JUDGMENT OF THE COURT
12 June 2003 (1)
(Free movement of goods - Restriction resulting from actions of individuals - Obligations of the Member States - Decision not to prohibit a demonstration by environmental protesters which resulted in the complete closure of the Brenner motorway for almost 30 hours - Justification - Fundamental rights - Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly - Principle of proportionality)
In Case C-112/00,
REFERENCE to the Court under Article 234 EC by the Oberlandesgericht Innsbruck (Austria) for a preliminary ruling in the proceedings pending before that court between
Eugen Schmidberger, Internationale Transporte und Planzüge
on the interpretation of Articles 30, 34 and 36 of the EC Treaty (now, after amendment, Articles 28 EC, 29 EC and 30 EC) read together with Article 5 of the EC Treaty (now Article 10 EC), and on the conditions for liability of a Member State for damage caused to individuals by a breach of Community law,
composed of: G.C. Rodríguez Iglesias, President, J.-P. Puissochet, M. Wathelet and R. Schintgen (Rapporteur) (Presidents of Chambers), C. Gulmann, D.A.O. Edward, P. Jann, V. Skouris, F. Macken, N. Colneric, S. von Bahr, J.N. Cunha Rodrigues and A. Rosas, Judges,
Advocate General: F.G. Jacobs,
Registrar: H.A. Rühl (Principal Administrator),
after considering the written observations submitted on behalf of:
- Eugen Schmidberger, Internationale Transporte und Planzüge, by K.-H. Plankel, H. Mayrhofer and R. Schneider, Rechtsanwälte,
- the Republic of Austria, by A. Riccabona, acting as Agent,
- the Austrian Government, by H. Dossi, acting as Agent,
- the Greek Government, by N. Dafniou and G. Karipsiadis, acting as Agents,
- the Italian Government, by U. Leanza, acting as Agent, assisted by O. Fiumara, vice avvocato generale dello Stato,
- the Netherlands Government, by M.A. Fierstra, acting as Agent,
- the Commission of the European Communities, by J.C. Schieferer, acting as Agent,
having regard to the Report for the Hearing,
after hearing the oral observations of Eugen Schmidberger, Internationale Transporte und Planzüge, represented by R. Schneider; the Republic of Austria, represented by A. Riccabona; the Austrian Government, represented by E. Riedl, acting as Agent; the Greek Government, represented by N. Dafniou and G. Karipsiadis; the Italian Government, represented by O. Fiumara; the Netherlands Government, represented by H.G. Sevenster, acting as Agent; the Finnish Government, represented by T. Pynnä, acting as Agent; and the Commission, represented by J.C. Schieferer and J. Grunwald, acting as Agent, at the hearing on 12 March 2002,
after hearing the Opinion of the Advocate General at the sitting on 11 July 2002,
gives the following
- By order of 1 February 2000, received at the Court on 24 March 2000, the Oberlandesgericht Innsbruck (Innsbruck Higher Regional Court) referred under Article 234 EC six questions for a preliminary ruling on the interpretation of Articles 30, 34 and 36 of the EC Treaty (now, after amendment, Articles 28 EC, 29 EC and 30 EC) read together with Article 5 of the EC Treaty (now Article 10 EC), and on the conditions for liability of a Member State for damage caused to individuals by a breach of Community law.
- Those questions were raised in proceedings between Eugen Schmidberger, Internationale Transporte und Planzüge (Schmidberger) and the Republic of Austria concerning the permission implicitly granted by the competent authorities of that Member State to an environmental group to organise a demonstration on the Brenner motorway, the effect of which was to completely close that motorway to traffic for almost 30 hours.
- Paragraph 2 of the Versammlungsgesetz (Law on assembly) of 1953, as subsequently amended (VslgG) provides:
(1) A person desirous of arranging a popular meeting or any meeting accessible to the public and not limited to invited guests must give written notice thereof to the authority (Paragraph 16) at least 24 hours in advance of the proposed event, stating the purpose, place and time of the meeting. The notice must reach the authority at least 24 hours before the time of the proposed meeting.
(2) On demand the authority shall forthwith issue a certificate concerning the notice ....
- Paragraph 6 of the VslgG provides:
Meetings whose purpose runs counter to the criminal law or which, if held, are likely to endanger public order or the common weal are to be banned by the authorities.
- Paragraph 16 of the VslgG provides:
For the purposes of the present law, the usual meaning of the authority is:
(a) in places within their competence, the Federal Police;
(b) in the place where the Landeshauptmann [head of government of the Land] has his seat of government, where there is no Federal Police presence, the Sicherheitsdirektion [the security services]; ...
(c) in all other places, the Bezirksverwaltungsbehörde [district administrative authority].
