Case C-362/06 P, Sahlstedt

This case concerned Decision 2005/101, by which the Commission had adopted, pursuant to the Habitats Directive, the list of sites of Community importance for the Boreal biogeographical region.

These areas are designated following a three-stage procedure described in Art. 4 of the Directive.

In the first stage, the Member States propose to the Commission of the European Communities a list of sites of Community importance in their territory with a view to the conservation of types of natural habitat or species of flora or fauna covered by the Directive.

The list is to be accompanied by all the relevant information – not only scientific, ecological and geographical, but also economic and social– and must be communicated to the Commission in the three years following notification of the Directive.

Then, in the second stage, the Commission, acting in the context of a procedure involving an ad hoc committee, is to adopt a list of sites selected as sites of Community importance. That list is to be established within six years of notification of the Directive.

That is followed by the third and final stage, which is described in Art. 4(4) of the Directive. It marks the end of the procedure for designating special areas of conservation.

The Directive provides that once a site of Community importance has been adopted in accordance with the procedure laid down in paragraph 2, the Member State concerned shall designate that site as a special area of conservation as soon as possible and within six years at most.

Some of the land covered by the sites listed in the decision belonged to private persons; those landowners included all the appellants, with the exception of one, which was an association of approximately 163 000 farmers and foresters.

They requested the Court to set aside the order in Case T-150/05 Sahlstedt and Others v Commission [2006], by which the Court of First Instance dismissed their action for annulment of the aforementioned Decision by which these areas were designated in accordance with the third subparagraph of Art. 4(2) of the Directive.

The Court stressed that under Art. 230(4) EC, any natural or legal person might institute proceedings against a decision addressed to that person or against a decision which, although in the form of a regulation or a decision addressed to another person, was of direct and individual concern to the former. The Court pointed out that the contested decision was not addressed to the appellants. However, the Court reiterated that proceedings brought by a natural or legal person against a decision addressed to another person were admissible if the decision was of direct and individual concern to the former raised an absolute bar to proceeding, which the Community judicature might consider at any time, even of its own motion (see, for instance,
Case C‑341/00 P Conseil national des professions de l’automobile and Others v Commission [2001] and Case C‑176/06 P Stadtwerke Schw√§bisch Hall and Others v Commission [2007]).

In line with its famous Plaumann case law, the Court held that persons other than those to whom a decision was addressed might claim to be individually concerned only if that decision affected them by reason of certain attributes which were peculiar to them or by reason of circumstances in which they were differentiated from all other persons and by virtue of those factors distinguished them individually just as in the case of the person addressed by such a decision. (
Case 25/62 Plaumann v Commission [1963]).

The Court held that the contested decision was, vis-à-vis any person concerned, of general application inasmuch as it applied to all economic operators who, in whatever capacity, carried on or were likely to carry on activities in the areas concerned which could jeopardise the conservation objectives of the Habitats Directive.

However, the Court had reiterated that the fact that a provision was, by its nature and scope, a provision of general application inasmuch as it applied to the economic operators concerned in general, did not of itself prevent that provision from being of individual concerned to some. Where the decision affected a group of persons who were identified or identifiable when that measure was adopted by reason of criteria specific to the members of the group, those persons might be individually concerned by that measure inasmuch as they formed part of a limited class of economic operators. However, the fact that it was possible to determine more or less precisely the number, or even the identity, of the persons to whom a measure applied by no means implied that that measure must be regarded as being of individual concern to those persons where it was established that that application took effect by virtue of an objective legal or factual situation defined by the measure in question (see e.g.
Case C‑451/98 Antillean Rice Mills v Council [2001]; the order in Case C‑96/01 P Galileo and Galileo International v Council [2002]; and the order in Case C‑503/07 P Saint-Gobain Glass Deutschland v Commission [2008]).

The Court held that in the present case it appeared that the contested decision was of concern to the appellants only in so far as they had rights in the lands covered by some of the sites of Community interest adopted by the Commission, by virtue of an objective legal or factual situation defined by the measure in question and not in accordance with criteria specific to the category of landowners.

Moreover, since the contested decision was not adopted in the light of the specific situation of the landowners, it could not be regarded as a group of individual decisions addressed to each landowner.

The Court concluded that, with the exception of the aforementioned association, the appellants could not be regarded as individually concerned by the contested decision for the purposes of Art. 230(4) EC.

With regard to the association, the Court held that the defence of the general and collective interests of a category of persons was not sufficient to establish the admissibility of an action for annulment brought by an association. In the absence of special circumstances, such as the role which it could have played in a procedure leading to the adoption of the measure in question, such an association was not entitled to bring an action for annulment on behalf of its members where the latter could not do so individually (see, in particular, the order in
Case C‑409/96 P Sveriges Betodlares and Henrikson v Commission [1997]).

Since natural or legal persons who own land within the sites of Community interest adopted by the contested decision were not individually concerned by that decision, even supposing that the association included such persons among its members, it could not, of itself, be regarded as individually concerned by that decision.

Text of Judgment