Marie-Laure Combet

Partner

Paris


Read full biography at www.orrick.com

Marie-Laure Combet is a partner in Orrick's Paris Antitrust & Competition Group.

Marie-Laure has been lucky to gain top-notch experience working for years alongside a former French Minister for European Affairs and former top civil servants from either French or European administrations, particularly renowned for their outstanding practice of general EU law or EU and French competition laws.

She now puts this experience at the service of Orrick's clients. The fact that she has always navigated between two legal orders (EU and French), and not only in the field of antitrust, allows her to think outside the box when it comes to finding original solutions.

Marie-Laure regularly advises on competition matters and related types of work, including compliance, advisory/transactional, and contentious matters. Over the years she has developed a significant experience in relation to State aid matters, i.e., handling very high-profile cases notably in the banking sector, the air transportation and energy sectors, as well as general EU law and regulatory matters. Additionally, Marie-Laure has deployed several compliance programs with clients and assisted them in the implementation of their behavioural commitments made to the French Competition Authority. She also assists foreign investors in relation to their reportable direct investments in strategic sectors in France or at EU level.

Prior to joining Orrick, Marie-Laure was Counsel at Clifford Chance Europe LLP in Paris. She previously worked as a lawyer with JeantetAssociés and Debevoise & Plimpton.

Posts by: Marie-Laure Combet

After Almost Two Decades the EU Commission Finally Revived Interim Measures

On June 26, 2019, the EU Commission opened a formal investigation into U.S. chipmaker Broadcom’s alleged abuse of dominance. In a rather unexpected move, the EU Commission informed the company, on the same day, of its intention to impose interim measures, a long-forgotten tool.

Broadcom, which is a major supplier of components for TV and modem chipsets, is being suspected of having put in place contractual restrictions to exclude its competitors from the market.

Hearings were held in late August.

On October 16, 2019, the EU Commission, likely unconvinced by Broadcom’s arguments, ordered Broadcom to unilaterally cease applying exclusivity clauses contained in its agreements with six manufacturers of TV set-top boxes and modems, withhold commercial advantages granted to some of its customers, and refrain from agreeing to the same provisions or like provisions for the time being.

The investigation on the merits is still ongoing.

Commenting on the October decision, Commissioner Vestager justified the recourse to interim measures, which had not been used for almost two decades, by saying that DG COMP had “strong indications” of Broadcom having engaged in exclusive or quasi-exclusive dealings with key customers and that “in the absence of intervention, Broadcom’s behavior [was] likely to create serious and irreversible harm to competition.

In her official statement about the Broadcom case, Commissioner Vestager made it clear that it would not remain a one-off case and that she was “committed to making the best possible use of this important tool,” whose advantages (efficiency, quickness) seemed to have been “re-discovered” on this occasion.

So, why such a change?

Interim measures, a tool long neglected by the EU Commission

The EU Commission’s power to impose interim measures was first recognized by the EU judge in 1980 in the Camera Care case. In this case, the judge ruled that the EU Commission had the power “to take interim measures which are indispensable for the effective exercise of its functions and, in particular, for ensuring the effectiveness of any decisions requiring undertakings to bring to an end infringements which it has found to exist.

The conditions to impose such interim measures were further clarified by subsequent caselaw.

Regulation 1/2003 later codified them as follows: “In cases of urgency due to the risk of serious and irreparable harm to competition, the Commission, acting on its own initiative may by decision, on the basis of a prima facie finding of infringement, order interim measures” (Article 8).

This codification, which could have been viewed as an opportunity to develop the use of this tool, has, instead, discouraged the EU Commission from doing so.

The conditions set forth in Article 8 of Regulation 1/2003 were indeed perceived as significantly harder to fulfill than the caselaw conditions until then applicable. The risk of a false positive (or Type 1 errors) was another reason for the EU Commission’s reluctance to use interim measures.

Thus, while decisions imposing such measures were already rare, there have simply been none since the entry into force of Regulation 1/2003.

The Commission is regularly asked to revisit its overly cautious approach to interim measures to no avail – until the Broadcom case.

Interim measures is a tool already used with some success by EU national competition authorities and is intended to be further developed at a national level

The EU Commission’s status quo contrasted with the dynamism of certain EU Member States’ competition authorities.

With an impressive track record of 27 cases of interim measures imposed between 2002 and 2019, the French Competition Authority (“FrCA”) has been by far one of the most active. While the greater use of interim measures by the FrCA may be explained by a lower burden of proof (condition of “likelihood of competition infringement” for the FrCA versusprima facie finding of infringement” for the EU Commission; condition of “serious and immediate harm” construed broadly for the FrCA versus serious and irreparable damage to competition as a whole for the EU Commission), it is also the result of a greater interventionism.