- Paragraph 42(1) of the Straßenverkehrsordnung (Highway Code) of 1960, as subsequently amended (the StVO), prohibits the transport by road of heavy goods trailers on Saturdays from 15.00 hrs to midnight and on Sundays and bank holidays from midnight to 22.00 hrs where the maximum permitted total weight of the heavy goods vehicle or of the trailer exceeds 3.5 tonnes. Further, according to Paragraph 42(2), during the periods stated in Paragraph 42(1) the movement of heavy goods vehicles, articulated lorries and rigid-chassis lorries having a maximum permitted total weight in excess of 7.5 tonnes is prohibited. Certain exceptions are permitted, in particular for the transport of milk, perishable foodstuffs or animals for slaughter (except for the transport of cattle on motorways).
- Under Paragraph 42(6) of the StVO, the movement of heavy goods vehicles having a maximum permitted total weight in excess of 7.5 tonnes is prohibited between 22.00 hrs and 05.00 hrs. The journeys made by vehicles emitting noise below a certain level are not affected by that prohibition.
- Pursuant to Paragraph 45(2) et seq. of the StVO, derogations in respect of road use may be granted in respect of individual applications and subject to certain conditions.
- Paragraph 86 of the StVO provides:
Marches. Unless provided otherwise, where it is intended to use a road for outdoor meetings, public or customary marches, local fêtes, parades or other such assemblies, these must be declared in advance by their organisers to the authority ....
The main proceedings and the questions referred for a preliminary ruling
- According to the file in the main proceedings, on 15 May 1998 the Transitforum Austria Tirol, an association to protect the biosphere in the Alpine region, gave notice to the Bezirkshauptmannschaft Innsbruck (Innsbruck provincial government) under Paragraph 2 of the VslgG and Paragraph 86 of the StVO of a demonstration to be held from 11.00 hrs on Friday 12 June 1998 to 15.00 hrs on Saturday 13 June 1998 on the Brenner motorway (A13), resulting in that motorway being closed to all traffic on the section from the Europabrücke service area to the Schönberg toll station (Austria).
- On the same day, the chairman of that association gave a press conference following which the Austrian and German media disseminated information concerning the closure of the Brenner motorway. The German and Austrian motoring organisations were also notified and they too offered practical information to motorists, advising them in particular to avoid that motorway during the period in question.
- On 21 May 1998, the Bezirkshauptmannschaft requested the Sicherheitsdirektion für Tirol (Directorate of security for Tyrol) to provide instructions concerning the proposed demonstration. On 3 June 1998, the Sicherheitsdirektor issued an order that it was not to be banned. On 10 June 1998, there was a meeting of members of various local authorities in order to ensure that the demonstration would be free of trouble.
- Considering that that demonstration was lawful as a matter of Austrian law, the Bezirkshauptmannschaft decided not to ban it, but it did not consider whether its decision might infringe Community law.
- The demonstration took place at the stated place and time. Consequently, heavy goods vehicles which should have used the Brenner motorway were immobilised from 09.00 hrs on Friday 12 June 1998. The motorway was reopened to traffic on Saturday 13 June 1998 at approximately 15.30 hrs, subject to the prohibition on the movement of lorries in excess of 7.5 tonnes during certain hours on Saturdays and Sundays applicable under Austrian legislation.
- Schmidberger is an international transport undertaking based at Rot an der Rot (Germany) which operates six articulated heavy goods vehicles with reduced noise and soot emission. Its main activity is the transport of timber from Germany to Italy and steel from Italy to Germany. Its vehicles generally use the Brenner motorway for that purpose.
- Schmidberger brought an action before the Landesgericht Innsbruck (Innsbruck Regional Court) (Austria) seeking damages of ATS 140 000 against the Republic of Austria on the basis that five of its lorries were unable to use the Brenner motorway for four consecutive days because, first, Thursday 11 June 1998 was a bank holiday in Austria, whilst 13 and 14 June 1998 were a Saturday and Sunday, and second, the Austrian legislation prohibits the movement of lorries in excess of 7.5 tonnes most of the time at weekends and on bank holidays. That motorway is the sole transit route for its vehicles between Germany and Italy. The failure on the part of the Austrian authorities to ban the demonstration and to intervene to prevent that trunk route from being closed amounted to a restriction of the free movement of goods. Since it could not be justified by the protesters' right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly the restriction was a breach of Community law in respect of which the Member State concerned incurred liability. In the present case, the damage suffered by Schmidberger consisted of the immobilisation of its heavy goods vehicles (ATS 50 000), the fixed costs in respect of the drivers (ATS 5 000) and a loss of profit arising from concessions on payment allowed to customers on account of the substantial delays in transporting the goods and the failure to make six journeys between Germany and Italy (ATS 85 000).
- The Republic of Austria contended that the claim should be rejected on the grounds that the decision not to ban the demonstration was taken following a detailed examination of the facts, that information as to the date of the closure of the Brenner motorway had been announced in advance in Austria, Germany and Italy, and that the demonstration did not result in substantial traffic jams or other incidents. The restriction on free movement arising from a demonstration is permitted provided that the obstacle it creates is neither permanent nor serious. Assessment of the interests involved should lean in favour of the freedoms of expression and assembly, since fundamental rights are inviolable in a democratic society.
