Case Law: Case C-33/97, Colim NV v. Bigg’s Continent Noord NV (Eur.Ct.J. June 3, 1999)

6 Colum. J. Eur. L. 231 (2000)

Evelyne Terryn. Assistant, Center for European Economic Law, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Advocaat.

Facts and procedure

The proceeding at hand finds its origin in a dispute between Colim NV (“Colim”) and Bigg’s Continent Noord NV (“Bigg’s”), two department stores trading in a Dutch- speaking province of Belgium.

Bigg’s was selling several products, the labels of which contained particulars, such as the nature and composition of the product, which had not been translated into the language of the area, i.e. Dutch. Colim made a summary application to the national court for an order restraining Bigg’s from selling certain products without labeling in Dutch. Bigg’s was alleged to have infringed certain provisions of the 14 July, 1991, Trade Practices and Consumer Information and Protection Law, (the “WHPC”), more particularly Articles 13 and 30.

Article 13 of the WHPC imposes an obligation to indicate compulsory particulars on the packaging, instructions for use and guarantee certificates at least in the language or languages of the area in which the products are placed on the market. Article 30 of the WHPC provides an obligation on the vendor to provide the consumer with appropriate and useful information concerning the characteristics of the product and the conditions of sale at the latest at the time of conclusion of the sale.

It is no surprise that the proceedings took place in Belgium. Belgium is a country with three official languages and four linguistic areas: a Dutch, French and German area and the bilingual area of Brussels (French and Dutch). The protection of and the possibility to use each of these official languages are very sensitive issues.

Bigg’s brought a counterclaim before the national court containing similar allegations against Colim and argued in its defense that the provisions concerned could not be invoked against it, because they constituted “technical regulations” within the meaning of Directive 83/189/EEC (the “Directive”), which had not been notified to the Commission.

As the outcome of the case turned on an interpretation of EC law, the judge stayed the proceedings and referred two sets of questions to the European Court of Justice (the “Court”). The decision of the Court of June 3, 1999, is the subject of this case note.

A first set of questions related to the character of provisions imposing language requirements, and more particularly whether they constituted “technical regulations” within the meaning of the Directive.

In the second set of questions, the Court was asked to determine how far the competence of the Member States reaches to require information to be given in the language of the area.

While the Court’s ruling on the interpretation of the Directive is noteworthy, the more controversial matter involves the second set of questions on which this case note will mainly focus.

For an elaborate discussion of the Directive and the relevant case law, we therefor refer to an earlier case note in this Journal by Gadtan Verhoosel. The discussion of the Directive in part 2 of this case note has been limited to the relevant changes since the judgement there annotated.

In part 3, a brief overview of the previous case law relating to the Member States’ competence to impose language requirements will be found as well as a discussion of the Court’s answer to the second set of questions and its implications.