Case C-458/06, Gourmet Classic

>> Court has jurisdiction in Art. 234 cases even if all parties agree on interpretation of Community law provision.

The Gourmet Classic case, which was delivered this morning, prima facie seemed just an ordinary Art. 234 EC case. The Regeringsrätten (The Swedish Supreme Administrative Court) asked the Court whether the alcohol in cooking wine must be regarded as ethyl alcohol within the meaning of Art. 20 of Directive 92/83. However, as AG Bot pointed out in his Opinion to this case: “a particular feature of this case is that in the main proceedings all parties agree that the alcohol contained in cooking wine must be regarded as ethyl alcohol within the meaning of that provision.”

The Court of Justice therefore was faced with the question whether a dispute actually existed and hence had jurisdiction to give a ruling on the question referred.

The AG found that the Court lacked jurisdiction to give a ruling in this case, arguing that “to accept that the Court has jurisdiction in a case such as that before me is to distort the objective pursued by Art. 234 EC and disregard the conditions for bringing an action before the Court under that Article to the effect that there must be of a dispute and that the question referred for a preliminary ruling must be justified by the need to resolve a genuine controversy.”

Nevertheless, the Court found that it did have jurisdiction. It held that Article 234 EC aimed to avoid divergences in the interpretation of Community law which the national courts had to apply and aimed to ensure that, in all circumstances, that law had the same effect in all Member States (see
Case 166/73 Rheinmühlen-Düsseldorf [1974]
The Court reiterated that the procedure provided for in Art. 234 EC was an instrument of cooperation between the Court of Justice and the national courts. In the context of that cooperation, it was for the national court or tribunal, which alone had direct knowledge of the facts of the main proceedings and which must assume responsibility for the subsequent judicial decision, to assess, in the light of the particular circumstances of the case, both the need for a preliminary ruling in order to enable it to deliver judgment and the relevance of the questions which it submitted to the Court. Where questions submitted by national courts concerned the interpretation of a provision of Community law, the Court of Justice was, in principle, obliged to give a ruling (see inter alia Joined cases C-297/88 and C-197/89 Dzodzi [1990], Case C-83/91 Meilicke [1992] and Case C-412/93 Leclerc-Siplec [1995]).

The Court admitted that while “the spirit of cooperation” which must prevail in the exercise of the functions assigned by Art. 234 EC to the national courts, on the one hand, and the Community judicature, on the other, required the Court of Justice to have regard to the particular responsibilities of the national court, it implied at the same time that the national court, in the use which it made of the possibilities offered by that Article, must have regard to the particular function entrusted to the Court of Justice in this field, which was to assist in the administration of justice in the Member States and not to deliver advisory opinions on general or hypothetical questions.

The Court pointed out that the purpose of the procedure before the Regeringsrätten was to review the legality of an opinion which, once it became definitive, bound the tax authorities and served as the basis for the assessment to tax if and to the extent to which the person who applied for the opinion continued with the action envisaged in his application. In those circumstances, the Regeringsrätten must be held to be carrying out a judicial function. The fact that all parties confirmed the preliminary opinion of the Skatterättsnämnden did not affect the judicial nature of the main proceedings.

The Court of Justice argued that Regeringsrätten asked the Court of Justice a question concerning the interpretation of a provision of Community law, namely the first indent of Art. 20 of Directive 92/83, and it considered that a preliminary ruling on that point was necessary in order to review the legality of the preliminary opinion of the Skatterättsnämnden. The Court was therefore not being asked to deliver an advisory opinion on a hypothetical question.

Moreover, since there was no judicial remedy under national law against the decisions of the Regeringsrätten, that court was obliged, under Art. 234(3) EC, to bring the matter before the Court of Justice. Consequently, it was only by referring a question to the Court for a preliminary ruling that the objective pursued by that provision could be attained, that was to ensure the proper application and uniform interpretation of Community law in all the Member States and to prevent a body of national case-law that was not in accordance with the rules of Community law from coming into existence in the Member State concerned.

The Court thus found that it had jurisdiction to reply to the question posed by the Regeringsrätten. In short, it concluded that the alcohol contained in cooking wine was, if it had an alcoholic strength exceeding 1.2% by volume, to be classified as ethyl alcohol as referred to in the first indent of Art. 20 of Council Directive 92/83.

Text of Judgment