- Having found that Schmidberger had not shown either that its lorries would have had to use the Brenner motorway on 12 and 13 June 1998 or that it had not been possible, after it had become aware that the demonstration was due to take place, to change its routes in order to avoid loss, the Landesgericht Innsbruck dismissed the action by judgment of 23 September 1999 on the grounds that the transport company had neither discharged the burden (under Austrian substantive law) of making out and proving its claim for pecuniary loss nor complied with its obligation (under Austrian procedural law) to present all the facts on which the application was based and which were necessary for the dispute to be determined.
- Schmidberger then lodged an appeal against that judgment before the Oberlandesgericht Innsbruck, which considers that it is necessary to have regard to the requirements of Community law where, as in the present case, claims are made which are, at least in part, founded on Community law.
- It considers that it is necessary in that regard to determine first whether the principle of the free movement of goods, possibly in conjunction with Article 5 of the Treaty, requires a Member State to keep open major transit routes and whether that obligation takes precedence over fundamental rights such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly guaranteed by Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR).
- If so, the national court asks, secondly, whether the breach of Community law thus established is sufficiently serious to give rise to State liability. Questions of interpretation arise in particular in determining the degree of precision and clarity of Article 5 as well as Articles 30, 34 and 36 of the Treaty.
- In the present case State liability might be incurred as a result of either legislative defect - the Austrian legislature having failed to adapt the legislation on freedom of assembly to comply with the obligations arising under Community law, in particular under the principle of the free movement of goods - or by reason of administrative fault - the competent national authorities being required by the obligation of cooperation and loyalty laid down by Article 5 of the Treaty to interpret national law in such a way as to comply with the requirements of that Treaty as regards the free movement of goods, in so far as those obligations arising from Community law are directly applicable.
- Thirdly, the court seeks guidance as to the nature and extent of the right to compensation based on State liability. It asks how stringent are the requirements as to proof of the cause and amount of the damage occasioned by a breach of Community law resulting from legislation or administrative action and wishes to know, in particular, whether a right to compensation also exists where the amount of the damage can only be assessed by general estimate.
- Lastly, the referring court harbours doubts as to the national requirements for establishing a right to compensation based on State liability. It asks whether the Austrian rules on the burden and standard of proof and on the obligation to submit all facts necessary for the determination of the dispute comply with the principle of legal effectiveness, in so far as the rights based on Community law cannot always be defined ab initio in their entirety and the applicant faces genuine difficulty in stating correctly all the facts required under Austrian law. Thus, in the present case, the content of the right to compensation based on State liability is so unclear, as regards its nature and extent, as to make a reference for a preliminary ruling necessary. The reasoning of the court ruling at first instance is likely to curtail claims based on Community law by rejecting the application on the basis of principles of national law and circumventing on purely formal grounds relevant questions of Community law.
- Considering that the resolution of the dispute thus required an interpretation of Community law, the Oberlandesgericht Innsbruck decided to stay proceedings and refer the following questions to the Court for a preliminary ruling:
1. Are the principles of the free movement of goods under Article 30 et seq. of the EC Treaty (now Article 28 et seq. EC), or other provisions of Community law, to be interpreted as meaning that a Member State is obliged, either absolutely or at least as far as reasonably possible, to keep major transit routes clear of all restrictions and impediments, inter alia, by requiring that a political demonstration to be held on a transit route, of which notice has been given, may not be authorised or must at least be later dispersed, if or as soon as it can also be held at a place away from the transit route with a comparable effect on public awareness?
2. Where, on account of the failure by a Member State to indicate in its national provisions on freedom of assembly and the right to exercise it that, in the weighing of freedom of assembly against the public interest, the principles of Community law, primarily the fundamental freedoms and, in this particular case, the provisions on the free movement of goods, are also to be observed, a political demonstration of 28 hours' duration is authorised and held which, in conjunction with a pre-existing national generally applicable ban on holiday driving, causes an essential intra-Community goods transit route to be closed, inter alia, to the majority of heavy goods traffic for four days, with a short interruption of a few hours, does that failure constitute a sufficiently serious infringement of Community law in order to establish liability on the part of the Member State under the principles of Community law, provided that the other requirements for such liability are met?
3. Where a national authority decides that there is nothing in the provisions of Community law, in particular those concerning the free movement of goods and the general duty of cooperation and solidarity under Article 5 of the EC Treaty (now Article 10 EC), to preclude, and thus no ground on which to ban, a political demonstration of 28 hours' duration which, in conjunction with a pre-existing national generally applicable ban on holiday driving, causes an essential intra-Community goods transit route to be closed, inter alia, to the majority of heavy goods traffic for four days, with a short interruption of a few hours, does that decision constitute a sufficiently serious infringement of Community law in order to establish liability on the part of the Member State under the principles of Community law, provided that the other requirements for such liability are met?
