Brussels, 7 May 2014
State aid: Commission approves amended financing regime of Belgian broadcaster RTBF
The European Commission has concluded that the financing regime of Belgium's French language public service broadcaster RTBF, in its amended form, is in line with EU state aid rules. In particular, Belgium has made several commitments to clarify RTBF's public service remit and ensure that RTBF's public financing is limited to what is necessary to fulfil its tasks as a public service broadcaster. This will ensure that RTBF does not use public money for commercial activities (where it competes with private players that receive no such subsidies). Belgium has now one year to implement the commitments.
The Commission started its investigation after it received a complaint from JFB (les "Journaux Francophones Belges"), the association of Belgian French-speaking press, in February 2011. The Commission's main concerns were the unclear definition of the public service remit, in particular for new media services (such as RTBF's online activities), the excessively restrictive scope of the ex-ante evaluation and a lack of clarity in the mechanism to avoid overcompensation of RTBF for the fulfilment of its public service obligations. To further assess these concerns, the Commission opened an investigation into the financing of RTBF in April 2013.
In December 2012, the Belgian authorities amended RTBF's regulatory framework, addressing some of the Commission's concerns. In particular, a new management contract between the "Communauté française" and RTBF introduced for the first time a prior evaluation, based on an open public consultation, of whether significant new audiovisual services (including new media services, such as online information services or on-demand services) envisaged by RTBF would serve democratic, social and cultural public needs, while taking account of potential effects on competition. The scope of this prior evaluation was, however, too limited. Belgian authorities have now proposed to broaden it. This will ensure that RTBF does not launch any significant new service without a prior public consultation and an independent evaluation of the public value of the service concerned and of its impact on the market.
Moreover, the management contract will be amended so as to provide an exhaustive list of new media services that are included in RTBF's public service remit, including certain online text-based services (such as news content related to its radio and TV programmes). Any significant service not mentioned in this list will be subject to the ex-ante evaluation mentioned above.
There will also be a clear separation between RTBF's public service activities and its commercial activities. Its financing will be limited to what is necessary to fulfil its public service tasks, with a specific mechanism ensuring that RTBF does not receive any overcompensation for its public service activities. External accountants ("Collège des Commissaires aux Comptes") will issue a special report and the Conseil Superieur de l'Audiovisuel (CSA), an independent authority, will be able to impose sanctions in case RTBF exceeds its public service remit or does not effectively reimburse overcompensation.
As the legal basis for the public financing of (the legal predecessor of) RTBF (INR) dates back to 1930, i.e. before the entry into force of the EEC Treaty (or Treaty of Rome), the financing of RTBF constitutes so-called "existing aid" for the purposes of EU state aid control. For this type of state aid, the Commission follows a specific cooperation procedure with the Member State concerned, in order to bring the measures in line with EU state aid rules.
The Commission assesses state aid measures in the broadcasting sector with regard to Article 106(2) of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union (TFEU) and the principles of the Commission’s 2009 Communication on the application of state aid rules to public service broadcasting (see IP/09/1072). The Communication provides a clear framework for the development of public broadcasting services and ensures legal certainty for investment by public and private media alike. It is primarily aimed at effective control of overcompensation and supervision of the public service mission of the public service broadcaster on the national level, including a transparent evaluation of the overall impact of publicly-funded new media services.
This is the third existing aid investigation in which the Commission applies the criteria of the 2009 Communication. The two previous cases concerned the Austrian and Dutch public service broadcasters (see respectively IP/09/1603 and IP/10/52).
The Commission has previously adopted more than 20 decisions on Member States' financing regimes for public service broadcasting based on the 2001 Broadcasting Communication (see IP/01/1429). Examples include the revisions made to the public sector broadcasting regimes in France, Italy and Spain (IP/05/458), Portugal (IP/06/349), Belgium (regarding the Flemish public service broadcaster, VRT) (IP/08/316), Ireland (IP/08/317) and Germany (IP/07/543).
The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under case number SA.32635 in the State Aid Register on the competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved. New publications of State aid decisions on the Internet and in the Official Journal are listed in the "State Aid Weekly e-News".