For the first time in over a decade, the General Court of the European Union has annulled a European Commission (EC or Commission) decision to block a deal. This is a rare setback for the EC’s merger control program.
The ruling overturns a January 2013 move by the EC to stop global package delivery company, United Parcel Service (UPS), from acquiring a rival, TNT Holdings. The EC’s decision turned on its finding that the transaction would have restricted competition in 15 Member States regarding express delivery of small packages to other European countries. The Commission argued that the transaction would remove one of the four top players in Europe, leaving DHL as the only remaining significant competitor and FedEx as a distant third, with a European network lacking the density and scale to exert a meaningful competitive constraint on a combined UPS/TNT.
The possibility for a claim to be brought against the European Union (the “EU”) as a result of “damage” caused by its institutions is enshrined in Article 340 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (“TFEU”). In a General Court judgment of 10 January 2017, Case T-577/14 Gascogne Sack Deutschland and Gascogne v European Union (EU:T:2017:1), the appellants successfully brought a claim for material and non-material harm suffered as a result of the “excessive” length of the judicial proceedings in the context of an appeal against a European Commission (“Commission”) decision of 30 November 2005.
The timing of the process was as follows. On 23 February 2006, two entities from the Gascogne group filed appeals before the General Court against the Commission decision of 30 November 2005 finding the existence of a cartel in the plastic industrial bags sector in a number of Member States. The written procedure of the General Court proceedings in each of these cases ended in February 2007 and the oral procedure began in December 2010. The appeal was not dismissed by the General Court until 16 November 2011. READ MORE
In an unprecedented move, the parties to a planned merger transaction have brought an action for annulment against the European Commission’s decision to initiate proceedings even before the proceedings are closed.
Under the EU Merger Regulation (“EUMR”), the Commission’s review procedure is divided into two phases: “Phase I”, which is normally limited to 25 working days, serves to separate unproblematic cases from cases that require a deeper analysis. At the end of phase I, the Commission must either clear a transaction (if it does not find significant competition concerns or if it concludes that it has no jurisdiction) or it must initiate “phase II” (if it has serious doubts as to the transaction’s compatibility with the EU law). While a decision to open phase II does not prejudice the final outcome – the Commission may still clear the transaction – it significantly increases the burden in terms of cost and inconvenience for the merging parties. The opening of phase II normally entails a significant delay of several months, and during that time and until the Commission issues a clearance decision, the parties may not close the transaction.
The European Commission has launched a public consultation to evaluate several aspects of EU merger control for possible revision. Stakeholders are invited to provide feedback until 13 January 2017. A link to the questionnaire can be found here.
The current consultation partly builds on previous efforts to improve and simplify the EU merger control regime, including the so-called “Simplification Package”, which has been in force since January 2014.