4. Is the objective of an officially authorised political demonstration, namely that of working for a healthy environment and of drawing attention to the danger to public health caused by the constant increase in the transit traffic of heavy goods vehicles, to be deemed to be of a higher order than the provisions of Community law on the free movement of goods under Article 28 EC?
5. Is there loss giving rise to a claim founded on State liability where the person incurring the loss can prove that he was in a position to earn income, in the present case from the international transport of goods by means of the heavy goods vehicles operated by him but rendered idle by the 28 hour demonstration, yet is unable to prove the loss of a specific transport journey?
6. If the reply to Question 4 is in the negative:
In order to comply with the obligation of cooperation and solidarity incumbent under Article 5 of the EC Treaty (now Article 10 EC) on national authorities, in particular the courts, and with the principle of effectiveness, must application of national rules of substantive or procedural law curtailing the ability to assert claims which are well founded under Community law, such as in the present case a claim founded on State liability, be deferred pending full elucidation of the substance of the claim at Community law, if necessary following a reference to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling?
- The Republic of Austria harbours doubts as to the admissibility of the present reference and submits essentially that the questions referred by the Oberlandesgericht Innsbruck are purely hypothetical and irrelevant to the determination of the dispute in the main proceedings.
- The legal action brought by Schmidberger, seeking to establish the liability of a Member State for breach of Community law, requires the company to adduce evidence of genuine damage resulting from the alleged breach.
- Before the two national courts successively seised of the dispute Schmidberger failed to establish either the existence of specific individual loss - by substantiating with specific evidence the statement that its heavy goods vehicles had to use the Brenner motorway on the days when the demonstration took place there, as part of transport operations between Germany and Italy - or, if appropriate, that it had complied with its obligation to mitigate the damage that it claims to have suffered, by explaining why it was not able to choose a route other than the one closed.
- In those circumstances, answers to the questions referred are not necessary in order to enable the referring court to decide the case or, at least, the request for a preliminary ruling is premature as long as the facts have not been found and relevant evidence has not been fully adduced before that court.
- In that regard, according to settled case-law, the procedure provided for by Article 234 EC is an instrument of cooperation between the Court of Justice and national courts by means of which the former provides the latter with interpretation of such Community law as is necessary for them to give judgment in cases upon which they are called to adjudicate (see, inter alia, Joined Cases C-297/88 and C-197/89 Dzodzi  ECR I-3763, paragraph 33; Case C-231/89 Gmurzynska-Bscher  ECR I-4003, paragraph 18; Case C-83/91 Meilicke  ECR I-4871, paragraph 22, and Case C-413/99 Baumbast and R  ECR I-7091, paragraph 31).
- In the context of that cooperation, it is for the national court seised of the dispute, which alone has direct knowledge of the facts giving rise to the dispute and must assume responsibility for the subsequent judicial decision, to determine 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 submits to the Court. Consequently, where the questions submitted concern the interpretation of Community law, the Court of Justice is, in principle, bound to give a ruling (see, inter alia, Case C-415/93 Bosman  ECR I-4921, paragraph 59; Case C-379/98 PreussenElektra  ECR I-2099, paragraph 38; Case C-153/00 Der Weduwe  ECR I-11319, paragraph 31, and Case C-318/00 Bacardi-Martini and Cellier des Dauphins  ECR I-905, paragraph 41).
- However, the Court has also held that, in exceptional circumstances, it can examine the conditions in which the case was referred to it by the national court (see, to that effect, PreussenElektra, cited above, paragraph 39). The spirit of cooperation which must prevail in preliminary ruling proceedings requires the national court for its part to have regard to the function entrusted to the Court of Justice, which is to contribute to the administration of justice in the Member States and not to give opinions on general or hypothetical questions (Bosman, paragraph 60; Der Weduwe, paragraph 32, and Bacardi-Martini and Cellier des Dauphins, paragraph 42).
- Thus, the Court has held that it has no jurisdiction to give a preliminary ruling on a question submitted by a national court where it is quite obvious that the interpretation or the assessment of the validity of a provision of Community law sought by that court bears no relation to the actual facts of the main action or its purpose, or where the problem is hypothetical, or where the Court does not have before it the factual or legal material necessary to give a useful answer to the questions submitted to it (see Bosman, paragraph 61, and Bacardi-Martini and Cellier des Dauphins, paragraph 43).
- In the present case, it is by no means clear that the questions referred by the national court fall within one or other of the situations referred to in the case-law cited in the preceding paragraph.
- The action brought by Schmidberger seeks compensation from the Republic of Austria for the damage which the alleged breach of Community law is said to have caused it, consisting in the fact that the Austrian authorities did not ban the demonstration which resulted in the Brenner motorway being closed to all traffic for a continuous period of almost 30 hours.
- It follows that the request for an interpretation of Community law made by the national court has undeniably arisen in the context of a genuine dispute between the parties to the main proceedings and which cannot therefore be regarded as hypothetical.
