Posts by: Boris Marschall

The European Antitrust Enforcers’ response to the Covid-19 outbreak: Antitrust rules will bend, but will not break

SupplyDemandScales

In a welcomed attempt to align their approaches, the antitrust enforcers of the European Competition Network (ECN)1 have published a brief joint statement on the application of competition law during the Covid-19 crisis.

If one may regret that its content remains too high-level, it is an important step, which comes just shortly after the European Commission adopted a specific temporary State Aid framework in order to offer Member States the flexibility required in this exceptional context to support businesses impacted by the critical disruptions caused by the Covid-19 outbreak (commented here).

In addition to flexible public support measures, businesses need more clarity as to whether they can similarly benefit from a flexible enforcement of antitrust rules. At a time where businesses are put under considerable pressure, no one seems to question the fact that increased cooperation between them may be necessary, not to say indispensable for some economic sectors to continue to address basic consumers’ needs; likewise, there are reasons to believe that the traditional special responsibility of dominant firms may be harder to assume in the current circumstances.

Here and there, voices have rapidly been raised about the need to explicitly relax competition laws or their enforcement to allow companies to continue to meet European consumers’ vital needs while not dreading subsequent antitrust investigations (see for instance: the public statement issued by EuroCommerce, a trade association of European retail and wholesale companies, advocating for a waiver of normal competition rules to allow retailers to “share information on supplies and arrang[e] deliveries to the homes of people who cannot get out”).

At the same time, faced with the risk of a generalization of inflated prices for products or services in high demand due to the pandemic, antitrust enforcers naturally feel the need to be extra-vigilant and ensure that adequate safeguards remain in place, despite their own challenges of having (at least for some of them) their personnel working from home. It explains why some enforcers (such as the German Federal Cartel Office) have been vocal about the fact that existing competition law rules already provided sufficient flexibility and that they would continue to crack down on those who would unduly take advantage of the crisis to adopt anticompetitive conducts.

The guidance offered in the ECN’s joint statement strikes a balance between encouraging good-faith solutions and preventing abuses. It combines different approaches that have previously been supported by some European antitrust enforcers. But let’s make no mistake: the underlying message is clear: antitrust rules may bend but will not break, meaning that companies shall not lower their guard and ensure that they take adequate steps to mitigate the antitrust risks.

Flexible antitrust to ensure continued supply

In its joint statement, after acknowledging that “this extraordinary situation may trigger the need for companies to cooperate in order to ensure the supply and fair distribution of scarce products to all consumers”, the ECN assures that it “will not actively intervene against necessary and temporary measures put in place in order to avoid a shortage of supply”.

The ECN statement yet continues by stressing that “such measures” are likely to already comply with existing competition law, since they would either not be caught by the antitrust prohibitions or would fall under the existing exemptions. In other words, the message is that businesses will benefit from flexibility where this is justified by the Covid-19 pandemic, mostly because this flexibility is already an inherent part of the existing antitrust regime.

While nothing is said about what would be accepted as “necessary measures” or what is meant by “temporary” measures, some illustrations may already be found in decisions concerning topical sectors taken by some national enforcers. For instance, the Norwegian antitrust enforcer recently approved a three-month cooperation between Norwegian airlines in order to allow them to continue to ensure critical activities for citizens. Likewise, the German Cartel Office seems to have taken a softened approach to cooperation in the retail sector to the extent it is necessary to ensure continuous supply.

If useful, these precedents, however, leave numerous questions unaddressed.

To help companies navigate these issues, the members of the ECN seem willing to provide “informal guidance” to companies, which is a good thing in theory but clearly does not provide the same level of comfort as proper formal decisions. One may also have some doubts as to the enforcers’ ability to respond adequately in a timely manner to consultations considering that many of them have already made it clear that stakeholders needed to be prepared to face significant delays in the handling of pending investigations and merger control reviews.

It is hence to be hoped for that the members of the ECN will take inspiration from the UK CMA and will shortly, individually or jointly, follow-up with more detailed guidance.

Flexible antitrust to avoid excessive price increases

To tackle the other main issue, the risk of exaggerated inflation, the ECN joint statement contains a warning to companies that prices of “products considered essential to protect the health of consumers in the current situation (e.g., face masks and sanitising gel)” should “remain available at competitive prices” and that antitrust enforcement will continue to fight against antitrust infringements such as cartels or abuses of dominance. To the same end, the ECN joint statement also explicitly recalls that manufacturers can continue to use their right to set maximum prices.

This position is in line with the messages sent previously by several European antitrust enforcers. For instance, the Latvian Competition Council warned against price cartels resulting in overpayment for consumers. The Greek Competition Authority has communicated that it would indulge vertical agreements tending to maintain prices at a low level (maximum or recommended prices), which otherwise could be deemed anticompetitive in certain circumstances; conversely, resale price management (minimum prices) would still be examined and prosecuted.