The fact that certain national competition authorities, like the FrCA, have used interim measures for years, with some success (including in the high-tech industry), has necessarily inspired the EU Commission.

It may also well be that, with the upcoming implementation of the ECN+ Directive that requires all Member States to enable their competition authorities to resort to interim measures, the EU Commission felt increased pressure to lead by example.

Dusted off tools for new challenges

The development of fast-moving markets and the hot debate as to whether the traditional tools of antitrust law are sufficient to tackle the issues posed by some big tech companies also explain the timely resurgence of interim measures.

While, around the world, legislators, academics, practitioners and competition authorities themselves continue to devise the best possible answer(s), competition authorities must find solutions to address everyday concerns voiced by consumers, clients and competitors confronted with potentially unlawful conduct adopted by big tech companies.

Dusting off some tools from the existing toolbox clearly forms part of the solution. It has been the case with the notion of exploitative abuse, voluntarily left aside from the Commission’s enforcement priorities back in 2009, and now revived.

It may now be the case with interim measures.

Conclusion

The EU Commission’s change of approach to interim measures is good news: certain circumstances do require prompt action to preserve competition on the markets and avoid irreversible harm to consumers, something which can only be achieved by interim measures given the long duration of the investigation on the merits.

This renewed interest for interim measures should not however make the EU Commission forget too quickly what it has long feared, namely Type 1 errors. Interim measures are prone to these errors which are very costly for the companies concerned and the economy in general. They can discourage companies from innovating and have the power to adversely affect public opinion for years to the detriment of the investigated companies even if the companies are cleared at the end of the day.

We can, of course, count on companies facing such measures to remind the EU Commission of these limits, as necessary.

In any event, to know whether this tool has definitively found its place in the EU Commission’s arsenal, one will have to wait for the EU judge’s reaction either in the Broadcom case, if Broadcom appeals the October decision (which seems highly likely), or in the following case of appeal against interim measures. If the EU Judge sets the bar too high in terms of the standard of proof required from the EU Commission, it will probably consign interim measures to oblivion. If the EU Judge is less demanding, it will open a rift that the EU Commission is sure to rush into.

‘Competitors’ Challenges to the Merits of a State Aid Decision is a Tough Nut to Crack, the Scor (Court) Case Reminds Us’

1. Background:

Back in 2013, Scor SE (“Scor”), whose subsidiary is engaged on the French market for the reinsurance of risks relating to natural disasters, lodged a complaint with the European Commission alleging unlawful and incompatible State aid in favor of Caisse Centrale de Réassurance (“CCR”). CCR is a public undertaking of reinsurance whose core activity concerns the reinsurance of risks relating to natural disasters in France and benefits from an unlimited State guarantee to the extent certain of its activities are concerned.

Unlimited public guarantees granted to undertakings are generally incompatible with EU State aid law. As the European Commission pointed out in its Guarantee Notice,[1]guarantees must be linked to a specific financial transaction, for a fixed maximum amount and limited in time. In this connection the Commission considers in principle that unlimited guarantees are incompatible with Article [107] of the Treaty.”

Departing from the aforementioned Notice and its decisional practice, the Commission, after having reviewed the measure in Phase I, dismissed Scor’s complaint and declared compatible, in decision C(2016) 5995 final of September 26, 2016 (the “Decision”), the unlimited guarantee in favor of CCR. The Commission considered that this guarantee was essential for the French regime for indemnification of natural disasters and pursued an objective of national solidarity in the face of risks related to natural disasters, and that it was necessary and proportionate in light of this objective and of limited disturbance on competition and interstate trade.

On May 6, 2019 the General Court of the European Union (“General Court”) dismissed the action in annulment that Scor introduced against the Decision (case T‑135/17 or the “Scor Court case”).

2. Interesting features of the Scor Court case:

It is not really its contribution on State aid substantive issues that makes this case interesting; it is rather that it reminds us of the difficulties facing companies willing to challenge the merits of a State aid decision that benefits a competitor (in this case, a compatibility decision to the benefit of CCR).

●   Legal standing to challenge a State aid compatibility decision on the merits

Referring to the landmark Plaumann case (Case 25-62), the General Court recalled that for Scor (as a non-beneficiary third party) to have standing to challenge the Decision on the merits, it had to demonstrate that it was “individually concerned,” i.e. affected by the disputed decision by reason of certain attributes peculiar to it or by reason of circumstances that differentiate it from all other persons and, by virtue of these factors, distinguish it individually just as in the case of the addressee.