- Furthermore, it is apparent from the order for reference that the national court has set out in precise and detailed terms the reasons why it considers it necessary for the determination of the dispute before it to refer to the Court various questions on the interpretation of Community law including, in particular, that relating to the factors to be taken into account when taking evidence of the damage allegedly suffered by Schmidberger.
- Moreover, it follows from the observations submitted by the Member States in response to the notification of the order for reference and by the Commission pursuant to Article 23 of the EC Statute of the Court of Justice that the information in that order enabled them properly to state their position on all the questions submitted to the Court.
- It is clear from the second paragraph of Article 234 EC that it is for the national court to decide at what stage in the proceedings it is appropriate for that court to refer a question to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling (see Joined Cases 36/80 and 71/80 Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association and Others  ECR 735, paragraph 5, and Case C-236/98 JämO  ECR I-2189, paragraph 30).
- It is equally undeniable that the referring court has defined to the requisite legal standard both the factual and legal context of its request for interpretation of Community law and that it has provided the Court with all the information necessary to enable it to reply usefully to that request.
- Furthermore, it is logical that the referring court requests the Court, first, to determine which types of damage can be taken into consideration for the purposes of State liability for breach of Community law - and, in particular, requests it to clarify the question whether compensation is in respect only of damage in fact suffered or if it also covers loss of profit based on general estimates, and whether and to what extent the victim must try to avoid or mitigate that loss -, before that court rules on the specific evidence recognised as being relevant by the Court in the assessment of the damage in fact suffered by Schmidberger.
- Lastly, in the context of an action for liability on the part of a Member State, the referring court not only asks the Court about the requirement that there be damage and the forms which that may take and the detailed rules of evidence in that regard, but also considers it necessary to pose several questions on the other requirements to be met in making out a claim based on such liability and, in particular, as to whether the conduct of the relevant national authorities in the main case constitutes a breach of Community law and whether that breach is such as to entitle the alleged victim to compensation.
- In the light of the foregoing, it cannot be maintained that as regards the main proceedings the Court is called upon to rule on a question which is purely hypothetical or irrelevant for the purposes of the decision which the national court is called upon to give.
- On the contrary, it follows from those considerations that the questions referred by that court meet an objective need for the purpose of settling the dispute before it, in the course of which it is called upon to give a decision capable of taking account of the Court's judgment, and the information provided to the latter, in particular in the order for reference, enables it to reply usefully to those questions.
- Consequently, the reference for a preliminary ruling made by the Oberlandesgericht Innsbruck is admissible.
The questions referred for a preliminary ruling
- It should be noted at the outset that the questions referred by the national court raise two distinct, albeit related, issues.
- First, the Court is asked to rule on whether the fact that the Brenner motorway was closed to all traffic for almost 30 hours without interruption, in circumstances such as those at issue in the main proceedings, amounts to a restriction of the free movement of goods and must therefore be regarded as a breach of Community law. Second, the questions relate more specifically to the circumstances in which the liability of a Member State may be established in respect of damage caused to individuals as a result of an infringement of Community law.
- On the latter question, the national court asks in particular for clarification of whether, and if so to what extent, in circumstances such as those of the case before it, the breach of Community law - if made out - is sufficiently manifest and serious to give rise to liability on the part of the Member State concerned. It also asks the Court about the nature and evidence of the damage to be compensated.
- Given that, logically, this second series of questions need be examined only if the first issue, as defined in the first sentence of paragraph 47 of the present judgment, is answered in the affirmative, the Court must first give a ruling on the various points raised by that issue, which is essentially the subject of the first and fourth questions.
- In the light of the evidence in the file of the main case sent by the referring court and the written and oral observations presented to the Court, those questions must be understood as seeking to determine whether the fact that the authorities of a Member State did not ban a demonstration with primarily environmental aims which resulted in the complete closure of a major transit route, such as the Brenner motorway, for almost 30 hours without interruption amounts to an unjustified restriction of the free movement of goods which is a fundamental principle laid down by Articles 30 and 34 of the Treaty, read together, if necessary, with Article 5 thereof.
Whether there is a restriction of the free movement of goods
- It should be stated at the outset that the free movement of goods is one of the fundamental principles of the Community.
- Thus, Article 3 of the EC Treaty (now, after amendment, Article 3 EC), inserted in the first part thereof, entitled Principles, provides in subparagraph (c) that for the purposes set out in Article 2 of the Treaty the activities of the Community are to include an internal market characterised by the abolition, as between Member States, of obstacles to inter alia the free movement of goods.
- The second paragraph of Article 7a of the EC Treaty (now, after amendment, Article 14 EC) provides that the internal market is to comprise an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods is ensured in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty.
- That fundamental principle is implemented primarily by Articles 30 and 34 of the Treaty.
- In particular, Article 30 provides that quantitative restrictions on imports and all measures having equivalent effect are prohibited between Member States. Similarly, Article 34 prohibits, between Member States, quantitative restrictions on exports and all measures having equivalent effect.
