Dr Albert Sanchez Graells, School of Law, University of Leicester
In its judgment of 14 January 2015 in Eventech (C-518/13, EU:C:2015:9), the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) ruled on the preliminary question referred by the Court of Appeal (England and Wales) in the Addison Lee “taxis in bus lanes” case [as part of the challenge of the High Court’s decision in Eventech Ltd (R on the application of) v Parking Adjudicator (2012)  EWHC 1903 (Admin)]. The CJEU decided that allowing London taxis (black cabs) to use bus lanes while prohibiting private hire vehicles (PHVs) from doing so does not appear to involve State aid. While the Eventech judgment leaves a minimum scope for the Court of Appeals to find differently in view of the specific facts of the case and the parts of the file not referred to the CJEU, this is most likely the end of the dispute.
The decision comes at a time when the regulation of the taxi sector is under significant pressure due to the political and economic waves that sharing economy initiatives (such as Uber) create – or, in the words of AG Wahl in the Eventech Opinion, “taxis and PHVs are engaged in fierce competition with each other across Europe, and London is not the only city where conflicts have arisen” (EU:C:2014:2239, para 2). This is a sector where competition rules have always been difficult to enforce due to the heavy regulation to which it is subjected (OECD, Competition Roundtable on ‘Taxi Services: Competition and Regulation’, 2007). Some claim that it is a sector ripe for proper deregulation and liberalisation, while others claim the opposite [for recent discussion, see L Eskenazi, ‘The French Taxi Case: Where Competition Meets—and Overrides—Regulation’ (2014) Journal of European Competition Law & Practice, and Publicpolicy.ie, The Taxi Market in Ireland: To Regulate or Deregulate? (2014)]. The discussion on the State aid implications of certain privileges derived from such regulation in crisis, and particularly the privileged use of bus lanes, added one layer of complication that the CJEU seems to have been keen on taking off the table.
The legal dispute in front of the CJEU can be condensed to opposing views on whether allowing black cabs to use bus lanes while prohibiting PHVs from doing so infringed the prohibition in Article 107(1) TFEU. It can be further narrowed down to the two key issues of whether this policy involves a commitment of State resources and whether it confers on taxis a selective economic advantage. Both elements need to be present for the prohibition of Article 107(1) TFEU to apply. The CJEU found in the negative on both aspects and determined that the practice of permitting, “in order to establish a safe and efficient transport system, black cabs to use bus lanes on public roads during the hours when the traffic restrictions relating to those lanes are operational, while prohibiting minicabs from using those lanes, except in order to pick up and set down passengers who have pre-booked such vehicles, does not appear, though it is for the referring court to determine, to be such as to involve a commitment of State resources or to confer on black cabs a selective economic advantage for the purpose of Article 107(1) TFEU” (C-518/13, para 63).
In my view, the Eventech judgment is criticisable in both areas. It fails to address the issues of economic advantage and selectivity in a functional manner—not least because the analysis of the selectivity of the measure ultimately relies on an assessment of ‘equality’ or ‘comparability’ of the legal position of black cabs vis-à-vis PHVs that falls into a logic trap derived from the pre-existing regulation of black cabs. Moreover, the analysis of the element of transfer of State resources is very counterintuitive and seems to contradict both economic theory (particularly as the use of public goods is concerned) and the case law on access to essential facilities under private ownership.
The finding that State resources are not involved is partial and flawed
Following the Opinion of AG Wahl, the CJEU engages in a rather counterintuitive approach to the issue of the transfer of State resources, which focusses on whether the State is forfeiting revenue by not charging black cabs for access to the bus lanes or by not imposing fines on them when they use the bus lanes, as it does with PHVs (judgment, paras 36-46). This approach comes from the AG Opinion, where he had decided to assess the question from the perspective of the regulatory powers of the Member State and fundamentally concluded that, in the exercise of those regulatory powers, there is no obligation to impose a charge for access to public infrastructure (Opinion, paras 24-35). Continue reading