Parties
Grounds
Decision on costs
Operative part

Parties

In Case C-290/91,

REFERENCE to the Court under Article 177 of the EEC Treaty by the Finanzgericht Muenchen for a preliminary ruling in the proceedings pending before that court between

Johannes Peter

and

Hauptzollamt Regensburg

on the remission on grounds of equity of the additional levy within the meaning of Article 5c of Council Regulation (EEC) No 804/68 of 27 June 1968 on the common organization of the market in milk and milk products (OJ, English Special Edition 1968 (I), p. 176) as amended by Council Regulation (EEC) No 856/84 of 31 March 1984 (OJ 1984 L 90, p. 10),

THE COURT (Third Chamber),

composed of: M. Zuleeg, President of Chamber, J.C. Moitinho de Almeida and F. Grévisse, Judges,

Advocate General: F.G. Jacobs,

Registrar: H. von Holstein, Deputy Registrar,

after considering the written observations submitted on behalf of:

° the defendant in the main proceedings by Mr Els, Director of the Hauptzollamt Regensburg,

° the Greek Government by Dimitrios Raptis, a member of the State Legal Service, acting as Agent,

° the Commission of the European Communities by its Legal Adviser, Dierk Booss, acting as Agent,

having regard to the Report for the Hearing,

after hearing the oral observations of the Greek Government and the Commission at the hearing on 3 December 1992,

after hearing the Opinion of the Advocate General at the sitting on 17 February 1993,

gives the following

Judgment

Grounds

1 By order of 9 September 1991, received at the Court on 20 November 1991, the Finanzgericht Muenchen (Finance Court, Munich) referred to the Court for a preliminary ruling under Article 177 of the EEC Treaty a question concerning the remission on equitable grounds of the additional levy payable under Article 5c of Council Regulation (EEC) No 804/68 of the Council of 27 June 1968 on the common organization of the market in milk and milk products (OJ, English Special Edition 1968 (I), p. 176), as amended by Council Regulation (EEC) No 856/84 of 31 March 1984 (OJ 1984 L 90, p. 10).

2 The question was raised in proceedings between Mr Johannes Peter, a dairy farmer, and the Hauptzollamt (Principal Customs Office) Regensburg (hereinafter "the Hauptzollamt").

3 Mr Peter obtained a reference quantity of 9 100 kg for the milk year 1984/85 under the German rules implementing the system of milk quotas (the "Milch-Garantiemengen-Verordnung"). He exceeded this quota in 1984/85, hoping that he would be granted an additional quota following an appeal which he had lodged for that purpose. However, his appeal was allowed only for subsequent marketing years, that is to say, as from the marketing year 1985 to 1986. A levy was therefore imposed on Mr Peter in respect of the quantities of milk which he had delivered in 1984/85 in excess of the quota originally granted for that marketing year. The levy payable amounted to DM 2 144.83.

4 On 6 September 1989 Mr Peter asked the Hauptzollamt to grant him a remission of the levy, claiming that owing to his precarious financial position payment of that amount would put at risk the existence of his holding. He based that request on Paragraph 227 of the Abgabenordnung (the German Tax Code), which allows charges already assessed and legally valid to be remitted "if collection of the tax is inequitable in the particular case".

5 The Hauptzollamt refused the request on the ground that Paragraph 227 of the Abgabenordnung does not allow remission or repayment of the levies provided for by the Community legislation on milk quotas, since the effect of the Community provisions would be impaired if a request for remission or repayment of Community levies were dealt with according to national law.

6 Mr Peter appealed against that decision to the Finanzgericht Muenchen, which stayed the proceedings and referred the following question to the Court for a preliminary ruling:

"Does Community law preclude the application of a national provision such as Paragraph 227 of the Abgabenordnung which empowers the national authorities to remit in the individual case on grounds of equity levies payable under Article 5c of Regulation (EEC) No 804/68?"

7 Reference is made to the Report for the Hearing for a fuller account of the facts of the main proceedings, the legal background, the procedure and the written observations submitted to the Court, which are mentioned or discussed hereinafter only in so far as is necessary for the reasoning of the Court.

8 In order to reply to the question referred, first of all it must be observed that, in accordance with the general principles on which the Community is based and which govern the relations between the Community and the Member States, it is for the Member States, by virtue of Article 5 of the Treaty, to ensure that Community legislation is implemented within their territory. In so far as Community law, including its general principles, does not contain common rules in that respect, national authorities, when implementing Community legislation, follow the procedural and substantive rules of their own national law; however, those national rules must be reconciled with the requirement of uniform application of Community law so as to avoid unequal treatment of economic operators. Furthermore, such rules must not have the effect of making it virtually impossible to implement Community legislation (see, to that effect, Joined Cases 205/82 to 215/82 Deutsche Milch-Kontor GmbH v Germany [1983] ECR 2633, paragraphs 17 and 19).