- It is settled case-law since the judgment in Case 8/74 Dassonville  ECR 837, paragraph 5) that those provisions, taken in their context, must be understood as being intended to eliminate all barriers, whether direct or indirect, actual or potential, to trade flows in intra-Community trade (see, to that effect, Case C-265/95 Commission v France  ECR I-6959, paragraph 29).
- In this way the Court held in particular that, as an indispensable instrument for the realisation of a market without internal frontiers, Article 30 does not prohibit only measures emanating from the State which, in themselves, create restrictions on trade between Member States. It also applies where a Member State abstains from adopting the measures required in order to deal with obstacles to the free movement of goods which are not caused by the State (Commission v France, cited above, paragraph 30).
- The fact that a Member State abstains from taking action or, as the case may be, fails to adopt adequate measures to prevent obstacles to the free movement of goods that are created, in particular, by actions by private individuals on its territory aimed at products originating in other Member States is just as likely to obstruct intra-Community trade as is a positive act (Commission v France, cited above, paragraph 31).
- Consequently, Articles 30 and 34 of the Treaty require the Member States not merely themselves to refrain from adopting measures or engaging in conduct liable to constitute an obstacle to trade but also, when read with Article 5 of the Treaty, to take all necessary and appropriate measures to ensure that that fundamental freedom is respected on their territory (Commission v France, cited above, paragraph 32). Article 5 of the Treaty requires the Member States to take all appropriate measures, whether general or particular, to ensure fulfilment of the obligations arising out of the Treaty and to refrain from any measures which could jeopardise the attainment of the objectives of that Treaty.
- Having regard to the fundamental role assigned to the free movement of goods in the Community system, in particular for the proper functioning of the internal market, that obligation upon each Member State to ensure the free movement of products in its territory by taking the measures necessary and appropriate for the purposes of preventing any restriction due to the acts of individuals applies without the need to distinguish between cases where such acts affect the flow of imports or exports and those affecting merely the transit of goods.
- Paragraph 53 of the judgment in Commission v France, cited above, shows that the case giving rise to that judgment concerned not only imports but also the transit through France of products from other Member States.
- It follows that, in a situation such as that at issue in the main proceedings, where the competent national authorities are faced with restrictions on the effective exercise of a fundamental freedom enshrined in the Treaty, such as the free movement of goods, which result from actions taken by individuals, they are required to take adequate steps to ensure that freedom in the Member State concerned even if, as in the main proceedings, those goods merely pass through Austria en route for Italy or Germany.
- It should be added that that obligation of the Member States is all the more important where the case concerns a major transit route such as the Brenner motorway, which is one of the main land links for trade between northern Europe and the north of Italy.
- In the light of the foregoing, the fact that the competent authorities of a Member State did not ban a demonstration which resulted in the complete closure of a major transit route such as the Brenner motorway for almost 30 hours on end is capable of restricting intra-Community trade in goods and must, therefore, be regarded as constituting a measure of equivalent effect to a quantitative restriction which is, in principle, incompatible with the Community law obligations arising from Articles 30 and 34 of the Treaty, read together with Article 5 thereof, unless that failure to ban can be objectively justified.
Whether the restriction may be justified
- In the context of its fourth question, the referring court asks essentially whether the purpose of the demonstration on 12 and 13 June 1998 - during which the demonstrators sought to draw attention to the threat to the environment and public health posed by the constant increase in the movement of heavy goods vehicles on the Brenner motorway and to persuade the competent authorities to reinforce measures to reduce that traffic and the pollution resulting therefrom in the highly sensitive region of the Alps - is such as to frustrate Community law obligations relating to the free movement of goods.
- However, even if the protection of the environment and public health, especially in that region, may, under certain conditions, constitute a legitimate objective in the public interest capable of justifying a restriction of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Treaty, including the free movement of goods, it should be noted, as the Advocate General pointed out at paragraph 54 of his Opinion, that the specific aims of the demonstration are not in themselves material in legal proceedings such as those instituted by Schmidberger, which seek to establish the liability of a Member State in respect of an alleged breach of Community law, since that liability is to be inferred from the fact that the national authorities did not prevent an obstacle to traffic from being placed on the Brenner motorway.
- Indeed, for the purposes of determining the conditions in which a Member State may be liable and, in particular, with regard to the question whether it infringed Community law, account must be taken only of the action or omission imputable to that Member State.
- In the present case, account should thus be taken solely of the objective pursued by the national authorities in their implicit decision to authorise or not to ban the demonstration in question.
- It is apparent from the file in the main case that the Austrian authorities were inspired by considerations linked to respect of the fundamental rights of the demonstrators to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, which are enshrined in and guaranteed by the ECHR and the Austrian Constitution.
- In its order for reference, the national court also raises the question whether the principle of the free movement of goods guaranteed by the Treaty prevails over those fundamental rights.
