Hungarian law authorises Hungarian companies to convert, but does not allow a company governed by the law of another Member State to convert to a Hungarian company.
The Italian company Vale Costruzioni S.r.l. was incorporated and added to the commercial register in Rome in 2000. On 3 February 2006, that company applied to be deleted from that register as it wished to transfer its seat and business to Hungary, and to discontinue business in Italy. On 13 February 2006, the company was removed from the Italian commercial register, in which it was noted that ‘the company had moved to Hungary.
Once the company had been removed from the register, the director of Vale Costruzioni S.r.l. and another natural person incorporated Vale Építési Kft. The representative of Vale Építési Kft. requested a Hungarian commercial court to register the company in the Hungarian commercial register, together with an entry stating that Vale Costruzioni S.r.l. was the predecessor in law of Vale Építési kft. However, that application was rejected by the commercial court on the ground that a company which was incorporated and registered in Italy could not transfer its seat to Hungary and could not be registered in the Hungarian commercial register as the predecessor in law of a Hungarian company.
The Legfelsőbb Bíróság (i.e.: Supreme Court, Hungary), which has to adjudicate on the application to register Vale Építési Kft., asks the Court of Justice whether Hungarian legislation which enables Hungarian companies to convert but prohibits companies established in another Member State from converting to Hungarian companies is compatible with the principle of the freedom of establishment. In that regard, the Hungarian court seeks to determine whether, when registering a company in the commercial register, a Member State may refuse to register the predecessor of that company which originates in another Member State.
In its Judgment in Case C-378/10 VALE Építési Kft. the Court of Justice of the European Union notes that, in the absence of a uniform definition of companies in EU law, companies exist only by virtue of the national legislation which determines their incorporation and functioning. Thus, in the context of cross-border company conversions, the host Member State may determine the national law applicable to such operations and apply the provisions of its national law on the conversion of national companies that govern the incorporation and functioning of companies.
However, the Court of Justice points out that national legislation in this area cannot escape the principle of the freedom of establishment from the outset and, as a result, national provisions which prohibit companies from another Member State from converting, while authorising national companies to do so, must be examined in light of that principle.
In that regard, the Court finds that, by providing only for conversion of companies which already have their seat in Hungary, the Hungarian national legislation at issue, treats, in a general manner, companies differently according to whether the conversion is domestic or of a cross-border nature.
However, since such a difference in treatment is likely to deter companies which have their seat in another Member State from exercising the freedom of establishment, it amounts to an unjustified restriction on the exercise of that freedom.
Moreover, the Court notes, firstly, that the implementation of a cross-border conversion requires the consecutive application of two national laws to that legal operation. Secondly, the Court states that specific rules capable of substituting national provisions cannot be inferred from Articles 49 TFEU and 54 TFEU. In such circumstances, national provisions must be applied in compliance with the principles of equivalence and effectiveness designed to ensure the protection of the rights which individuals acquire under EU law.
Consequently, the Court finds, firstly, that the application by Hungary of the provisions of its national law on domestic conversions governing the incorporation and functioning of companies, such as the requirements to draw up lists of assets and liabilities and property inventories, cannot be called into question.
Secondly, where a Member State requires, in the context of a domestic conversion, strict legal and economic continuity between the predecessor company which applied to be converted and the converted successor company, such a requirement may also be imposed in the context of a cross-border conversion.
However, the Court finds, thirdly, that EU law precludes the authorities of a Member State from refusing to record in its commercial register, in the case of cross-border conversions, the company of the Member State of origin as the predecessor in law of the converted company, if such a record is made of the predecessor company in the case of domestic conversions.
Finally, the Court answers that, when examining a company’s application for registration, the authorities of the host Member State are required to take due account of documents obtained from the authorities of the Member State of origin certifying that, when it ceased to operate in the Member State of origin, that company did in fact comply with the national legislation of that Member State.
Italian legislation on the reorganisation of local taxationauthorises the provinces and municipalities to organise their own revenues, including taxes, by means of regulations. Local authorities may choose to award the tasks of assessment and collection of taxes and all local revenues to third party operators. In that case, those activities are awarded by means of concessions which comply with EU legislation on the tendering of the management of local public services.
The concession holders first collect the tax revenue covered by the contracts and then, after retaining a “collection charge”, pay the amounts in question over to the public authorities at the end of each quarter. The profit of the concession holders is also generated by financial market transactions carried out using the funds which they hold.
Italian legislationalso provides that private companies seeking to carry out those activities must be entered in a register of private undertakings authorised to perform activities relating to the assessment and collection of taxes. They must have a fully paid-up share capital of EUR 10 million, whereas companies in which a majority of the share capital is in public ownership are not subject to that condition. The award of those services to operators which fail to satisfy that financial requirement is null and void. Such operators may not be awarded new contracts, and may not participate in tendering procedures initiated for that purpose, unless they increase their share capital accordingly.
The Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale per la Lombardia (Regional Administrative Court, Lombardy) is required to rule in several sets of proceedings between private companies and regional municipalities in Lombardy. Those private undertakings submitted tenders for the award of concessions but were excluded from the procedure because they did not have a fully paid-up share capital of EUR 10 million.
The Italian court has referred questions to the Court of Justice concerning the compatibility of the Italian legislation with European Union law and, in particular, with the rules on freedom to provide services and freedom of establishment.
In its Judgment in Joined Cases C-357/10 to C-359/10 Duomo Gpa Srl and Others v Comune di Baranzate and Others, the Court’s reply is that the Italian legislation amounts to a restriction on freedom of establishment and freedom to provide services inasmuch as it contains a condition relating to minimum share capital and forces private operators wishing to pursue those activities to incorporate and to have a fully paid-up share capital of EUR 10 million.
Consequently, such a provision impedes or renders less attractive the freedom of establishment and the freedom to provide services.
The Court then goes on to examine whether such a restriction may be justified by overriding reasons in the public interest.
The only ground of justification raised before the Court is the need to protect public authorities against possible non-performance by the concession holder, in the light of the high overall value of the contracts which have been awarded to it. In practice, the concession holders, by first collecting the tax revenue, hold and deal with millions of euros which they are required to pay over to the public authorities.
The Court does not rule out the possibility that such an objective may constitute an overriding reason in the public interest – and not a reason that is purely economic in nature. However, it notes that a restriction of the fundamental freedoms may be justified only if the relevant measure is appropriate for ensuring the attainment of the legitimate objective pursued and does not go beyond what is necessary to attain that objective.
According to the referring court, however, other provisions are capable of providing adequate protection for public authorities; proof, on the part of the operator concerned, of its technical and financial capacity, creditworthiness and solvency, or, in addition, the application of minimum thresholds for share capital that vary depending on the value of the contracts actually awarded to the concession holder.
Consequently, the Court finds that, as the Italian provision goes beyond the objective of protecting the public authorities against non-performance by concession holders, it contains disproportionate, and therefore unjustified, restrictions of the fundamental freedoms.
On those grounds, the Court ruled that Articles 43 EC and 49 EC must be interpreted as precluding a provision, such as that at issue, under which economic operators, except companies in which all or a majority of the share capital is in public ownership, are required, if necessary, to increase their fully paid up capital to a minimum of EUR 10 Million in order to be entitled to pursue the activities of assessment, verification and collection of taxes and other local authority revenue; and the award of those services to operators who fail to satisfy the minimum requirement of share capital is to be null and void, and it is prohibited to obtain new contracts or participate in tender procedures for the operation of those services until the abovementioned requirement to adjust share capital has been met.