The European Commission is tomorrow (17 December) expected to open a formal investigation into whether Spain gave illegal state aid to some Spanish football clubs.
This follows a recommendation published today by the European Ombudsman strongly criticising the Commission for taking too long to take a decision on the complaint, which was filed with the regulator four years ago. The complaint claims that Spanish clubs enjoy unfair tax advantages and have failed to address a possible conflict of interest.
“Not only is this bad administration, but to the European public it can look like a conflict of interest given the Commissioner’s strong links to one of the football clubs in question,” said Emily O’Reilly, the European Ombudsman.
José Manuel García Margallo, Spain’s foreign minister, said yesterday that the Commission would open proceedings against Spain in relation to alleged illegal state aid given to the football clubs Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic de Bilbao, Osasuna, Valencia, Elche and Hércules.
A spokesperson for Almunia, speaking today, would only confirm that the Commission’s investigation into Spanish football clubs was on the agenda at a meeting of European Commissioners tomorrow.
But he said that Almunia finds the allegations of a conflict of interest to be “unacceptable”.
Almunia is a supporter of Spanish football club Athletic de Bilbao.
A group of investors in European football clubs complained to the Commission in 2009 that Spain was breaching EU state-aid rules by giving unfair tax advantages to several Spanish football clubs.
Although the Commission initially examined the complaint, asking the Spanish government to respond to the allegations and to answer specific questions, no further action was taken by the Commission after March 2011, said the Ombudsman.
The complainants subsequently contacted the Ombudsman in December 2011. They alleged that the lack of action could be due to Almunia being a fan of one of the clubs in question and also a minister in the Spanish government that decided the tax advantages.
After hearing both the complainant and the Commission, the Ombudsman proposed a friendly solution whereby the Commission would take a decision, or provide reasons for not doing so, which was accepted by the Commission.
However, the Commission gave indications to the Ombudsman and in a reply to a question from an MEP that no decision was expected soon, said O’Reilly.
The Commission pleaded that its initial investigation was taking longer than usual because the regulator had little experience in applying state aid rules to sports and needed to develop guidelines.
In response, O’Reilly noted that this lack of experience had not stopped the Commission from taking infringement action in relation to other football clubs.
It “would be reasonable to expect the Commissioner to exercise some discretion regarding the extent to which he is linked to his favourite club during a period when it is known that he must make a decision which will affect the interests of that club,” she continued.
“The Ombudsman finds that the Commission has not shown sufficient awareness of this issue.”
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