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Brussels, 9 March 2000

Television services: Commission again warns Belgium over taxes on satellite dishes

The Commission has sent a letter to Belgium urging the Government to respect Community law by ensuring the immediate and definitive repeal throughout the country of all taxes levied on satellite dishes and the refund of any taxes already paid. The Commission believes that the tax levied by some local authorities ("communes") on satellite dishes constitutes an obstacle to the cross-border reception and distribution of television signals and therefore violates the principle of the free movement of services as laid down in the Treaty (Article 49). Following the reasoned opinion (the second stage of formal infringement proceedings) sent by the Commission to Belgium in May 1999 on the subject (see IP/99/281), Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital declared they would comply with the Treaty and a number of places (including all Communes of Brussels) have now repealed the tax. But the Commission has received several complaints that it is still imposed in a large number of communes, especially in Wallonia and particularly in certain large cities, such as Mons, Charleroi, Liege and Namur. Moreover, all requests for reimbursement of taxes already paid have so far been systematically rejected by competent authorities, according to the complaints.

The Commission's infringement procedure was initially launched following the introduction by a number of Belgian communes of an annual tax on satellite dishes. In the majority of cases the tax has been set at BFR 5,000 (some Euro 124 a year) but in some communes the charge is as much as BFR 10,000 (Euro 248). Tax can cost users as much a year as the purchase price of a satellite dish.

In the Commission's view, these taxes act as a disincentive to receiving satellite broadcasts from other Member States and to the development of satellite radio and television in Belgium, and so violate EC Treaty rules on the freedom to provide services.

The tax is discriminatory because it affects in particular certain categories of viewers and listeners (notably those wishing to receive broadcasts from their countries of origin), foreign TV and radio channels (having no access or only limited access to the cable distribution network in Belgium) and satellite distributors (penalised in relation to cable operators, whose users are not subject to such a tax and who generally have links to local government authorities imposing such taxes, within the so-called "Inter-communales").

The tax is not justified by any public interest objective and in any event is disproportionate to the aim, for instance, of preserving the aesthetic appearance of buildings: it is in fact applied irrespective of the size or appearance of the dish; whether it is visible of not; whether it is placed on a building or elsewhere -e.g. a garden-; whether the building is classified or not and without being assigned to improving the urban environment, etc.

The Commission also considers that the obligation imposed on each person who wants to install a satellite dish systematically to seek prior authorisation from the municipal authorities, sometimes with administrative expenses involved, to be excessively restrictive.

Moreover, in accordance with the consistent case law of the Court of Justice, a Member State is in principle required to refund a tax collected in violation of Community law. According to information available to the Commission, such a right has not been guaranteed up to now to individuals: their requests for refunding of the tax, although presented according to the forms prescribed by the Belgian law and therefore considered receivable by the national authorities, have been rejected in substance.

Further to the reasoned opinion, the Commission has now sent a new letter to the Belgian authorities so that the respect of the rights directly conferred to individuals by Community law and in particular by Article 49 (ax-art.59) of the EC treaty is actually ensured in this context without further obstacles or delays from the competent authorities.

This letter stresses that the maintenance of the tax by certain communes and the denial of individuals' right to a refund could result in Belgium being referred to the Court of Justice by the Commission.

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