To pass this test, the General Court traditionally considers that it is not enough for the applicant to be a competitor. The applicant must demonstrate that the disputed decision substantially affected its position on the market.

Hence the difficulty lies in what “substantially affected” shall mean.

We know from precedents, and this is emphasized once again by the Scor Court case, that the mere fact that a measure may exercise an influence on the competitive relationships existing on the relevant market and that the undertaking concerned was in a competitive relationship with the recipient does not suffice.

Rather, the criterion of substantial affectation of the applicant’s market position requires to be demonstrated by specific circumstances, such as: significant decline in turnover, appreciable financial losses or a significant reduction in market share following the grant of the aid in question, loss of an opportunity to make a profit or a less favorable development than would have been the case without such aid.

Hence it is easy to understand why this criterion can constitute a serious obstacle for competitors willing to challenge a State aid decision on the merits. It is even more true when one considers that, in the finding of State aid, the Commission generally does not devote too much effort to the demonstration of the affectation of competition resulting from the aid. One may regret this, as it would be very helpful (let alone for the concept of State aid) to find more developments in that regard.

In the case at hand, the General Court, following a two-step analysis, first identified the market concerned by the dispute (i.e. the French market for the reassurance of risks caused by natural disasters). It then went on to examine the circumstances put forward by Scor to demonstrate legal standing, namely: its subsidiary’s modest size on the market concerned (i.e. 0.08-0.11% – figures criticized by the Court for not being contemporaneous to Scor’s application) compared with its position on other French reinsurance markets (around 8-13%), as well as its complainant status and active role in the course of the proceedings. Regarding the first circumstance, the General Court took the view that Scor had failed to provide evidence of a potential link between the State guarantee to CCR and the particularly low level of Scor’s subsidiary’s market share on the French market for the reassurance of risks caused by natural disasters. As for the second circumstance, the complainant status and the active role played in the proceedings was recognized as a circumstance to account for, but it was said to be insufficient in itself to prove legal standing. The General Court consequently rejected, as inadmissible, Scor’s pleas challenging the merits of the Decision.

However, it declared admissible Scor’s pleas pertaining to the protection of its procedural rights, applying here again a well-established case-law according to which any “interested party” may claim protection of its procedural rights before the EU judge in relation to a decision not to raise objections or a non-aid decision.

●   Types of arguments left for competitors to challenge a State aid compatibility decision as illustrated by the Scor Court case

Competitors are easily deemed to be “interested parties,” i.e. “any person, undertaking or association of undertakings whose interests might be affected by the granting of aid …” (Article 1 of Regulation 2015/1589). But, then, as recalled by the General Court, the scope of their pleas is much more limited than if they were Plaumann-applicants, as they can only claim violation of procedural rights.

Applying this principle in the Scor Court case, the Court hence accepted to examine Scor’s pleas only on the failure to state reasons (an issue of public policy that EU courts must raise on their own motion), and on the violation of its procedural rights.

In that regard, Scor alleged that there were serious doubts as to the compatibility of the Decision, which should have led the Commission to open formal proceedings (phase II), i.e. long duration of the administrative proceedings; Commission’s hesitation on the legal basis for the Decision; the fact that a potential alternative system was envisaged; indications in the content of the Decision demonstrating serious doubts: failure to state reasons, insufficient and incomplete investigation, greater focus on the compatibility than on the existence of aid, no review of Scor’s proposal for alternative systems, misunderstanding by the Commission of the functioning of the guarantee, various circumstances raising doubts about the proportionality of the aid).

But, after addressing each of them in turn, the General Court eventually rejected all these arguments.

If, to some extent, procedural arguments may have a connection with the merits (in particular, the Court may examine substantive arguments to the extent they tend to support a procedural plea), it goes without saying that they are rather weak weapons and cannot compensate for the inadmissibility of substantive pleas. This can understandably leave the competitor-applicants frustrated when they do not manage to successfully pass the Plaumann test.

Furthermore, even in cases where pleas on the violation of procedural rights succeed, this does not necessarily mean that the measure at stake would ultimately be declared incompatible aid, as the Commission may comply with the requirements set out in a judgment without having to declare the measure incompatible.

