Posts by: Maxence Jonvel

A New Twist in the Micula Case

The Micula case refers to what started as an intra-EU arbitration dispute between two Swedish investors and Romania and might end—or not—as a State aid case. After the recent EU judgment of June 2019, which marks a new twist, the fate of this case from a State aid perspective remains at least partially undecided.

Background of the Micula case

In the late ’90s, the Romanian government wanted to attract investors to help Romania’s economy grow, especially in the poorer regions of the country. To do so, it inter alia enacted the Emergency Government Ordinance 24/1998 (“EGO 24”) later amended by Emergency Government Ordinance 75/2000 (“EGO 75”) which made available certain tax incentives to investors in certain disfavored regions of Romania and was expected to last 10 years.

Relying on this favorable scheme, the Micula brothers, two Swedish nationals, invested heavily in the Ştei-Nucet Drăgăneşti region in northwestern Romania.

However, in 2005, on the eve of its accession to the EU, Romania abolished almost all the tax incentives in an effort to comply with the EU acquis communautaire and especially State aid rules.

The Micula brothers brought a claim against Romania grounded on the violation of the “fair and equitable treatment” clause of Article 2§3 of the Sweden-Romania Bilateral Investment Treaty (hereafter, “BIT”) before an arbitral tribunal. The EU Commission intervened as amicus curiae in these proceedings. In essence, its position was that the EGO 24 incentives constituted incompatible State aid, and that any ruling reinstating the privileges or compensating for their loss would lead to the granting of new aid incompatible with the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. In 2013, the arbitral tribunal ruled in favor of the Micula brothers and ordered Romania to compensate the tax break losses for the 2005–2009 period for an amount of EUR 178 million, interest included.

Two years later, in a 2015 decision, the EU Commission found that the implementation of the compensation award by Romania was in breach of EU State aid rules. The Commission thus ordered full recovery from the Micula brothers.

This decision was appealed before the EU General Court which issued its judgment on June 18, 2019.

The General Court ruling

When traditional principles of law enforcement over time are called to the rescue

The claimants argued the Commission’s lack of competence and the inapplicability of EU law to a situation that predated Romania’s accession to the EU.

The General Court generally endorsed their arguments. It first pointed that EU law became applicable in Romania only after its accession to the EU on 1 January 2007, at which date the Commission acquired competence to apply EU rules to Romania. The General Court then determined that the date on which the alleged aid was granted was the date on which the right to receive compensation was acquired, i.e., the date of revocation of EGO 24 (2005). The General Court emphasized the irrelevance of the compensation award issued in 2013, after Romania’s accession to the EU, as it was simply a recognition of that right.

On this basis, the General Court concluded that the EU Commission had no jurisdiction over the amounts granted as compensation for the 2005–2007 period and exceeded its powers in State aid review by addressing the issue of damages without distinguishing the periods before or after accession.

Impact on the inapplicability of EU law to the State aid issue

On the substantive issue, there was not much left for the EU General Court to decide after the finding of inapplicability of EU law to the compensation for the period predating accession. After having recalled the well-established case law according to which compensation for damage suffered cannot be regarded as aid unless it has the effect of compensating for the withdrawal of unlawful or incompatible aid, the General Court logically concluded that the compensation of the withdrawal of EGO, at least for the period predating accession, could not be regarded as compensation for withdrawal of unlawful or incompatible State aid.

As the disputed decision failed to distinguish between compensation for the period predating accession and post-accession, the Court annulled the Commission Decision (EU) 2015/1470 of 30 March 2015 in its entirety.

Conclusion

While the General Court rightly quashed the EU Commission’s tendency to overly assert its competence when it comes to the State aid space, one may regret that the judgment does not address the substantive State aid issue at stake. The question of whether compensation of the withdrawal of EGO for the post-accession period constitutes State aid is hence cautiously left open by the General Court. Therefore, this judgment may possibly not put an end to the Micula saga as the EU Commission may not have had its last word.

