Europe

CMA Obtains Director Disqualification for Breach of Competition Law

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The Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) has today announced that it has secured the first disqualification of a director of a company which has infringed competition law. Under the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986 (as amended by the Enterprise Act 2002), the CMA can apply to the court for a disqualification order to be made against a director in cases where a company has breached competition law and the director’s conduct makes him or her “unfit to be concerned in the management of a company[1]. This is the first time that the CMA has utilised this power.

In this case, poster supplier Trod breached competition law by agreeing with a competitor that they would not undercut each other’s prices for posters and frames sold online, with the agreement between the competitors being implemented using automated re-pricing software. The company received a fine of £163,371 for this behaviour.

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Record-Breaking Fine for Gun-Jumping Imposed by the French Competition Authority

On 8 November 2016 the French Competition Authority (“FCA”) imposed the highest “gun-jumping” national and worldwide fine ever, €80 million, on Altice-Numericable, a major French telecommunications operator, in relation to its 2014 acquisitions of SFR (“Société Française du Radiotéléphone”) and OTL (“Omer Telecom Limited”). Image of French flag overshadowing Western Europe.

On November 8, 2016, the French Competition Authority (“FCA”) imposed the highest “gun-jumping” national and worldwide fine ever, €80 million, on Altice-Numericable, a major French telecommunications operator, in relation to its 2014 acquisitions of SFR (“Société Française du Radiotéléphone”) and OTL (“Omer Telecom Limited”).

This is a world first decision when considering the amount of the sanction and the seriousness of the circumstances,” commented Isabelle de Silva, the President of the FCA since last October.

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European Commission Considers Introduction of New Merger Control Thresholds

European Commission Considers Introduction of New European Union Merger Control Thresholds European flags in front of the Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European commission in Brussels

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.

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E-Commerce: The EU Commission Releases Its Preliminary Report in the E-Commerce Sector Inquiry

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After gathering information from nearly 1800 stakeholders from all 28 EU Member States and collecting around 8000 distribution agreements, the EU Commission published on 15 September a preliminary report on the findings of its ongoing competition sector inquiry into e-commerce.[1]

The inquiry was launched by the Commission in May 2015, after finding that despite the growing significance for e-commerce across EU countries over the last years (approximately 50% of the population of the Union shopped online in 2014), cross-border online trade remained limited.

While such limitations may have been attributable to language barriers, consumer preferences or differences in legal frameworks between Member States, the Commission sought to investigate the sector based on indications that companies active on the e-commerce market may be engaged in anticompetitive agreements.

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Germany Plans to Introduce New Merger Notification Test

Merger Acquisition Antitrust

The German government has recently published a bill that would significantly amend the criteria for determining whether an M&A transaction is subject to German merger control.

Currently, the applicability of the German merger control rules depends primarily on the revenues of the firms participating in a transaction. A concentration needs to be notified to the German competition authority – the Bundeskartellamt – where all the following three turnover thresholds are met: (i) EUR 500 million worldwide, (ii) EUR 25 million in Germany, and (iii) EUR 5 million in Germany. The 500 million threshold (i) refers to the sales achieved by all of the parties combined in their last completed financial year. The other two thresholds (ii) and (iii) refer to the individual sales of two parties to the transaction (e.g., the acquirer, on the one hand, and the business being acquired, on the other). Where the notification thresholds are met, the parties are subject to a standstill obligation. They must not consummate the transaction until it has been cleared (or is deemed to have been cleared) by the Bundeskartellamt.

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English High Court Allows LCD Damages Action to Proceed

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On 29 July 2016, the High Court of England and Wales delivered its judgment dismissing the applications of two defendants to strike out a follow-on damages case in which the claimant, iiyama, asserts that it suffered losses as a result of the defendants’ alleged participation in the LCD cartel. Iiyama v Samsung [2016] EWHC 1980 (Ch).

The claim follows on from the European Commission’s decision of 8 December 2010, which found that six LCD panel producers had entered into a world-wide price fixing cartel and had implemented that cartel within the EU.  The Commission had been satisfied that the agreement related to direct and indirect sales of LCD panels to companies in the EU.  It also found that the participants in the cartel had sought to implement the cartel within the EU, even if price negotiations took place outside the EU.

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Fnac-Darty: A Landmark Merger Decision in France

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On 18 July 2016, the French Competition Authority (“FCA”) broke new ground in France by holding that retail distribution of electronic products through both physical stores and online channels is a single relevant market.

