January 2008 has been a busy month for the European Commission's state aid unit. It has launched a consultation on the application of the state aid rules to public service broadcasting, adopted guidelines on state aid for environmental protection and launched an information service on services of general interest, together with its usual investigations into alleged unlawful state aid of course!

Public service broadcasting

On 10 January 2008, the European Commission launched a consultation on how the state aid rules apply to public service broadcasting and in particular, on the potential to revise the current European Commission Communication.

The consultation comprises of a questionnaire on the current communication and accompanying explanatory memorandum.

At this stage, the European Commission believes that certain updates to the 2001 communication would be helpful. For example, updating the communication to reflect recent cases would be expected to increase transparency and legal certainty. Similarly, updating the communication to take account of the new framework for public service compensation is considered sensible.

The aim of the consultation, however, is to give the European Commission a better understanding of the potential developments and challenges facing public service broadcasters as well as allowing interested parties to comment on whether changes are needed to the current communication and if so, the scope of any such changes.

The deadline for responses to the consultation is 10 March 2008. If the European Commission decides amendments are required it hopes to consult on the revisals later in 2008.

Environmental Protection

The European Commission has also adopted new guidelines on state aid for environmental protection. These will replace the current guidelines which expire on 30 April 2008 (following their extension in December 2007).

The guidelines were adopted on 23 January 2008 and their primary objective is to ensure that state aid measures allow a higher level of environmental protection than would occur without the aid and that the positive effects of the aid outweigh any negative effects felt through distortion of competition.

The guidelines outline the way in which the European Commission will assess environmental state aid measures. In particular, the guidelines outline (i) those measures which are likely to be compatible with the common market if specific conditions related to the environmental objective and role of the aid are met and the relevant aid intensity level is not exceeded (for example, aid for remediation of contaminated sites) and (ii) those measures which will require more detailed assessment.

The guidelines also contain a separate section (with specific rules) on environmental state aid in the form of tax reductions or exemptions.

Information service on services of general interest

Most recently, on 28 January 2008, the European Commission launched an interactive service to allow interested parties to ask questions about the application of EU law to services of general interest (for example, energy, health and social services).

There are two key parts to the service:

1) A frequently asked questions section on the applicability of the state aid rules and the EU single market (in particular, public procurement); and

2) An interactive information service through which individual questions may be posed on the application of EU law (e.g. the state aid rules) to services of general interest.

The aim of the service is to provide clarification and guidance to interested parties, however, the European Commission highlights that answers to individual queries cannot offer a formal interpretation of the EU law or represent legal advice on issues of national law.

Nonetheless this will no doubt be a very useful service for both the public sector and those involved in delivering services in the general interest.