This case, combined with the now-famous Achmea case, which has rung the death knell of investor-state arbitration clauses contained in intra-EU BITs[1], shows the potential difficulties that investors, which are incentivized by public measures, may face when they invest within the EU. Indeed, at the end of the day, they are the only ones to really bear the State aid risk and face the consequences of recovery, with relatively limited possibilities for legal recourse. This case shall remind those investors to carefully address the issue of potential State aid as part of their overall legal risk assessment.

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[1] See Declaration of the representatives of the governments of the Member States of 15 January 2019 on the legal consequences of the judgment of the Court of Justice in Achmea and on investment protection in the European Union.

Is Amazon the Next Big Case? – GAFA Under Antitrust Scrutiny

Margrethe Vestager, head of the European Union’s Directorate-General for Competition (“DG Comp”), recently announced that the EU was once again investigating actions of a high-profile tech company – Amazon.

During a press conference held in Brussels in September, Commissioner Vestager affirmed that DG Comp had already sent questionnaires to market participants and started looking into Amazon’s potential abuse of dominance. However, DG Comp has not yet opened a formal case. As the Commissioner stated, “[t]hese are very early days and we haven’t formally opened a case. We are trying to make sure that we get the full picture.”

This investigation comes only a year after Amazon was found to have received illegal state aid through tax rulings of the State of Luxembourg, which was then ordered to recover more than €250 million.

The Issue at Stake

It is no secret that Amazon wields significant influence in retail e-commerce. The tremendous visibility of Amazon’s platform around the world attracts many third-party sellers and enables the company to act as both seller and host.

The recurrent concerns on the market relate to the dual nature of the Seattle-based company. The issue put forward by Commissioner Vestager concerns the use of third-party sellers’ data by Amazon as a host to increase the efficiency of Amazon as a seller.

How? Easy as pie. When a product sells well, Amazon is immediately informed through the data it collects, and the company then simply needs to adjust its own offerings and lower the price of its similar house-made products.

One could argue that these practices could put third-party vendors at a disadvantage and potentially amount to anti-competitive abuse of a dominant position under article 102 of the TFEU.

Amazon’s Strategy – A Fertile Ground for Global Competition Issues

Because Amazon is active in many different markets – as retailer, book publisher, marketing platform, host of cloud server space and in the television industry – its global strategy is to expand its integration across many business lines, exploiting the data it collects and being aggressive on pricing. The company appears to encourage growth over profits.

Those practices have been questioned over the past years. For instance, Lina M. Khan recently published an article in The Yale Law Journal discussing the alleged predatory pricing behavior of Amazon and related vertical relationship issues. For Ms. Khan, there is an ambient underappreciation of the risk to competition posed by the company, due, maybe, to an outdated vison of market power.

After Commissioner Vestager’s conference, it seems that the EU has taken preliminary steps to assess these risks.

Big Tech Companies – Sources of New Antitrust Challenges

DG Comp has only one toolbox: the EU treaties. Commission Vestager, however, proved to the world that there are many, many tools in this box.

Under Commissioner Vestager’s mandate, Google has been fined (twice) a total of almost $8 billion for abuse of dominance, Apple has been asked to reimburse the Irish State more than $14 billion in illegal State Aid and Facebook was sanctioned €110 million for providing misleading information about the WhatsApp takeover.

In reality, these cases point out the viability of EU competition instruments. The EU State Aid regime is precise and strong enough to catch hidden favorable tax schemes while venerable Article 102 is still able to catch unfair market practices, even those put in place in a new, digital economy.

Last but not least, it seems that EU Commissioner Vestager has found an impromptu ally in the war for fair competition: President Donald J. Trump himself, who recently argued in favor of antitrust actions against Amazon as part of an effort to exert more control over powerful multinationals.

This may be the first time when U.S. and EU antitrust agencies align their views toward a tech giant. That may not be not the kind of first-time attention Amazon would like.