Key facts of the case:
Request for a preliminary ruling under Article 267 TFEU from the Tribunale di Cuneo (Italy), made by decision of 17 January 2014, received at the Court on 5 March 2014, in the criminal proceedings against Ivo Taricco, Ezio Filippi, Isabella Leonetti, Nicola Spagnolo, Davide Salvoni, Flavio Spaccavento, Goranco Anakiev.
Reference for a preliminary ruling — Criminal proceedings concerning offences in relation to value added tax (VAT) — Article 325 TFEU — National legislation laying down absolute limitation periods which may give rise to impunity in respect of offences — Potential prejudice to the financial interest of the European Union — Obligation, for the national court, to disapply any provision of national law liable to affect fulfilment of the Member States’ obligations under EU law.
Results (sanctions) and key consequences of the case:
...the Court (Grand Chamber) hereby rules:
1. A national rule in relation to limitation periods for criminal offences such as that laid down by the last subparagraph of Article 160 of the Penal Code, as amended by Law No 251 of 5 December 2005, read in conjunction with Article 161 of that Code — which provided, at the material time in the main proceedings, that the interruption of criminal proceedings concerning serious fraud in relation to value added tax had the effect of extending the limitation period by only a quarter of its initial duration — is liable to have an adverse effect on fulfilment of the Member States’ obligations under Article 325(1) and (2) TFEU if that national rule prevents the imposition of effective and dissuasive penalties in a significant number of cases of serious fraud affecting the financial interests of the European Union, or provides for longer limitation periods in respect of cases of fraud affecting the financial interests of the Member State concerned than in respect of those affecting the financial interests of the European Union, which it is for the national court to verify. The national court must give full effect to Article 325(1) and (2) TFEU, if need be by disapplying the provisions of national law the effect of which would be to prevent the Member State concerned from fulfilling its obligations under Article 325(1) and (2) TFEU.
2. A limitation system applicable to criminal offences in relation to value added tax such as that established by the last subparagraph of Article 160 of the Penal Code, as amended by Law No 251 of 5 December 2005, read in conjunction with Article 161 of that Code, cannot be assessed in the light of Articles 101 TFEU, 107 TFEU and 119 TFEU.
54. In that respect, several interested parties which submitted observations to the Court referred to Article 49 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (‘the Charter’) which enshrines the principles of legality and proportionality of criminal offences and penalties, according to which, inter alia, no one is to be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence under national law or international law at the time when it was committed.
55. However, subject to verification by the national court, the sole effect of the disapplication of the national provisions at issue would be to not shorten the general limitation period in the context of pending criminal proceedings, to allow the effective prosecution of the alleged crimes, and to ensure, if necessary, that penalties intended to protect the financial interests of the European Union and those intended to protect the financial interests of the Italian Republic are treated in the same way. Such a disapplication of national law would not infringe the rights of the accused, as guaranteed by Article 49 of the Charter.
56. It would in no way lead to a conviction of the accused for an act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence under national law at the time when it was committed (see, by analogy, judgment in Niselli, C‑457/02, EU:C:2004:707, paragraph 30), nor to the application of a penalty which, at that time, was not laid down by national law. On the contrary, the acts which the accused are alleged to have committed constituted, at the time when they were committed, the same offence and were punishable by the same criminal penalties as those applicable at present.
57. The case-law of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to Article 7 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, signed in Rome on 4 November 1950, which enshrines rights corresponding to those guaranteed by Article 49 of the Charter, support that conclusion. Thus, according to that case-law, the extension of the limitation period and its immediate application do not entail an infringement of the rights guaranteed by Article 7 of that convention, since that provision cannot be interpreted as prohibiting an extension of limitation periods where the relevant offences have never become subject to limitation (see, to that effect, Coëme and Others v. Belgium, nos. 32492/96, 32547/96, 32548/96, 33209/96 and 33210/96, § 149, ECHR 2000-VI; Scoppola v. Italy (no. 2) [GC], no. 10249/03, § 110 and the case-law cited, 17 September 2009, and OAO Neftyanaya Kompaniya Yukos v. Russia, no. 14902/04, §§ 563, 564 and 570 and the case-law cited, 20 September 2011).