At a time of increasing calls for enhanced private enforcement in the State aid space and when it is duly acknowledged that “State aid (…) directly harm[s] the interests of other players in the markets concerned, who do not benefit from the same type of support” (emphasis added) (see the 2019 Recovery notice), one may wonder whether it should not be necessary to revisit traditional principles about legal standing of competitors when it comes to challenging the merits of compatibility or non-aid decisions.

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[1] Commission Notice on the application of Articles 87 and 88 of the EC Treaty to State aid in the form of guarantees (2008/C 155/02).

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.

Dusting the Regulatory Framework – French Competition Authority Seeks to Liberalize Distribution of Drugs and Private Medical Biology

On April 4, 2019, just three months after the publication of the European Commission (EC) report on “Competition enforcement in the pharmaceutical sector,” the French Competition Authority (FrCA) issued its report n°19-A-08 on “Distribution of drugs and private medical biology.” While the reports do not have much in common, except maybe the shared concern of excessive prices in the pharmaceutical sector, they both illustrate the keen interest of the European competition authorities in this sector. The focus of the EC report is the market players’ conducts and how they may impede competition. The FrCA report rather focuses on the obstacles to effective competition that may derive from the current legislative and regulatory framework and may translate in a competitiveness gap to the detriment of French-based operators and in higher prices for patients. It deals inter alia with a French “exception”: the monopoly of pharmacies and pharmacists over drug distribution. The report also covers a wide range of French-centric topics from online sales of drugs to capital ownership of private biology medical laboratories and pharmacies, and drug advertisement, as well as the situation of wholesalers-distributors.

Softening the pharmacies and pharmacists’ monopoly over drug distribution

16 of 28 EU Member States have softened the pharmacies’ and/or pharmacists’ monopoly over drug distribution. Among France’s neighboring countries, only Belgium, Luxembourg and Spain have a legislation as restrictive as France, where drugs, whether prescription-only or over-the-counter (OTC), may only be sold in pharmacies by qualified pharmacists.

After noticing the positive effects on prices of the enlargement of the distribution channels for certain medical devices, the FrCA advocates for a liberalization of pharmacies’ monopoly over the sale of OTC drugs, to allow drugstores and supermarkets to sell them as well. For the sake of public health, it is suggested to preserve the pharmacists’ monopoly over their sale, meaning that OTC drugs could be sold in drugstores or supermarkets but only by qualified pharmacists on whom no sales targets may be applied, and in delineated spaces with their own cash point.

Softening the regime applicable to advertising issued by pharmacists

The current regulations provide for a strict framework for advertising issued by pharmacies, be it done in favor of the pharmacies themselves or of any product, drug or other, marketed by them.

According to the FrCA, the way those regulations are currently being construed translates into excessive restrictions and prevents pharmacists from using any form of advertising, including when it does not pertain to medicinal products and therefore does not present any risk to public health.

One of the detrimental consequences thereof is the absence of any real competitive pressure between pharmacies and significant price disparities. For instance, the FrCA has found price disparities between pharmacies ranging from 103.4% to 431% for certain drugs.

The FrCA considers that softening the framework for advertising issued by pharmacists and increasing price transparency would contribute to boost competition between them, and between pharmacists and supermarkets and drugstores commercializing the same personal care products.

One of the recommendations issued by the FrCA in that respect would be to better distinguish between advertisement for drugs and for personal care products: by, for instance, allowing pharmacists to put in place rebates and loyalty programs for the latter.

Softening the rules applicable to online drug distribution

Directive 2011/62/EU obliges EU Member States to allow online sales of OTC drugs and permits online sales of prescription drugs. Implementation of the Directive has noticeably differed between countries. For instance, the UK and the Netherlands have allowed online sales for both OTC and prescription drugs by pure-players. Germany, Portugal, Sweden and Denmark have allowed the sale of any drug (OTC or prescription), but only by websites leaning on a physical pharmacy. Finally, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Ireland have limited online sales to OTC drugs and impose a physical pharmacy.

Questioning the effectiveness of the legal framework in France, the report points out that online sales of drugs are not very well developed in France. Most French patients still think the practice is illegal or non-existent. As a result, online sales of OTC represent only 1% of total sales in France vs 14.3% of total sales in Germany. Besides, the French offer of online sales is very limited compared to that of other European countries.

According to the FrCA, the development of online sales is impeded by the numerous legal constraints facing France-based players. In particular, the prohibition of joint websites between pharmacies is being challenged because it prevents them from pooling their resources. Furthermore, the FrCA points out the difficulty for pharmacies to get visibility since the law prohibits advertising of online sales websites, comparison price websites and paid referencing.

