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Judgment of the Court (Fifth Chamber) of 18 June 1991.

Piageme and others v BVBA Peeters.

Reference for a preliminary ruling: Rechtbank van Koophandel Leuven - Belgium.

Interpretation of Article 30 of the EEC Treaty and Article 14 of Directaive 79/112/EEC - Labelling and presentation of foodstuffs for sale to the consumer - Labelling in the language of the linguistic region in which the product is offered for sale.

Case C-369/89.

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Judgment of 18 June 1991, Piageme / Peeters (C-369/89, ECR 1991 p. I-2971) ECLI:EU:C:1991:256

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Piageme and others v BVBA Peeters.

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Keywords

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Approximation of laws - Labelling and presentation of foodstuffs - Directive 79/112 - Obligation on Member States to prohibit trade in products lacking information given in a language easily understood by consumers - Scope - Requirements going beyond that obligation - Not permissible - Breach of Article 30 of the Treaty

(EEC Treaty, Art. 30; Council Directive 79/112, Art. 14)

Summary

Article 14 of Directive 79/112 on labelling and presentation of foodstuffs, which requires Member States to prohibit the sale of such products within their territories if certain particulars "do not appear in a language easily understood by purchasers, unless other measures have been taken to ensure that the purchaser is informed", requires only the prohibition of trade in products whose labelling is not easily comprehensible for the consumer, without imposing the obligation to use a particular language.

National legislation which, on the one hand, imposes a stricter obligation than the use of a language easily understood, such as, for example, exclusive use of a language of the linguistic region where the goods are marketed and, on the other hand, fails to acknowledge the possibility of ensuring that the consumer is informed by other means, goes beyond the requirements of that provision.

The obligation to use exclusively the language of the linguistic region is a measure having equivalent effect to a quantitative restriction on imports, prohibited by Article 30 of the Treaty.

Parties

In Case C-369/89,

REFERENCE to the Court under Article 177 of the EEC Treaty by the Rechtbank van Koophandel (Commercial Court), Louvain (Belgium), for a preliminary ruling in the proceedings pending before that court between

PIAGEME ASBL (Groupement des Producteurs, Importateurs et Agents Généraux d' Eaux Minérales Étrangères) and Others

and

Peeters BVBA

on the interpretation of Article 30 of the EEC Treaty and of Article 14 of Council Directive 79/112/EEC of 18 December 1978 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to the labelling, presentation and advertising of foodstuffs for sale to the ultimate consumer (Official Journal 1979 L 33, p. 1),

THE COURT (Fifth Chamber),

composed of: J.C. Moitinho de Almeida, President of the Chamber, G.C. Rodríguez Iglesias, Sir Gordon Slynn, F. Grévisse and M. Zuleeg, Judges,

Advocate General: G. Tesauro,

Registrar: H.A. Ruehl, Principal Administrator,

after considering the written observations submitted on behalf of:

- the plaintiffs in the main action, by Guy Horsmans and Aloïs Puts, of the Brussels Bar,

- the Commission of the European Communities, by René Barents, a member of its Legal Service, acting as Agent,

having regard to the Report for the Hearing,

after hearing the oral observations of the plaintiffs in the main action, of Peeters BVBA, represented by Joelle Danckaerts, of the Louvain Bar, and of the Commission, at the hearing on 11 December 1990,

after hearing the Opinion of the Advocate General at the sitting on the same day,

gives the following

Judgment

Grounds

1 By order of 5 December 1989 which was lodged at the Court Registry on 8 December 1989, the Rechtbank van Koophandel, Louvain (Belgium), referred to the Court for a preliminary ruling under Article 177 of the EEC Treaty a question on the interpretation of Article 30 of the EEC Treaty and on Article 14 of Council Directive 79/112/EEC of 18 December 1978 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to the labelling, presentation and advertising of foodstuffs for sale to the ultimate consumer (Official Journal 1979 L 33, p. 1).

2 The question arose in the context of proceedings between on the one hand the Association des Producteurs, Importateurs et Agents Généraux d' Eaux Minérales Étrangères (PIAGEME), the Société Générale des Grandes Sources et Eaux Minérales Françaises (SGGSEMF) and the Évian, Apollinaris and Vittel companies ("plaintiffs in the main action"), who import and distribute various mineral waters in Belgium, and on the other hand Peeters, a company established in the Flemish-speaking region of that country where it sells those mineral waters in bottles labelled only in French or in German.

3 Considering themselves to have suffered damage, the plaintiffs in the main action started proceedings against Peeters in the Rechtbank van Koophandel, Louvain, their case being that Article 10 of the Royal Decree of 2 October 1980, replaced by Article 11 of the Royal Decree of 13 November 1986 (Moniteur Belge of 2.12.1986, p. 16317), which was intended to transpose Directive 79/112 into Belgian law, provides that the particulars required on labels must at least appear in the language or languages of the linguistic region where the foodstuffs are offered for sale.

4 Peeters pleaded the incompatibility of the Belgian legislation with Article 30 of the EEC Treaty and Article 14 of the directive, which provides that the relevant particulars are to appear "in a language easily understood by purchasers, unless other measures have been taken to ensure that the purchaser is informed". Consequently, the Rechtbank stayed the proceedings and referred the following question to the Court:

"Is Article 10 of the Royal Decree of 2 October 1980, now Article 11 of the Royal Decree of 13 November 1986, contrary to Article 30 of the EEC Treaty and Article 14 of Directive 79/112/EEC of 18 December 1978?"

