding a not minor amendment to the product specification, the procedure relating to an application for a minor amendment to the product specification, set out in the second subparagraph of Article 53(2) of Regulation No 1151/2012, does not provide for the possibility of lodging an opposition to the proposed amendment. Thus, the action concerning the lawfulness of a decision made by national authorities approving that application for a minor amendment is the only opportunity for natural or legal persons affected by such a decision to oppose it.
In those circumstances, the Court of Justice considered that the finding by a national court hearing an action concerning the lawfulness of a decision made by the national authorities relating to an application for a minor amendment to a product specification for a PDO that there is no longer any need to adjudicate on that action, on the ground that the Commission has approved that application, would compromise the effective judicial protection that that court is required to provide in respect of such applications for amendments. Moreover, any possible annulment of such a decision taken by the national authorities would deprive the Commission’s decision of any basis and, consequently, entail a review of the case by the Commission.