Case Law: Peeters II

2 Colum. J. Eur. L. 164 (1995)

Machteld Verbruggen. Assistant at the Institute for European Law, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.

Case C-85/94, Groupement des Producteurs, Importateurs et Agents Généraux d’Eaux Minérales Etranèbres, VZW (Piageme) and Others v. Peeters NV, October 12, 1995, 1995 E.C.R. 1-2955.

Free movement of goods; Consumer protection; Labelling of mineral waters; Language

Facts and Procedure

The background for the present case (Peeters II) lies in an earlier decision by the Court of Justice, the Piageme case. The PIAGEME group and the SGGSEMF, Evian, Appolinaris and Vittel companies, imported and distributed various French mineral waters in Belgium. The Peeters company also marketed mineral waters in Belgium (in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders), but obtained the products through parallel-import, for which reason its products had German or French labels. Peeters was sued before the commercial court of Leuven (Rechtbank van Koophandel) by his competitors for infringing Belgian legislation concerning the labelling of foodstuffs. Belgian legislation required that the information provided on a label must appear in the language (or languages) of the linguistic region where the products were offered for sale, which in Peeters’s case would be Dutch. Peeters contended that that provision was contrary to Community law, in particular to Article 30 of the EC Treaty concerning the free movement of goods and to Article 14 of Council Directive 79/112, which requires the labelling to be in a “language easily understood.” The national court stayed the proceedings and referred a preliminary question to the Court of Justice of the European Communities asking whether the Belgian legislation was contrary to Community law regarding the free movement of goods and the labelling of foodstuffs.

The Court answered that question in the decision of June 18, 1991. Since the Court, when answering a preliminary reference, does not have competence to decide whether a national provision is compatible with Community law, the Court rephrased the question. The Court then found that a national law could not require 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 ensuring that the purchaser is informed by other measures.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs in the main proceedings had appealed against the above order of reference by the commercial court to the Court of Appeal in Brussels (Hof van Beroep). In the appeal, the plaintiffs challenged the submission for a preliminary reference to the Court of Justice of the European Communities and claimed that the Court’s reply to the rephrased question did not with certainty decide that the Belgian legislation was contrary to Community law. Indeed, the Belgian law did not require the exclusive use of the language or languages of the area in which the product was offered for sale; the concurrent use of other languages, with the language of the region, were also permitted under Belgian law.

The Court of Appeal then submitted three questions for a preliminary ruling which sought clarification of the reply to the first preliminary reference. The first question was whether Article 30 of the EC Treaty and Article 14 of the Directive 79/112/EEC (in conjunction with Articles 128 and 129a) prohibit a Member State from requiring the labelling to be in the language most widely spoken in the area in which the product is sold, if the use of an another language is not excluded. The second question asked whether, in order to fulfil the requirements laid down by Article 14 of the Directive, consideration must be had exclusively to particulars supplied by the outer packing, or whether other circumstances may be considered. Third, the Court of Appeal asked which criteria the national court must apply in order to ascertain the meaning of the term “other measures . . . taken to ensure that the purchaser is informed”?