Article 49 - Principles of legality and proportionality of criminal offences and penalties
Article 51 - Field of application
Article 52 - Scope and interpretation
Key facts of the case:
Reference for a preliminary ruling — Article 325 TFEU — Judgment of 8 September 2015, Taricco and Others (C‑105/14, EU:C:2015:555) — Criminal proceedings for infringements relating to value added tax (VAT) — National legislation laying down limitation periods liable to prevent the prosecution of infringements — Activities affecting the financial interests of the EU — Obligation to disapply any provisions of national law liable to have an adverse effect on the fulfilment of the Member States’ obligations under EU law — Principle that offences and penalties must be defined by law.
Outcome of the case:
On those grounds, the Court (Grand Chamber) hereby rules:
Article 325(1) and (2) TFEU must be interpreted as requiring the national court, in criminal proceedings for infringements relating to value added tax, to disapply national provisions on limitation, forming part of national substantive law, which prevent the application of effective and deterrent criminal penalties in a significant number of cases of serious fraud affecting the financial interests of the European Union, or which lay down shorter limitation periods for cases of serious fraud affecting those interests than for those affecting the financial interests of the Member State concerned, unless that disapplication entails a breach of the principle that offences and penalties must be defined by law because of the lack of precision of the applicable law or because of the retroactive application of legislation imposing conditions of criminal liability stricter than those in force at the time the infringement was committed.
19) Furthermore, the referring court observes that in the Taricco judgment the Court ruled on the issue of the compatibility of the rule in that judgment with Article 49 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (‘the Charter’) with regard only to the principle of non-retroactivity. It says that the Court did not, however, examine the other aspect of the principle that offences and penalties must be defined by law, namely the requirement that the rules on criminal liability must be sufficiently precise. This is, however, a requirement which forms part of the constitutional traditions common to the Member States and is also to be found in the system of protection of the ECHR, thus corresponding to a general principle of EU law. Even if the rules on limitation in criminal matters in the Italian legal system were to be regarded as procedural rules, they would still have to be applied in accordance with precise provisions.
47) In that respect, the national authorities and courts remain free to apply national standards of protection of fundamental rights, provided that the level of protection provided for by the Charter, as interpreted by the Court, and the primacy, unity and effectiveness of EU law are not thereby compromised (judgment of 26 February 2013, Åkerberg Fransson, C‑617/10, EU:C:2013:105, paragraph 29 and the case-law cited).
52) That principle, as enshrined in Article 49 of the Charter, must be observed by the Member States when they implement EU law, in accordance with Article 51(1) of the Charter, which is the case where, in the context of their obligations under Article 325 TFEU, they provide for the application of criminal penalties for infringements relating to VAT. The obligation to ensure the effective collection of the Union’s resources cannot therefore run counter to that principle (see, by analogy, judgment of 29 March 2012, Belvedere Costruzioni, C‑500/10, EU:C:2012:186, paragraph 23).
54) It may be seen from the Explanations relating to the Charter of Fundamental Rights (OJ 2007 C 303, p. 17) that, in accordance with Article 52(3) of the Charter, the right guaranteed in Article 49 has the same meaning and scope as the right guaranteed by the ECHR.