The background and the FCA’s Decision

The FCA’s decision concerns Fnac’s acquisition of Darty. The proposed transaction drew a great deal of public attention because it involves France’s two largest click and mortar retailers. It drew even more attention in March 2016, when the FCA announced a phase II examination of the potentially negative effects of the merger. However, in its 18 July 2016 decision, the FCA reversed course and granted conditional approval for the transaction after determining the relevant market includes both online and physical distribution channels.

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Price Signalling Can Put Companies in Hot Water in the EU

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The long list of practices violating EU competition law just got longer: in Container Shipping, the European Commission confirmed that the unilateral publishing of pricing information, in public media, can violate Article 101 TFEU.[1]

In this case, the Commission expressed concern that the practice of fourteen container liner shipping companies (“Carriers”) to publish intentions to increase prices may harm competition. The Carriers regularly announced intended increases of freight prices on their websites, via the press, or in other ways. The announcements were made several times a year and included the level of increase and the date of implementation. The Carriers were not bound by the announced increases and some of them postponed or modified the price increases after announcement.

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European Commission Puts the Boot into Spanish Football Clubs

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On 4 July 2016, just as European football takes centre stage at the final stages of the UEFA European Championships in France, the European Commission (“Commission”) issued a decision ordering Spain to recoup tens of millions of euros of unlawful State aid granted to seven Spanish football clubs, including two of the best-known clubs in the world, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.

The Commission’s probe was launched in December 2013, with three parallel investigations into certain public support measures granted to Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Athletic Club Bilbao, Club Atlético Osasuna, and three Valencian football clubs, Valencia CF, Elche CF and Hercules CF.

“Protect the level playing field”

In announcing the rulings, Margrethe Vestager, Competition Commissioner, stated: “Using tax payers’ money to finance professional football clubs can create unfair competition. Professional football is a commercial activity with significant money involved and public money must comply with fair competition rules. The subsidies we investigated in these cases did not.” The Commission’s press release cites its application of State aid rules in these investigations as “protect[ing] the level playing field” for competing professional football clubs against State measures that could “prevent rivals from growing and being competitive.

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Health Check for Hospitals in Germany

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Are patients receiving the best care in hospitals? The German competition authority – Bundeskartellamt – has now decided to apply a health check to the German hospitals market.

On May 31, 2016, the German competition authority announced that it was launching a so-called “sector inquiry” into the hospital services market to examine the degree of competition in that sector of the economy.

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The European Commission’s Priorities in Pursuing Enforcement Actions

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Businesses often wonder how competition authorities pick and choose the cases they decide to bring.  Companies with operations in Europe now have some guidance as a result of a recent speech by European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in which she outlined how the Commission prioritizes its enforcement efforts.

Commissioner Vestager explained that the Commission uses three main criteria in prioritizing which cases to pursue.  Not every case needs to satisfy all three criteria, but the Commission tries to keep these three objectives in mind in determining whether to pursue an enforcement action.

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Observations on “Brexit” and the EU/UK Competition Law Regime

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Rightly considered to be a “once in a generation decision,” the UK electorate will on 23 June 2016 have a chance to vote on whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union (“EU”).

This upcoming referendum has resulted in emotional rhetoric and heated discussions in the media (and no doubt around dining tables throughout the UK and elsewhere) on which way to vote, and why. However, what is striking to us is the relative lack of focus on the legal implications of so-called “Brexit,” including on EU and UK competition law.

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Now in force: Major amendments to the antitrust damages regime in the UK

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The Consumer Rights Act 2015 (“CRA”) comes into force today, 1 October 2015.1 It introduces major reforms to the antitrust damages actions regime in the UK.2 In particular, the CRA broadens the type of cases that can be heard by the UK’s specialist antitrust court, the Competition Appeal Tribunal (the “CAT”), to include opt-out class actions, and makes other procedural amendments aimed at facilitating and streamlining private damages actions in the UK.

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EU’s Highest Court Confirms that Seeking an Injunction for SEPs May Constitute an Abuse of a Dominant Position

On July 16, 2015, the EU’s highest court, the Court of Justice, rendered its long-awaited ruling on whether seeking an injunction for a standard-essential patent (“SEP“) against an alleged patent infringer constitutes an abuse of a dominant position pursuant to Article 102 TFEU.  The judgment was in response to a request for a preliminary ruling from the Landgericht Düsseldorf (Regional Court of Düsseldorf, Germany)[1] in the course of a dispute between Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd (“Huawei“) and ZTE Corp. together with its German subsidiary ZTE Deutschland GmbH (together, “ZTE“).

