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Brussels, 3 mai 1999

Television services: Commission decides to send reasoned opinion to Belgium concerning taxes on satellite dishes

Following hundreds of complaints by individual citizens, the European Commission has decided to send a reasoned opinion (the second stage of a formal infringement procedure under Article 169 of the EC Treaty) to Belgium concerning taxes imposed on satellite television dishes by some municipal authorities ("communes"). The Commission considers the taxes constitute an obstacle to the reception and to the distribution of television signals broadcast by satellite from other Member States, in violation of EC Treaty rules on the free movement of services within the Single Market (Article 59). The Commission may decide to refer the case to the Court of Justice if it does not receive a satisfactory response from the Belgian authorities within two months of receipt of the reasoned opinion.

A number of Belgian communes have introduced in recent years an annual tax on the possession of each dish for receiving satellite television. According to the information available to the Commission, such taxes are currently levied in 34 communes: 27 in the Walloon Region, 3 in the Flemish region and 4 in the Brussels-Capital region. The Brussels communes of Jette, Koekelberg, Auderghem, Watermael-Boitsfort. Schaerbeek and Woluwé-Saint-Pierre have repealed such taxes since 1 January 1999, but other communes have introduced them recently.

In the majority of the cases, the tax is set at BFR 5,000 (some €124) per year, but in some communes it reaches the sum of BFR 10,000 (some €248). In fact, the tax can cost users as much or more per year as the initial purchase price of a satellite dish (often available at less than BFR 5,000).

In the Commission's view, the taxes act as a disincentive to receiving radio and television broadcasts via satellite and so constitute an obstacle to satellite broadcasts from other Member States. The effect of this is to handicap the economic and technological development of satellite radio and television in Belgium

The Commission considers that the tax is discriminatory because it affects in particular:

  • certain categories of viewers and listeners: the users often most particularly interested in receiving satellite channels are foreigners wishing to receive broadcasts from their countries of origin.

  • foreign TV and radio channels: they have no access or only limited access to the cable distribution network in Belgium, so that satellite broadcasts can constitute the only possible form of distribution

  • satellite distributors: they are penalised in relation to cable operators, whose users are not subject to such a tax. Local government authorities imposing such taxes sometimes themselves participate in so-called "inter-communale" (mixed public/private sector) cable-distribution in direct competition with the satellite operators

Moreover, the Commission considers that the tax is unjustified. Some municipal authorities claim that the tax is to preserve the aesthetic appearance of buildings. However, the Commission does not consider this claim to be valid given that the tax is applied irrespective of:

  • the size or appearance of the satellite dish

  • whether the dish is visible or not

  • whether the dish is placed on a building or elsewhere (e.g. in a garden)

  • whether the building is classified or not.

Finally, income collected from the tax is not assigned to improving the urban environment and other types of aerials, antennae and similar protuberances (such as flagpoles) are not subject to an equivalent tax.

Other municipal authorities admit explicitly that the tax aims to make the reception of satellite broadcasts at least as expensive as reception of broadcasts via cable networks. Indeed, exemptions from the satellite dish tax are sometimes available for persons who cannot connect themselves to the cable network, and the tax is sometimes reduced by half for dish owners who also subscribe to a cable network.

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

According to the case law of the Court of Justice, the free movement of services is a fundamental principle of Community law that must be applied directly by Member States in their national legislation. In principle, a Member State may be required to refund a tax collected in violation of Community law.

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