5 Reference is made to the Report for the Hearing for a fuller account of the facts of the case, the relevant legislation 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.

Jurisdiction

6 The plaintiffs in the main action contest the Court' s jurisdiction on two grounds. First of all, they maintain that the Court has no jurisdiction to assess the conformity of the national provisions with Community law nor consequently to reply to the question referred by the national court. Secondly, they contend that the preliminary question which has been asked is unnecessary.

7 On the first point it should be noted that the Court has consistently held that, whereas it is not for the Court, in the context of Article 177 of the Treaty, to rule on the compatibility of a national law with Community law, it does have jurisdiction to provide the national court with all the elements of interpretation under Community law to enable it to assess that compatibility for the purpose of deciding the case before it (see for example the judgment in Case C-373/89 Caisse d' assurances sociales pour travailleurs indépendants "Integrity" v Rouvroy [1990] ECR I-4243, paragraph 9).

8 By the preliminary question, the national court seeks to establish, in substance, whether Article 30 of the EEC Treaty and Article 14 of Directive 79/112 preclude a Member State from requiring by legislation the use of the language of the linguistic region in which the foodstuffs are marketed and preventing the possible use of another language easily understood by purchasers, or any derogation in cases where the purchaser is informed by other means.

9 By their second submission, the plaintiffs in the main action maintain that the issue in the proceedings before the national court is not whether Belgian legislation should provide, by way of derogation, for the possibility of informing the purchaser by means other than a label worded in the language of the region, but whether, in so far as that derogation were permitted, other means would enable the purchaser to be informed effectively. The proceedings relate therefore to a question of evidence falling exclusively within the jurisdiction of the national court and not within that of the Court, to which a preliminary question having no relevance to the outcome of the main proceedings has been referred.

10 It is worth remembering that it has been consistently held that it is only for national courts before which actions have been brought, and which must assume responsibility for the subsequent judgment, to assess, in the light of the circumstances of each case, both the necessity for a preliminary ruling in order to be able to give their judgment and the relevance of the questions they refer to the Court. Consequently where questions referred by national courts relate to the interpretation of a Community-law provision, the Court is, in principle, obliged to make a ruling (judgment in Case C-231/89 Gmurzynska-Bscher v Oberfinanzdirektion Koeln [1990] ECR I-4003, paragraph 20).

The preliminary question

11 The plaintiffs in the main action consider that the requirement to label in the language of the linguistic region where the products are offered for sale is reasonable in the light of the aim of the directive, which is to supply the consumer with details of the products sold and in that respect to ensure the necessary legal certainty in view of the different languages spoken in a region; they stress that Article 14 of the directive imposes on Member States the obligation to prohibit the marketing of products whose labelling is not in accordance with the rules and does not limit itself to a requirement of tolerance allowing labelling which is easily understood by the purchaser.

12 It should be noted that the requirement imposed on Member States by Article 14 of the directive consists in "ensuring that the sale of foodstuffs within their own territories is prohibited" if the required particulars "do not appear in a language easily understood by purchasers, unless other measures have been taken to ensure that the purchaser is informed".

13 The only obligation is therefore to prohibit the sale of products whose labelling is not easily understood by the purchaser rather than to require the use of a particular language.

14 It is true that, according to a literal interpretation, Article 14 does not preclude a national law which allows, for the information of the consumer, only the use of the language or languages of the region where the products are sold, in so far as such a law would allow purchasers to understand easily the particulars appearing on the products. The language of the linguistic region is the language which seems to be the most "easily understood".

15 Such an interpretation of Article 14 fails, however, to take account of the aims of the directive. It follows from the first three recitals in the preamble that Directive 79/112 seeks in particular to eliminate the differences which exist between national provisions and which hinder the free movement of goods. It is because of that aim that Article 14 is limited to the requirement of a language easily understood by the purchaser and provides that the entry of foodstuffs into the territory of a Member State may be authorized where the relevant particulars do not appear in a language easily understood "if other measures have been taken to ensure that the purchaser is informed".

16 It follows from the foregoing that, on the one hand, imposing a stricter obligation than the use of a language easily understood, that is to say for example the exclusive use of the language of a linguistic region and, on the other hand, failing to acknowledge the possibility of ensuring that the purchaser is informed by other measures, goes beyond the requirements of the directive. The obligation exclusively to use the language of the linguistic region constitutes a measure having equivalent effect to a quantitative restriction on imports, prohibited by Article 30 of the Treaty.

17 Consequently, the reply to the question referred by the national court should be that Article 30 of the EEC Treaty and Article 14 of Directive 79/112 preclude a national law from requiring the exclusive use of a specific language for the labelling of foodstuffs, without allowing for the possibility of using another language easily understood by purchasers or of ensuring that the purchaser is informed by other measures.

Decision on costs

Costs

18 The costs incurred by the Commission of the European Communities, which submitted observations to the Court, cannot be recovered. Since these proceedings are, for the parties to the main proceedings, a step in the proceedings before the national court, the decision on costs is a matter for that court.

Operative part

On those grounds,

THE COURT (Fifth Chamber),

in reply to the question referred to it by the Rechtbank van Koophandel, Louvain, by order of 5 December 1989, hereby rules:

Article 30 of the EEC Treaty and Article 14 of Council Directive 79/112/EEC of 18 December 1978 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to the labelling, presentation and advertising of foodstuffs for sale to the ultimate consumer preclude a national law from requiring the exclusive use of a specific language for the labelling of foodstuffs, without allowing for the possibility of using another language easily understood by purchasers or of ensuring that the purchaser is informed by other measures.

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