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Social Insurance Monopolies in Community Competition Law and the Italian Constitution: ‘Practical’ Convergences and ‘Theoretical’ Conflicts

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An Italian judge, following earlier suggestions of the national antitrust Authority, has referred to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling under Article 234 EC Treaty two questions on the interpretation of Articles 81 and 86 of the EC Treaty. With those questions, raised in an action brought by a self-employee against the Istituto Nazionale per l'Assicurazione contro gli Infortuni sul Lavoro (INAIL) concerning the actor's refusal to pay for social insurance contributions, the Tribunale di Vicenza has in summary asked the Court of Justice whether the public entity concerned, managing a general scheme for the social insurance of accidents at work and professional diseases, can be qualified as an enterprise under Article 81 EC Treaty and, if so, whether its dominant position can be considered in contrast with EC competition rules.

This article takes this preliminary reference as a starting point to consider in more general terms the complex constitutional issues raised by what GeĀ“rard Lyon-Caen has evocatively called the progressive ‘infiltration’ of EC competition rules into the national systems of labour and social security law. The analysis is particularly focused on the significant risks of ‘constitutional collision’, between the ‘solidaristic’ principles enshrined in the Italian constitution and the fundamental market freedoms protected by the EC competition rules, which are implied by the questions raised in the preliminary reference.

It considers first the evolution of ECJ case law—from Poucet and Pistre to Albany International BV—about the limits Member States have in granting exclusive rights to social security institutions under EC competition rules. It then considers specularly, from the Italian constitutional law perspective, the most recent case law of the Italian Constitutional Court on the same issues.

The ‘contextual’ reading of the ECJ's and the Italian Constitutional Court's case law with specific regard to the case referred to by the Tribunale di Vicenza leads to the conclusion that there will probably be a ‘practical convergence’in casu between the ‘European’ and the ‘national’ approach. Following the arguments put forward by the Court of Justice in Albany, the INAIL should not be considered as an enterprise, in line also with a recent decision of the Italian Constitutional Court. And even when it was to be qualified as an enterprise, the INAIL should in any case be able to escape the ‘accuse’ of abuse of dominant position and be allowed to retain its exclusive rights, pursuant to Article 86 of the EC Treaty.

This ‘practical convergence’in casu does not, however, remove the latent ‘theoretical conflict’ between the two approaches and the risk of ‘constitutional collision’ that it implies.

A risk of a ‘conflict’ of that kind could be obviously detrimental for the European integration process. The Italian Constitutional Court claims for herself the control over the fundamental principles of the national constitutional order, assigning them the role of ‘counter-limits’ to the supremacy of European law and to European integration. At the same time, and more generally, the pervasive spill over of the EC market and competition law virtually into every area of national regulation runs the risk of undermining the social and democratic values enshrined in the national labour law traditions without compensating the potential de-regulatory effects through measures of positive integration at the supranational level. This also may contribute to undermine and threaten, in the long run, the (already weak) democratic legitimacy of the European integration process.

The search for a more suitable and less elusive and unilateral balance between social rights and economic freedoms at the supranational level should therefore become one of the most relevant tasks of what Joseph Weiler has called the ‘European neo-constitutionalism’.

In this perspective, the article, always looking at the specific questions referred to the Court of Justice by the Tribunale di Vicenza, deals with the issue of the ‘rebalance’ between social rights and economic and market freedoms along three distinct but connected lines of reasoning. The first has to do with the need of a more open and respectful dialogue between the ECJ and the national constitutional courts. The second is linked to the ongoing discussion about the ‘constitutionalization’ of the fundamental social rights at the EC level. The third finally considers the same issues from the specific point of view of the division of competences between the European Community and the Member States in the area of social (protection) policies.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Researcher, European University Institute, Florence

Publication date: 2001-03-01

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