However, one may wonder whether antitrust (flexible or not) is the appropriate tool to tackle excessive pricing problems in the current context. Why? Because, it may not offer a timely remedy (as a prior investigation will still be needed); because, the concept of exploitative abuse to address excessive prices traditionally raises several complex legal questions, and even more if we are to speak about temporary dominance resulting from the current context.

One may therefore not exclude that, in the most critical situations, European Governments will prefer ex-ante regulation over ex-post regulation, like in France where the price of hydroalcoholic gel was eventually fixed by decree.

 

1 ECN is the network for coordination between the national competition authorities (NCAs) within the EU/EEA, the European Commission (DG Comp) and the EFTA Surveillance Authority.

Who Will Be the Next EU Competition Commissioner?

On November 1, 2019 a new college of European commissioners is due to take office. Practitioners are eager to know who will be in charge of competition.

Designation of the EU commissioners

The new team will have one commissioner per Member State except the UK, which is preparing to exit the EU by October 31. All governments have designated their candidate except Italy, which first needs to complete the formation of a new national government coalition.

Once Italy has designated its candidate, Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen will communicate the planned attribution of portfolios among the commissioners-designate in the coming weeks. Later in September/October, the European Parliament will hold “hearings” and vote to confirm or reject the group of candidates.

Candidates and portfolio attributions can still change until the very end of the confirmation process.

Vestager should be senior vice president

Following the European elections, negotiations between national governments and between political groups have resulted in a plan to reshape the power structure of the Commission. Part of that plan is that current competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager will get one of two senior vice presidency posts, and her responsibilities could encompass several policy fields in a sort of “super-portfolio”; but it is still unclear which policies she would oversee.

Potential competition commissioners

Before the elections, Vestager had expressed the wish to continue her work with DG COMP. As senior vice president of the Commission, she could be in charge of competition herself, or she could oversee another commissioner in charge of that portfolio, but it cannot be excluded, either, that competition falls outside her remit completely. No commissioner has overseen competition for two consecutive terms since the reappointment of Karel Van Miert in 1995.

Other countries, notably Poland and Italy, have expressed their interest in the competition portfolio. While it seems that Poland is finally getting agriculture, Italy’s chances will largely depend on the profile of its future candidate.

EU: Parent Companies Are Liable for Cartel Damages Caused By Their Liquidated Subsidiaries

In a landmark judgment (Case C‑724/17, Vantaa vs. Skanska Industrial Solutions and others), the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decided on March 14, 2019 that companies cannot use corporate restructuring to escape their liability for cartel damages.

Background

The Skanska case concerned a cartel in the asphalt market in Finland. Seven companies were ultimately fined for their participation in the cartel. After the cartel became public, the municipality of Vantaa, which had bought asphalt during the cartel period, requested compensation from the cartelists. However, several companies had already been dissolved in “voluntary liquidation procedures.” Their sole shareholders (among them Skanska) had then acquired the dissolved companies’ assets and continued their economic activity.

The liquidation of the companies involved in the cartel did not prevent the Finnish authorities from imposing fines on their parent companies. They applied the “principle of economic continuity,” which is well established in the law on fines for EU competition law infringements. However, Skanska disputed that this principle should also apply in civil damages matters. It argued that it could not be held liable because it was not personally involved in the cartel.

The Decision of the European Court of Justice

The ECJ did not follow the arguments of Skanska and the other defendants and found that the defendants could be held liable for the harm caused by their former subsidiaries.

According to the ECJ, the EU prohibition of cartels will be effective, punitive and deterrent only if the associated right to seek private damages is also effective. The identification of the liable entity for a damage claim is governed by EU law and must be based on the same interpretation of the “concept of undertaking” as for the imposition of fines. This means, in particular, that companies cannot circumvent the right of victims to claim damages by dissolving the legal entity which participated in the cartel.

Practical Implications

The Skanska judgment is the latest of a series of judgments in the EU that have strengthened the rights of claimants in antitrust damages actions. It has closed the door for defendants to use corporate restructurings to escape their responsibilities. While Skanska concerns a very specific situation of legal succession, the ECJ’s reasoning implies that the entire case law on the “concept of undertaking” may be applied in private damages cases. As a consequence, corporate parents may be held liable for infringements of group companies to a far greater extent than previously thought.

The Skanska judgment will also have implications for M&A transactions. Since the “concept of undertaking” attaches liability to assets rather than to a particular legal entity, the buyer of a business in an asset deal needs to consider the possibility of being held financially accountable for antitrust infringements of the seller. This aspect should be part of any due diligence.