Here again, the FrCA considers that the solution would be to soften the applicable legal framework to provide patients with better information on the online sale of medicines, as well as on the actors authorized to do so. This enhanced information would promote the emergence of an economic model better suited to the development of competitive national operators capable of competing effectively with foreign players.

Other issues addressed

The report also points out several improvable aspects that could help balance the market. The FrCA points out the rules of capital ownership of pharmacies and private medical biology laboratories that could be softened to allow better access to financing and, regarding private biology medical laboratories, to put an end to an asymmetry existing as a result of a softening in the rules of capital ownership followed by a step backward, which has created an unjustified difference between laboratories that could benefit from the softening and the ones that were created after the step backward. Finally, the FrCA advocates for a revision of the method of remuneration of wholesalers-distributors, allowing for a fairer compensation of the heavy public service mission weighing on them.

Conclusion

This report is another illustration of what could start to become an interesting trend at the FrCA: using its power to deliver opinion to invite the legislator to tackle the inefficiencies and barriers to competition created by old and sometimes overly rigid rules in regulated sectors. In the same vein, one may mention its report of February 21, 2019, n° 19-A-04, on the broadcasting sector, where the FrCA advocates for a softened regulation of the sector to consider the development of new technologies and market entry of new players.

While this trend is welcome for France-based players and also for consumers in general, it remains to be seen how these recommendations will be used (or not) by the legislator.

 

EU State Aid Tax Ruling Cases: Not Yet the End of It?

More than a couple of years ago, a lot of fuss was made around the first string of State Aid tax rulings cases of the European Commission (Starbucks, Fiat, Apple, the Belgian scheme relating to the excess profit of multinational companies). Everyone has indeed heard about the massive amounts of State Aid, sometimes wrongly qualified by journalists as “fines”, that the European Commission ordered various EU Member States to recover from companies having benefitted of reportedly special and preferential tax treatment (e.g., up to €13 billion from Apple in the Irish tax ruling case).

At the time, some pretended that the approach taken by the European Commission was totally unheard of and that it was just another way for the European Commission to harass large U.S. companies.

They were not quite right.

The approach taken by the European Commission undoubtedly hinges on old precedents and on the European Commission guidance on the application of the State Aid rules to measures relating to direct business taxation (1998). What seems true however is that the European Commission, experiencing political pressure from the European Parliament in the aftermath of LuxLeaks, may have sometimes acted in haste at the cost of a lack of robustness of the underlying legal reasoning. The first setback suffered by the European Commission before the EU judge (annulment of the decision against the Belgian scheme relating to the excess profit of multinational companies) or the early closure by the European Commission (without any in-depth investigation) of the case against the Luxembourg tax ruling in favor of McDonald’s, tend to illustrate this point. But these findings do not equally apply to all tax ruling cases (about ten cases). It goes without saying that not all the tax rulings cases will come to a happy ending for beneficiaries. The case against Gibraltar which decided not to appeal the European Commission’s decision ordering recovery of €100 million of unpaid taxes from multinational companies is a good counter-example.

To see the bright side, the refined analytical grid which will soon emerge from those cases will at least help the EU Member States and (actual or potential) beneficiaries of tax rulings within the EU to better assess their own risks.

Why is it important to keep an eye on these developments?

  • There may still be a few more State Aid cases to come regarding tax rulings. Since the beginning of 2019, no less than two new investigations have been launched by the European Commission (Nike, Huhtamäki). They signal that some rulings are still under review;
  • The financial stakes may be high;
  • The time limitation period for the European Commission to order recovery of the aid is 10 years; and
  • Should the aid be deemed unlawful and incompatible, State Aid recipients bear in fine the risk of recovery.

That said, it remains difficult to predict what the next cases will be. Part of the answer probably lies with the statements of Commission’s officials who suggested that the European Commission would prioritize what it would perceive as the most caricatural cases.

It would however be surprising if this was to remain at the heart of the European Commission’s State Aid priorities once it has exhausted its current stock of rulings (those made known in the context of LuxLeaks, Panama Papers or Paradise Papers or those requested from the EU Member States in the years 2013-2014). With the State Aid cases that prompted changes of practices from EU Member States and the new legislative safeguards (e.g., EU Directive 2016/1164 laying down rules against tax avoidance practices that directly affect the functioning of the internal market to be transposed by EU Member States this year), one may indeed reasonably think that the State Aid tax rulings subject will gradually lose its topicality…at least until the next tax scandal.

