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15.5.2.  General aids in the EU

    Aid from which any undertaking whatsoever can benefit, without regard to its geographical location or to the sector to which it belongs, is regarded as general aid. Owing to this lack of a specific character, such aid cannot lay claim to an exemption provision provided for in the Treaty on the functioning of the EU. The Commission has to be able to verify, prior to their being granted, that general aids are in response to genuine economic or social needs, that they lead to an improvement in the structures of beneficiary undertakings and that they do not give rise to problems at European level. The Commission tries to prevent aid that does not pursue clearly defined objectives. For that reason, it requires Member States, when applying general aid arrangements, either to notify it in advance of the relevant regional or sectoral programmes or, if there are no such programmes, to inform it of significant individual cases.

    The Commission systematically prohibits State export aid within the Union and normally prohibits aid, which does not have a counterpart in the common interest. Aid on which no time limit is placed and which is required to support current activities ("operating aid") is just as unacceptable as aid for intra-European exports. According to the Court of Justice, State participation in the capital of undertakings is likely to be considered State aid coming within the scope of Article 92 et seq. of the EEC Treaty (Article 107 et seq. of the TFEU).

    However, certain general aids are granted to achieve legitimate objectives and may be approved by the Commission under certain conditions, specified in its communications. In addition to regional development aids [see section 12.2.1], this is generally the case for research and development aids, aids in favour of small and medium-sized enterprises, environmental protection aids, aids for rescuing and restructuring firms in difficulty, vocational training aids and aids for employment.  These types of general aids are now covered by the General Block Exemption Regulation (GBER) [Regulation 800/2008, last amended by Regulation 1224/2013, see section 15.5.1].

    Moreover, as part of the European Economic Recovery Plan [see section 7.3], the Commission adopted, on 17 December 2008, a Temporary Community framework for State aid measures to support access to finance in the financial and economic crisis of the years 2009 to 2011 [Communications of the Commission 2009/C 83/01 and 2011/C 6/05]. The temporary measures aim to unblock bank lending to companies and thereby encourage them to continue investing, in particular in a sustainable growth economy. The temporary aid measures foreseen by this framework may not be cumulated with aid falling within the scope of the de minimis Regulation for the same eligible costs [see section 15.5.1]. If already received, such aid should be deducted from the aid granted under the temporary measures. In addition, five communications of the Commission provided guidance on the criteria for the compatibility with Article 107 § 3 of the TFEU of crisis-related aid to banks in the context of the financial crisis, from 2008 to 2011 [See Communication 2010/C 329/07].

    The temporary framework allows, under certain conditions, Member States to grant: a lump sum of aid up to €500,000 per company for the years 2009 and 2010, to relieve them from current difficulties; new aid for guarantees in the form of a reduction of the annual premium to be paid (-25% for SMEs, -15% for large companies); new aid in the form of subsidised interest rates applicable to all types of loans; new aid in the form of an interest-rate reduction for investment loans related to products which significantly improve environmental protection; a temporary derogation from the 2006 risk capital guidelines [see section 15.5.1], in order to increase the tranche (fraction) of finance per target SME (from €1.5 million to €2.5 million) and a reduction of the minimum level of private participation (from 50% to 30%).

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