- According to settled case-law, fundamental rights form an integral part of the general principles of law the observance of which the Court ensures. For that purpose, the Court draws inspiration from the constitutional traditions common to the Member States and from the guidelines supplied by international treaties for the protection of human rights on which the Member States have collaborated or to which they are signatories. The ECHR has special significance in that respect (see, inter alia, Case C-260/89 ERT  ECR I-2925, paragraph 41; Case C-274/99 P Connolly v Commission  ECR I-1611, paragraph 37, and Case C-94/00 Roquette Frères  ECR I-9011, paragraph 25).
- The principles established by that case-law were reaffirmed in the preamble to the Single European Act and subsequently in Article F.2 of the Treaty on European Union (Bosman, cited above, paragraph 79). That provision states that [t]he Union shall respect fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms signed in Rome on 4 November 1950 and as they result from the constitutional traditions common to the Member States, as general principles of Community law.
- It follows that measures which are incompatible with observance of the human rights thus recognised are not acceptable in the Community (see, inter alia, ERT, cited above, paragraph 41, and Case C-299/95 Kremzow  ECR I-2629, paragraph 14).
- Thus, since both the Community and its Member States are required to respect fundamental rights, the protection of those rights is a legitimate interest which, in principle, justifies a restriction of the obligations imposed by Community law, even under a fundamental freedom guaranteed by the Treaty such as the free movement of goods.
- It is settled case-law that where, as in the main proceedings, a national situation falls within the scope of Community law and a reference for a preliminary ruling is made to the Court, it must provide the national courts with all the criteria of interpretation needed to determine whether that situation is compatible with the fundamental rights the observance of which the Court ensures and which derive in particular from the ECHR (see to that effect, inter alia, Case 12/86 Demirel  ECR 3719, paragraph 28).
- In the present case, the national authorities relied on the need to respect fundamental rights guaranteed by both the ECHR and the Constitution of the Member State concerned in deciding to allow a restriction to be imposed on one of the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Treaty.
- The case thus raises the question of the need to reconcile the requirements of the protection of fundamental rights in the Community with those arising from a fundamental freedom enshrined in the Treaty and, more particularly, the question of the respective scope of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, guaranteed by Articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR, and of the free movement of goods, where the former are relied upon as justification for a restriction of the latter.
- First, whilst the free movement of goods constitutes one of the fundamental principles in the scheme of the Treaty, it may, in certain circumstances, be subject to restrictions for the reasons laid down in Article 36 of that Treaty or for overriding requirements relating to the public interest, in accordance with the Court's consistent case-law since the judgment in Case 120/78 Rewe-Zentral (Cassis de Dijon)  ECR 649.
- Second, whilst the fundamental rights at issue in the main proceedings are expressly recognised by the ECHR and constitute the fundamental pillars of a democratic society, it nevertheless follows from the express wording of paragraph 2 of Articles 10 and 11 of the Convention that freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are also subject to certain limitations justified by objectives in the public interest, in so far as those derogations are in accordance with the law, motivated by one or more of the legitimate aims under those provisions and necessary in a democratic society, that is to say justified by a pressing social need and, in particular, proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued (see, to that effect, Case C-368/95 Familiapress  ECR I-3689, paragraph 26, Case C-60/00 Carpenter  ECR I-6279, paragraph 42, and Eur. Court HR, Steel and Others v. The United Kingdom judgment of 23 September 1998, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1998-VII, § 101).
- Thus, unlike other fundamental rights enshrined in that Convention, such as the right to life or the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which admit of no restriction, neither the freedom of expression nor the freedom of assembly guaranteed by the ECHR appears to be absolute but must be viewed in relation to its social purpose. Consequently, the exercise of those rights may be restricted, provided that the restrictions in fact correspond to objectives of general interest and do not, taking account of the aim of the restrictions, constitute disproportionate and unacceptable interference, impairing the very substance of the rights guaranteed (see, to that effect, Case C-62/90 Commission v Germany  ECR I-2575, paragraph 23, and Case C-404/92 P X v Commission  ECR I-4737, paragraph 18).
- In those circumstances, the interests involved must be weighed having regard to all the circumstances of the case in order to determine whether a fair balance was struck between those interests.
- The competent authorities enjoy a wide margin of discretion in that regard. Nevertheless, it is necessary to determine whether the restrictions placed upon intra-Community trade are proportionate in the light of the legitimate objective pursued, namely, in the present case, the protection of fundamental rights.
- As regards the main case, it should be emphasised at the outset that the circumstances characterising it are clearly distinguishable from the situation in the case giving rise to the judgment in Commission v France, cited above, referred to by Schmidberger as a relevant precedent in the course of its legal action against Austria.
- By comparison with the points of fact referred to by the Court at paragraphs 38 to 53 of the judgment in Commission v France, cited above, it should be noted, first, that the demonstration at issue in the main proceedings took place following a request for authorisation presented on the basis of national law and after the competent authorities had decided not to ban it.
