The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Luxembourg has ruled for the first time against a large European company in a discrimination case. According the magistrates, the electricity company CEZ discriminates against its customers in Bulgaria.
The story begins in a trivial manner. A family with a small business – a bakery in the town of Dupnitsa – lodged a complaint with Commission for Protection against Discrimination (CPD). The owner contended that she was unable to read her shop’s electricity meter because it was placed at the inaccessible height of seven meters. The shop is located in the Roma district of the town.
Tensions escalated when the small company began receiving too-large electricity bills from CEZ. However, due to the inaccessible height, the meter could not be monitored by the consumers. Then the family, which otherwise is not Roma, logged the complaint for discrimination on ethnic grounds. According to lawyers, it was “discrimination by association”.
The Commission upheld the complaint, but CEZ appealed and the Administrative Court returned the case back to CPD for further consideration and to refine the form of discrimination. CPD did it and once again upheld the complaint.
CHEZ then appealed the second Commission decision, and the Sofia Administrative Court sent ten questions to CJEU under the EU Race Discrimination Directive. They were addressed to the chairman of the college hearing the case. The Advocate General’s Opinion, which preceded the rule of the European Court, was entirely in favor of the claimant. Then the Court ruled that CEZ discriminates against customers in Bulgaria. According to eyewitnesses, the representative of the Czech company, to put it mildly, perturbed the judges in Luxembourg with his answers. He failed to answer how many consumers have meters mounted at a height of five to seven meters.
In an informal conversation, during an attempt to settle the case out of court, the company declared before the claimant’s lawyers that it would not even “lift a finger” until the court issues a rule and its decision comes into force. However, this rule is subject to appeal before the Supreme Administrative Court and knowing the speed of work of the Bulgarian judiciary, the optimistic date for its entry into force is the second half of 2017. The fact that many final rules are never being adhered to by the institutions is a separate issue and the company is not hiding that it is well aware of this fact. According to lawyers, the court is really slow in this case, but not more than usual.
The procedure for revoking the license of CEZ has stalled as well. However, when the decision of the European Court in Luxembourg is formalized and enters into force, as we said, sometime in 2017, it is possible that this procedure would be already finalized. Then the damage, moral and otherwise, caused by CEZ, would have to be paid by its successor. The Bulgarian State is expected to be this successor. This means one thing:
Bulgaria will pay for CEZ’ discrimination against Bulgarian citizens
CEZ stubbornly insists that when the meters are placed at an inaccessible height, this protects the life of potential offenders. According to sources from CEZ, however, since the beginning of 2015 there have been five deaths caused by attempts to illegally connect to meters mounted at such height, which refutes this contention.
And CEZ, like other electric power utilities in the country, is already using remote meters. It is also an undisputed fact that in Roma districts meters have been mounted at inaccessible heights before CEZ set foot in the country. However, Bulgaria was not part of the EU then and European law was not applicable. To date, only the EVN electric power utility has made an attempt to address this problem. In the Roma district Stolipinovo, in the second largest city of Plovdiv, EVN made an investment, improved the electricity network and moved the meters down, at eye level. Then they hired security guards and appointed Roma from the district in charge of the meters. EVN also informed the residents about the day and time when meters are being read and helped with technical problems. The pilot project in Stolipinovo was assessed as successful. Compared to the previous 2-3% collectability rate, now the collection of money for the service has grown to 94 -96% which is even higher than in other districts of the city. The previous debts have been granted an extended repayment period of 25 -30 years with each customer having an individual contract. The monthly installments range from 15 to 20 levs.
Lack of information on consumption is not the only problem with meters placed at inaccessible height, as with them, consumer cannot trace network manipulations by third parties as well. Meanwhile, such manipulations (illegal connections to the network) are very typical for Roma districts. This “damage” is not at the expense of the power utility, but is usually footed by neighbors or other customers. According to human rights activists, manipulations with high meters are mostly done by employees of the power utilities. The operation lasts about 90 and causes a drop in voltage, which in turn further increases the cost for consumers.
This post is also available in: Bulgarian