Bulgaria order for retailers to sell local food triggers EU infringement procedure

The European Commission said on May 14 that it opened infringement proceedings against Bulgaria in relation to the Cabinet decree that requires supermarket chains to sell produce and other foodstuffs made in their regions.

The government order, issued on April 13, was meant to reduce the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic on food producers in the country by requiring retailers to offer distinct exposure and sale space for domestic food products, such as milk, fish, fresh meat and eggs, honey, fruits and vegetables.

But in a letter of formal notice, the first stage of the EU infringement procedure, the European Commission asked Bulgaria “to remove discriminatory measures obliging retailers to favour domestic food products.”

“Such obligations restrict the free movement of goods, enshrined in Article 34 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU), as it creates more advantageous and competitive marketing conditions for domestic food products, discriminating against similar imported products,” the Commission said.

“It further restricts the freedom of establishment under Article 49 TFEU, in restricting the freedom of retailers to decide on their assortment, on the lay out of their sales surface, and to adapt their supply chain.”

The European Commission said that such restrictions could only be justified by overriding reasons of general interest, such as public health, and “must be suitable and necessary for attaining that objective.”

“Due to the extraordinary circumstances due to the coronavirus sanitary situation and the weakening of EU economies, it is an imperative to preserve the free movement of goods and the freedom of establishment. Unjustified obstacles can undermine our collective efforts to keep freight moving freely and efficiently across the EU, and our capacity to fight this unprecedented crisis, in the spirit of European solidarity,” the Commission said.

Bulgaria had one month to respond to the letter and the Commission could escalate the matter with a reasoned opinion, the second stage of the infringement process, if it does not receive a satisfactory response.

This short period set this case apart from the bulk of the EU infringements package for May, where the normal two-month period for replying to letters of formal notice and reasoned opinions was extended to four months, as the Commission acknowledged that the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing measures to combat it have put a serious strain on national administrations.

Bulgaria was subject to a number of new infringement proceedings, receiving a total of eight letters of formal notice.

Another notable case was in a policy area where Bulgaria has faced repeated infringement proceedings, with the European Commission asking the country to remove barriers to access to justice for citizens and environmental organisations in relation to air quality plans.

The Commission said that Bulgaria had not ensured that “natural or legal persons directly concerned by exceedances of the air pollution limits under Directive 2008/50/EC on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe” could challenge the consistency of an air quality plan in court.

In this instance, Bulgaria has four months to respond to the EU letter.

Other letters of formal notice concerned the incorrect application of EU rules on road safety related traffic information; the provision of EU-wide real-time traffic information services; the provision of EU-wide multi-modal travel information services; information services for safe and secure parking places; the provision of data link services for aircraft operators; as well as a request to designate a “just-culture body” to ensure that anyone reporting safety-relevant occurrences in civil aviation is not penalised by their employers or by authorities.

One existing case was escalated to the second stage of infringement proceedings, with Bulgaria receiving a reasoned opinion urging the country to ensure that urban waste water is adequately collected and treated, as required by Directive 91/271/EEC on the treatment of urban waste water.

It noted that Bulgaria fails to provide a collecting system in 48 big agglomerations (of 2000 people or more), while in 69 big agglomerations it fails to ensure that the urban waste water entering collecting systems is subject to appropriate treatment.

In 71 big agglomerations, it does not ensure that the urban waste water entering collecting systems and discharging into sensitive areas is subject to more stringent treatment. All these agglomerations should have been compliant by December 31 2010, the Commission said.

Finally, the Commission said that it closed the infringement procedure against Bulgaria concerning the assignment of digital terrestrial television frequencies, initially opened in 2012.

The case was referred to the EU’s Court of Justice in 2013, which confirmed the Commission’s findings in 2015. Bulgaria took steps to address the Commission’s concerns through an amendment to the legislation at issue and the withdrawal of one of the disputed licenses, prompting the case closure.

(Photo: Bartosz Wacawski/freeimages.com)

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