- Second, because of the presence of demonstrators on the Brenner motorway, traffic by road was obstructed on a single route, on a single occasion and during a period of almost 30 hours. Furthermore, the obstacle to the free movement of goods resulting from that demonstration was limited by comparison with both the geographic scale and the intrinsic seriousness of the disruption caused in the case giving rise to the judgment in Commission v France, cited above.
- Third, it is not in dispute that by that demonstration, citizens were exercising their fundamental rights by manifesting in public an opinion which they considered to be of importance to society; it is also not in dispute that the purpose of that public demonstration was not to restrict trade in goods of a particular type or from a particular source. By contrast, in Commission v France, cited above, the objective pursued by the demonstrators was clearly to prevent the movement of particular products originating in Member States other than the French Republic, by not only obstructing the transport of the goods in question, but also destroying those goods in transit to or through France, and even when they had already been put on display in shops in the Member State concerned.
- Fourth, in the present case various administrative and supporting measures were taken by the competent authorities in order to limit as far as possible the disruption to road traffic. Thus, in particular, those authorities, including the police, the organisers of the demonstration and various motoring organisations cooperated in order to ensure that the demonstration passed off smoothly. Well before the date on which it was due to take place, an extensive publicity campaign had been launched by the media and the motoring organisations, both in Austria and in neighbouring countries, and various alternative routes had been designated, with the result that the economic operators concerned were duly informed of the traffic restrictions applying on the date and at the site of the proposed demonstration and were in a position timeously to take all steps necessary to obviate those restrictions. Furthermore, security arrangements had been made for the site of the demonstration.
- Moreover, it is not in dispute that the isolated incident in question did not give rise to a general climate of insecurity such as to have a dissuasive effect on intra-Community trade flows as a whole, in contrast to the serious and repeated disruptions to public order at issue in the case giving rise to the judgment in Commission v France, cited above.
- Finally, concerning the other possibilities envisaged by Schmidberger with regard to the demonstration in question, taking account of the Member States' wide margin of discretion, in circumstances such as those of the present case the competent national authorities were entitled to consider that an outright ban on the demonstration would have constituted unacceptable interference with the fundamental rights of the demonstrators to gather and express peacefully their opinion in public.
- The imposition of stricter conditions concerning both the site - for example by the side of the Brenner motorway - and the duration - limited to a few hours only - of the demonstration in question could have been perceived as an excessive restriction, depriving the action of a substantial part of its scope. Whilst the competent national authorities must endeavour to limit as far as possible the inevitable effects upon free movement of a demonstration on the public highway, they must balance that interest with that of the demonstrators, who seek to draw the aims of their action to the attention of the public.
- An action of that type usually entails inconvenience for non-participants, in particular as regards free movement, but the inconvenience may in principle be tolerated provided that the objective pursued is essentially the public and lawful demonstration of an opinion.
- In that regard, the Republic of Austria submits, without being contradicted on that point, that in any event, all the alternative solutions which could be countenanced would have risked reactions which would have been difficult to control and would have been liable to cause much more serious disruption to intra-Community trade and public order, such as unauthorised demonstrations, confrontation between supporters and opponents of the group organising the demonstration or acts of violence on the part of the demonstrators who considered that the exercise of their fundamental rights had been infringed.
- Consequently, the national authorities were reasonably entitled, having regard to the wide discretion which must be accorded to them in the matter, to consider that the legitimate aim of that demonstration could not be achieved in the present case by measures less restrictive of intra-Community trade.
- In the light of those considerations, the answer to the first and fourth questions must be that the fact that the authorities of a Member State did not ban a demonstration in circumstances such as those of the main case is not incompatible with Articles 30 and 34 of the Treaty, read together with Article 5 thereof.
The conditions for liability of the Member State
- It follows from the answer given to the first and fourth questions that, having regard to all the circumstances of a case such as that before the referring court, the competent national authorities cannot be said to have committed a breach of Community law such as to give rise to liability on the part of the Member State concerned.
- In those circumstances, there is no need to rule on the other questions referred concerning some of the conditions necessary for a Member State to incur liability for damage caused to individuals by that Member State's infringement of Community law.
- The costs incurred by the Austrian, Greek, Italian, Netherlands and Finnish Governments and by the Commission, which have submitted observations to the Court, are not recoverable. Since these proceedings are, for the parties to the main action, a step in the proceedings pending before the national court, the decision on costs is a matter for that court.
On those grounds,
in answer to the questions referred to it by the Oberlandesgericht Innsbruck by order of 1 February 2000, hereby rules:
The fact that the authorities of a Member State did not ban a demonstration in circumstances such as those of the main case is not incompatible with Articles 30 and 34 of the EC Treaty (now, after amendment, Articles 28 EC and 29 EC), read together with Article 5 of the EC Treaty (now Article 10 EC).
|Rodríguez IglesiasPuissochet |
Delivered in open court in Luxembourg on 12 June 2003.
G.C. Rodríguez Iglesias