9 Secondly, the Community legislation on milk quotas contains no specific provisions regarding the collection, remission or enforcement of the levy payable under Article 5c of Regulation No 804/68. Commission Regulation (EEC) No 1546/88 of 3 June 1988 laying down detailed rules for the application of the additional levy referred to in Article 5c of Regulation (EEC) No 804/68 (OJ 1988 L 139, p. 12) merely determines, with regard to the collection of the levy, the time when the obligation to pay the levy arises (Articles 15 and 16) and the method of calculating it (Article 17). Furthermore, Article 19 of Regulation No 1546/88 provides that "Member States shall adopt whatever additional measures are required: (a) to ensure collection of the levy ...". Consequently it is for the competent national authorities to ensure, in accordance with national law, that the levy is collected, remitted or enforced.

10 That referral to national law may, admittedly, mean that the conditions relating to the collection of the levy will vary to some extent from one Member State to another. However, the extent of such differences, which are inevitable as Community law now stands, is limited by the conditions to which the application of national law is subject where it implements provisions of Community law.

11 It follows that Community law does not preclude the application of a national provision such as Paragraph 227 of the Abgabenordnung, which empowers the fiscal authorities in certain exceptional cases to waive, on grounds of personal equity, the recovery of a levy payable under Article 5c of Regulation No 804/68, provided, however, that in applying that provision there is no discrimination by comparison with the manner in which equivalent fiscal debts are treated under national law and no impairment of the objectives of the milk quota system established by Regulation No 804/68, as amended by Regulation No 856/84.

12 With regard to the first condition, it is for the national courts to ensure that national law is not applied in a manner which is discriminatory compared to the remission of purely national fiscal debts.

13 As far as the second condition is concerned, the system introducing the additional levy on milk is intended to regulate and stabilize the market in milk and milk products, as an increase in milk collection would entail financial burdens and market difficulties which would jeopardize the very future of the common agricultural policy (the third and fourteenth recitals in the preamble to Regulation No 856/84). The principal objective of the additional levy therefore consists in limiting milk production by discouraging farmers from producing milk in excess of the quota allocated to them.

14 It is not compatible with that objective to exempt a producer from the obligation to pay the additional levy on the ground that he is in financial difficulties. The remission, on grounds of personal equity relating to such difficulties, of sums due would jeopardize the system of milk quotas because systematic application of the rule of equity in such cases would lead to a significant increase in the quantity of milk available on the market and to a risk of the Community legislation on milk levies being disregarded, since every producer could, by claiming that the quota allocated to him was insufficient to maintain the profitability of his holding, deliver an excess quantity of milk without any risk whatsoever.

15 The same applies where a producer, as in the main proceedings, exceeds his quota in the mistaken assumption that an additional quota will be allocated to him for the year in question following an appeal by him for that purpose. That is not a ground which may be relied on in order to avoid payment of the levy because the producer, by delivering milk in excess of the quantity allocated to him, took a risk of which he was aware from the outset and the consequences of which he must bear.

16 However, although the rule of personal equity may not be pleaded by a farmer who is in financial difficulties in order to be released from the obligation to pay the additional levy, the national authorities may in principle apply national provisions allowing them to suspend immediate collection of the amount due or to authorize payment by instalments where a farmer is actually in difficulty. Such measures make allowance for the farmer' s difficult situation without entailing his release from his obligation to pay the additional levy. Thus the objectives of the legislation on the additional levy are not called in question where it is guaranteed that the levy will be collected as promptly and efficiently as possible.

17 It follows from all the foregoing that the answer to the question referred for a preliminary ruling must be that Community law as it stands at present does not preclude a national provision which empowers the national authorities to waive in certain exceptional cases, on grounds of personal equity, the levy payable under Article 5c of Council Regulation No 804/68, provided that in applying that provision there is no discrimination by comparison with the way in which equivalent, purely national, fiscal debts are treated and no impairment of the objectives of the milk quota system introduced by that regulation. It is not compatible with the objectives of the milk quota system to exempt a producer from the obligation to pay the additional levy on the ground that he is in financial difficulties even where he has relied on the mistaken assumption that an additional quota would subsequently be allocated to him.

Decision on costs

Costs

18 The costs incurred by the Greek Government and the Commission of the European Communities, which have submitted observations to the Court, are not recoverable. As these proceedings are, for the parties to the main proceedings, in the nature of a step in the proceedings pending before the national court, the decision on costs is a matter for that court.

Operative part

On those grounds,

THE COURT (Third Chamber),

in answer to the question referred to it by the Finanzgericht Muenchen by order of 9 September 1991, hereby rules:

Community law as it stands at present does not preclude a national provision which empowers the national authorities to waive in certain exceptional cases, on grounds of personal equity, the levy payable under Article 5c of Council Regulation No 804/68, provided that in applying that provision there is no discrimination by comparison with the way in which equivalent, purely national, fiscal debts are treated and no impairment of the objectives of the milk quota system introduced by that regulation. It is not compatible with the objectives of the milk quota system to exempt a producer from the obligation to pay the additional levy on the ground that he is in financial difficulties even where he has relied on the mistaken assumption that an additional quota would subsequently be allocated to him.