Key facts of the case:
ppeal — State aid — Article 108(2) TFEU — Investment aid — Operating aid — Airport infrastructure — Public funding by the municipalities of Gdynia and Kosakowo for setting up the Gdynia-Kosakowo Airport — Decision of the European Commission — Aid incompatible with the internal market — Order for recovery of the aid — Annulment by the General Court of the European Union — Essential procedural requirement — Procedural rights of the interested parties.
Outcome of the case:
On those grounds, the Court (Fifth Chamber) hereby:
44) In their view, the Commission is trying to minimise the importance of the right of the interested parties in the present case to submit comments, by relying on settled case-law according to which the role of interested parties in a formal investigation procedure is only to serve as a source of information for the Commission. Such arguments are contrary to EU law as it currently stands, since the judgments cited by the Commission in that regard were delivered before the entry into force of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (‘the Charter’).
45) The interested parties’ right to be heard before the adoption of a Commission decision should now be taken into account. Contrary to what the Commission argues in that regard, the municipality of Gdynia and PLGK do not contend that the fact that the Charter is fully applicable to the procedures conducted by the Commission and that Article 41(2)(a) of the Charter — which provides that every person has the right to be heard before any individual measure which would affect him or her adversely is taken — applies to the beneficiary of aid such as PLGK means that the municipality of Gdynia and PLGK enjoy, under the provisions of the Charter, a right to an adversarial debate with the Commission.
55) In particular, it contends that it is in no way apparent from the judgment under appeal that the General Court granted rights of defence to the interested parties in the present case. By contrast, the General Court held that the Commission was required to invite those parties to put forward their arguments before the adoption of the decision at issue, in view of the scope of the amendments made by the 2014 Guidelines. The right to formulate comments is not limited to the rights of defence alone, but has a wider scope. It is, in particular, an essential element of the right to good administration, provided for in Article 41 of the Charter, which the municipality of Gdynia and PLGK can rely on, as well as the right to the protection of legitimate expectations.
89) In the second place, the finding set out in paragraph 86 of the present judgment is not called into question either by the arguments put forward both by the municipality of Gdynia and PLGK and by the Republic of Poland to the effect that the interested parties’ right to be given the opportunity to submit comments in a situation such as that at issue must be assessed in the light of the fundamental rights protected by the Charter and, in particular, in the light of the right to good administration provided for in Article 41 of the Charter, which is one of the components thereof.
90) In that regard, it must be noted that, as the Commission submits, and as the Advocate General also observed in point 52 of his Opinion, the entry into force of the Charter has not altered the nature of the rights conferred by Article 108(2) TFEU, nor is it intended to alter the nature of the control of State aid established by the Treaty.