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European Commission Sets Out Its Strategy to Achieve a European Energy Union

On Feb. 25, 2015, the European Commission set out its strategy to achieve a European Energy Union with a forward looking climate change policy (“Framework Strategy”). Reforming and reorganizing Europe’s energy policy into a single energy market was outlined as a top priority by Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the Commission, in his political guidelines. The project is based on the three objectives of EU energy policy:  (i) competitiveness; (ii) security of supply; and (iii) sustainability of infrastructure. The EU is the largest energy importer in the world, importing 53% of its energy, at an annual cost of around €400 billion.

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Court of Appeal Dismisses Ryanair’s Appeal in Connection With a Divesture Order Requiring Ryanair to Reduce Its Stake in Aer Lingus to No More Than 5%

On Feb. 12, 2015, the Court of Appeal to England and Wales dismissed Ryanair’s appeal against a judgment of the UK’s Competition Appeal Tribunal (“CAT”).[1]  The CAT had, on May 7, 2014, rejected Ryanair’s application for review of the findings of the Competition Commission (“CC”) in connection with Ryanair’s acquisition of a minority shareholding in Aer Lingus.[2]  In its final report, dated Aug. 28, 2013, the CC found that Ryanair and Aer Lingus had ceased to be distinct as a result of Ryanair’s minority shareholding (29.82%) that gave it the ability to exercise material influence over the policy of Aer Lingus. The CC reached its view by having regard to Ryanair’s ability to block special resolutions and the sale of slots at London Heathrow Airport. The CC then concluded that the minority stake resulted in a substantial lessening of competition because, in particular, Ryanair’s incentives as a competitor were likely to outweigh its incentives as a shareholder. The CC decided that a reduction of Ryanair’s holding to 5% would be an effective remedy.

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European Commission to Continue Discourse on the Enforcement Gap Related to Minority Shareholdings

The European Union’s Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, who began her five-year mandate on Nov. 1, 2014, has indicated that there is more work to be done on the Commission’s initiative to close an enforcement gap related to minority shareholdings. The proposal—which would reform the EU Merger Regulation in order to give the Commission the power to scrutinise the acquisition of non-controlling minority interests—was one of the issues put out for consultation in the Commission’s White Paper, published July 2014. In a speech delivered Mar. 12, 2015, Vestager stated that the replies to the consultation had indicated that the proposal had not struck the right balance between the issues raised and the proposal’s procedural burden. The modalities of the system would now be discussed again within the Commission as well as Member States and other stakeholders. The White Paper had proposed a targeted transparency system that would enable parties to self-assess whether a transaction creates a competitively significant link and, if so, submit an information notice to the Commission. In the event that an information notice is submitted, the Commission would then decide whether to investigate the transaction.

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Court of Justice Contests Its Liability for a Breach Committed by One of Its Own Courts

On Feb. 17, 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) brought an appeal before the Court of Justice against an order of the General Court that had found that the CJEU was the correct representative of the EU in an action for damages. The action for damages—that seeks to engage the non-contractual liability of the EU—arises as a result of a General Court failure to deliver a judgment within a reasonable time.[1]  As the latest development in a tussle that began in February 2006, the CJEU is contesting its liability for a breach committed by one of its own courts.[2]  The General Court’s responsibility for the excessively long proceedings (approximately five years and nine months) has already been confirmed.

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General Court Fully Upholds the European Commission’s Decision to Block the Merger Between Deutsche Börse and NYSE Euronext

On Mar. 9, 2015, the General Court confirmed the European Commission’s decision prohibiting the proposed merger between Deutsche Börse and NYSE Euronext. The merger—which would have brought together the two largest exchanges in the world for European financial derivatives— was blocked by the Commission in February 2012. The Commission’s investigation had found that the merger would lead to a significant impediment to effective competition by creating a near-monopoly position. In particular, the transaction would have led to a single vertical structure, trading and clearing more than 90% of the global market of European exchange-traded derivatives.

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U.K. Consumer Rights Act Receives Royal Assent

On Mar. 26, 2015, the Consumer Rights Act received Royal Assent. Schedule 8 of the Act, which amends the UK’s Competition Act, gives the UK Competition Appeal Tribunal (“CAT”) the power to hear stand-alone private damages actions as well as actions arising from an infringement decision with respect to a finding of a cartel or an abuse of dominance. Infringement decisions by both the UK Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) and the European Commission will be relevant for the purposes of a private damages action before the CAT. The Act permits collective proceedings to be brought before the CAT, either as opt-in or opt-out proceedings, and the CAT will also have the power to approve the settlement of claims in collective proceedings. Furthermore, the Act makes it possible for redress schemes to be approved by the CMA.

The measures are expected to come into force on Oct. 1, 2015.