More Affordable and Innovative Medicines and Treatments in Europe – Has the Competition Enforcement Met the 2009 Objective?

A decade ago, the European Commission conducted a thorough sectoral inquiry into the European pharmaceutical sector that identified antitrust shortcomings impeding access to more affordable and innovative medicines and treatments. Concluding this inquiry by setting priority actions for the years to come, former Competition Commissioner Kroes called for “… more competition and less red tape …” (sic).

Since this statement, there has been intense enforcement activity in the sector not only by the European Commission itself, but also by the European Union Member States’ antitrust authorities.

In its report on “Competition enforcement in the pharmaceutical sector,”  issued on January 28, 2019, the European Commission takes stock of their actions in this space.

The past enforcement record (2009-2017): intense activity, hard stance towards pharmaceutical companies with the use of novel or less known theories of harm

Between 2009 and 2017, no less than 29 infringement decisions were issued by European antitrust authorities, leading to fines totaling over €1 billion, while the European Commission asked for structural remedies for 25% of the reportable mergers in the sector.

Antitrust enforcement

In total, European antitrust authorities investigated over a hundred cases during the 2009-2017 period. Their investigations related to a wide range of medicines and many of the actors involved in the pharmaceutical sector: manufacturers, wholesalers and retail distributors.

Applying Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) (or its national equivalent), which prohibits anticompetitive agreements and cartels, European antitrust authorities condemned, for the first time, certain pay-for-delay agreements, whereby a generic company agrees to restrict or delay its independent entry onto the market in exchange for benefits transferred from the originator. They also condemned practices of collusion in tenders, price fixing, conduct aimed at excluding competitors or limiting their ability to compete, and other types of coordination between competitors.

Besides, European antitrust authorities found that the misuse of the regulatory framework, whereby a dominant company misleads public authorities and misuses the regulatory procedures, can infringe Article 102 TFEU (or its national equivalent). Similarly, disparagement and other practices curbing demand for generics were found to infringe Article 102 TFEU. Reviving the neglected notion of exploitative abuse, European antitrust authorities found that under certain circumstances, a dominant pharmaceutical firm may infringe Article 102 TFEU if it imposes unfair terms and conditions or excessive pricing. In these cases, the reward for innovation seemed to have weighed little in the balance against the alleged harm caused to patients.

Merger control

19 of the 80 mergers reviewed by the Commission over the 2009-2017 period were subject to structural remedies, namely divestitures, offered by the merging firms. Antitrust concerns in those cases related to the risks of (i) price increases for some medicines in one or several Member States, (ii) depriving patients and national healthcare systems of some medicinal products, and (iii) diminishing innovation in relation to certain treatments developed at the EU or even global level.

All in all, the Commission takes a positive view: it considers that active competition enforcement throughout the European Union has fostered innovation, choice and affordability by intervening where companies, unilaterally or jointly, relax competitive pressures that force them to innovate further or prevent others from innovating or illegitimately exploiting their market power.

What’s next?

After this positive assessment, the question that finally arises is whether pharmaceutical companies remain in the spotlight in Europe and should expect the same level of attention from the European antitrust authorities.

The response is, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on the standpoint), yes, definitely.

The now numerous precedents and case law have undoubtedly helped the sector to put some order into the practices implemented in the past. However, the critical challenges facing pharmaceutical companies for years (succession of blockbusters, very high cost and remuneration of innovation, very lengthy development process, etc.) weaken them and may still lead them to adopt either defensive or aggressive strategies at risk from an antitrust perspective. The European Commission remains fully aware of such risk and ultimately recommends that: “Authorities … remain vigilant and pro-active in investigating potentially anti-competitive situations, including where new practices used by companies or new trends in the industry are concerned, such as the growing relevance of biosimilars.”

So, it is most likely not the end of the story …

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.

European Competition Authorities Crack Down on Violations of Merger Control Procedural Rules

Is a wind of change blowing through the European merger control enforcement landscape?

The response is yes, certainly.

Very recent cases or investigations launched by the European Commission alleging potential violations of merger control procedural rules by notifying parties have sent a clear signal to companies: you’d now better think twice before breaking the merger control procedural rules.

It is even truer when one considers that this may well be a trend throughout Europe. These cases have echoed back to recent similar cases, pending or closed, at the member state level (the Altice case in France, the CEE Holding Group limited/ Olympic International Holdings Limited case in Hungary, the AB Kauno Grudai / AB Vievio Paukstynas case in Lithuania, and a very recent bakery case in Slovakia). READ MORE