COVID-19: the European Commission approves EUR 392,000 Belgian aid for the Waterloo 1815 Memorial

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On 18 May 2021, the European Commission approved an aid of EUR 392,000 to compensate for the damage suffered by SA Kléber Rossillon Waterloo, in charge of the management and commercial and tourist activities at the “Battle of Waterloo 1815” site in the framework of a service concession (including both a restaurant and a museum, namely the Memorial).

Like many players in the tourism and cultural sector, SA Kléber Rossillon Waterloo is suffering substantial losses due to the current COVID-19 crisis. The intermunicipality “Battle of Waterloo 1815”, owner of the site, that we had the honour of assisting in this matter, has decided to provide support to help the manager through this crisis.

The aid granted is thus intended to compensate for the damage suffered, during both the first lockdown (i.e. from 13 March to 14 June 2020) and the second lockdown (from 19 October to 31 December 2020), due to the closure of the Memorial and restaurant and the travel restrictions imposed by the Belgian government to limit the spread of the virus.

This aid was approved on the basis of Article 107(2)(b) TFEU after a thorough examination and careful analysis by the Commission of the damage calculation method. Although it is an internationally renowned site, and despite the restrictive measures adopted at Schengen and international level, only losses directly linked to strict restrictive measures at Belgian level were taken into account.

In this case, the aid takes the form of a deferral of the variable concession fee of 2019 (due in 2020), a cancellation of the base concession fee of 2020, and a cancellation of the proportional concession fee for the activity generated by the restaurant for the year 2020.

On the basis of Article 107(2)(b), the Commission declares compatible with the internal market "aid to make good the damage caused by natural disasters or exceptional occurrences". In this respect, the Commission considers that the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes such an exceptional occurrence because of its extraordinary and unforeseeable nature and its major impact on the economy.

This provision is an effective tool for compensating the losses suffered by any operator as a result of the health crisis. It allows the public authorities to grant support measures of any kind (subsidy, guarantee, loan, waiver of debt, etc.) to any company, even one in difficulty, without any other condition imposed by the Commission, other than compliance with the ceiling on damage directly linked to the pandemic. In this respect, the Commission tends to restrict the scope of this option and the method used by the European Commission to identify precisely the damage to be compensated is not always easy to grasp in practice.  

Since the beginning of the pandemic, this legal basis has been applied on numerous occasions in favour of the air transport sector. The present decision reveals its relevance for other sectors strongly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.