State aid is defined as an advantage in any form whatsoever conferred by national public authorities to undertakings on a selective basis. Therefore, subsidies granted to individuals or general measures open to all enterprises are not covered by this prohibition and do not constitute State aid (examples include general taxation measures or employment legislation).
To be State aid, a measure needs to have these features:
- there has been an intervention by the State or through State resources which can take a variety of forms (e.g. grants, interest and tax reliefs, guarantees, government holdings of all or part of a company, or providing goods and services on preferential terms, etc.);
- the intervention gives the recipient an advantage on a selective basis, for example to specific companies or industry sectors, or to companies located in specific regions
- as a result, competition has been or may be distorted;
- the intervention is likely to affect trade between Member States.
Despite the general prohibition of State aid, in some circumstances government interventions are necessary for a well-functioning and equitable economy. Therefore, the Treaty leaves room for a number of policy objectives for which State aid can be considered compatible. These exemptions can be found in legislation relevant to State aid.
Verifying State Aid
EU State aid control requires prior notification of all new aid measures to the Commission. Member States must wait for the Commission's decision before they can put the measure into effect.
There are a few exceptions to mandatory notification, for example:
- aid covered by a Block Exemption;
- de minimis aid that among other, does not exceeding €200,000 per undertaking over any period of 3 fiscal years; or
- aid granted under an aid scheme already authorised by the Commission.
Each notification triggers a preliminary investigation by the Commission. From the time it has received a completed notification, the Commission has two months (20 working days) to decide whether:
- there is no aid within the meaning of the EU rules;
- the aid is compatible with EU rules; or
- serious doubts remain as to the compatibility of the notified measure with EU State aid rules, prompting an in-depth investigation.
Aid measures can only be implemented after approval by the Commission. The Commission also has the power to require a Member State to recover incompatible State aid.
The 2013 revision of the State aid Procedural Regulation introduced the possibility of conducting State aid sector inquiries, which was previously only possible as part of Antitrust and Merger control. State aid sector inquiries can be launched in situations where State aid measures may distort competition in several Member States, or where existing aid measures are no longer compatible with the regulatory framework.
The State aid transparency public search gives access to State aid individual award data provided by Member States in compliance with the European transparency requirements for State aid. Citizens and companies can easily access information about awarded aid: name of the beneficiary, amount, location, sector and objective. The purpose of the transparency requirements is to promote accountability of granting authorities and to reduce asymmetries on the market for state aid.
State Aid Scoreboard
Under Article 6 of Commission Regulation (EC) 794/2004, the European Commission must publish, annually, a State aid synopsis ("State aid Scoreboard" or “Scoreboard”) based on the expenditure reports provided by Member States.
The Scoreboard is the European Commission’s benchmarking instrument for State aid. It was launched in July 2001 to provide a transparent and publicly accessible source of information on the overall State aid situation in the Member States and on the Commission's State aid control activities.