Europe

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).

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.

Another Reminder That the UK Merger Control Regime Is More Than Just Voluntary

On 6 August 2019, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (the “CMA”) imposed an ‘Unwinding Order’ on a U.S. company, Bottomline Technologies (de), Inc (“Bottomline”), active in the business payment automation technology space, and its UK subsidiary (“Bottomline UK”), in connection with its investigation into Bottomline’s completed acquisition of Experian Limited’s Experian Payments Gateway business (the “EPG Business”). The acquisition was completed on 6 March 2019.

An ‘Initial Enforcement Order’ or ‘IEO’, preventing further integration, had already been imposed on Bottomline and Bottomline UK on 22 May 2019.

The Unwinding Order imposes obligations in relation to the handling of information:

  • Bottomline must not use “EPG Confidential Information” (i.e. commercially sensitive information regarding the EPG business) to “solicit” any existing EPG customers in relation to any product or service that competes with the EPG business;
  • Bottomline and Bottomline UK must “segregate” all EPG Confidential Information (including existing physical and electronic materials) and ensure that such information cannot be accessed by any Bottomline and Bottomline UK representatives or employees other than certain EPG staff, except where necessary to comply with regulatory and/or accounting obligations or with the prior written consent of the CMA;
  • Bottomline and Bottomline UK must procure that EPG staff destroy or delete any “Bottomline Confidential Information” (i.e. any commercially sensitive information regarding the Bottomline business in respect of any products or services that compete with the EPG business) that they hold; and
  • Bottomline and Bottomline UK must procure that no EPG staff have access to Bottomline Confidential Information, except with the prior written consent of the CMA.

The Unwinding Order remains in force until it is varied or revoked.

This matter reminds us of the risks inherent in proceeding to complete a transaction without having obtained CMA clearance, i.e. the risks of the CMA investigating a transaction (that has been legally completed) and imposing disruptive measures pending the outcome of its investigation. At a more general level, the difficulties of reversal are relative to the scale of implementation and would be far more difficult for instance if employee’ contracts have been terminated, or supply/customer contracts novated or terminated. A careful assessment of whether to voluntarily notify the CMA of a transaction prior to completion should therefore be conducted in respect of transactions involving overlapping businesses in the UK.

No Signs of Slowing Down — Global Antitrust Agencies Focus on Big Tech

Earlier this year, we covered the widespread interest in tech giants among international competition authorities, as well as the potential for divergence in intensity and type of enforcement across jurisdictions. We observed that while the U.S. enforcement agencies did not appear to support a regulatory approach to platforms and the digital economy, others like the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and the UK Parliament’s Digital Culture, Media and Sport Committee may have a stronger appetite for proactive regulation.

Since that post, competition authorities, both U.S. and other, have intensified their focus, with activities ranging from sector-wide studies to investigations into individual tech companies.

For example, the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) recently announced a broad review of whether online tech companies have harmed consumers or otherwise reduced competition. The probe will cover leading online platforms in “search, social media, and some retail services” and will focus on “practices that create or maintain structural impediments to greater competition and user benefits.”

That DOJ announcement is part of a broader effort by the U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies to address competition in the tech sector. Days later, the Attorney General met with eight State AGs who reportedly are considering opening their own investigations. The FTC launched a tech task force back in February (in addition to its recently concluded hearings on competition and consumer protection) and last month opened a formal antitrust investigation into Facebook (according to a recent press release accompanying Facebook’s Q2 earnings report). Reports also have emerged of FTC information requests to third-party resellers on Amazon. Even the Antitrust subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary has held a hearing on online platforms and market power as part of its separate investigation.

The U.S. agencies’ overseas counterparts have remained just as active. In Australia, the ACCC just published the Final Report from its Digital Platforms inquiry. The inquiry focused on online search engines, social media platforms and other digital content aggregation platforms with an emphasis on Facebook and Google, and looked into the impact of digital platforms on competition in the advertising and media markets, and on advertisers, media content creators and consumers.

The final report found that Google has “substantial market power” in the supply of general search services and search advertising services in Australia, and that Facebook has “substantial market power” in the supply of social media services and display advertising services in Australia. Both companies were found to have “substantial bargaining power” in their dealings with news media businesses in Australia. The report cautioned that this market power could be used to damage the competitive process, though it did not look at whether these digital players have in fact misused their market power.

The report offered 23 recommendations “aimed at addressing some of the actual and potential negative impacts of digital platforms in the media and advertising markets, and also more broadly on consumers.” The recommendations most directly implicating competition include changing merger law to incorporate additional factors – such as the likelihood that the acquisition would result in the removal of a potential competitor from the market, and the nature and significance of assets, including data and technology, being acquired – and to require advance notice of acquisitions; and creating a new, specialist digital platforms branch within the ACCC to monitor and investigate proactively instances of potentially anticompetitive conduct by digital platforms and take action to enforce competition and consumer laws.

The report also recommended changes to Australia’s Privacy Act, including expanding the definition of “personal information” to include technical data, strengthening notification and consent requirements and pro-consumer defaults, enabling the erasure of personal information, and introducing direct rights of action and higher penalties for breach, as well as establishing an ombudsman scheme to resolve complaints and disputes with digital platform providers. Additional recommendations focused specifically on news media (e.g. creating a code of conduct to promote fair and transparent treatment of news media by digital platforms, improving digital media literacy in schools and the communities, and offering greater funding for public broadcasters and local journalism).

Similar undertakings are in the works around the globe. The ACCC report comes just as the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced the start of a formal market study into online platforms and the UK market for digital advertising. The study will examine three potential sources of harm in digital advertising: (1) The market power of online platforms in consumer-facing markets – to what extent online platforms have market power and what impact this has on consumers; (2) Consumer control over data collection practices – whether consumers are able and willing to control how data about them is used and collected by online platforms; and (3) Competition in the supply of digital advertising in the UK – whether competition in digital advertising may be distorted by any market power held by platforms. Platforms not funded by digital advertising are expressly outside the scope of the study.

In keeping with what appears to be a greater openness toward proactive regulation than the U.S. agencies (at least historically), the discussion of potential remedies in the CMA’s Statement of Scope explains that the “current expectation is that any remedies are likely to focus on recommendations to Government for the development of an ex ante regulatory regime … and are likely to require legislative change.” The CMA does not believe that a “one-off” market investigation and intervention is “sufficient to provide a sustainable long-term framework for the sector.” The five main areas in which remedies may be required include: (1) increasing competition through data mobility, open standards, and open data; (2) giving consumers greater protection over data; (3) limiting platforms’ ability to exercise market power; (4) improving transparency and oversight for digital advertisers and content providers; and (5) institutional reform. The CMA plans to publish an interim report with initial findings in January 2020, with a final report to follow no later than July of next year.

Not to be outdone, the EU – which recently has been fairly active in the tech sector, including last year’s highly publicized Google Android decision – recently announced a formal investigation into Amazon. The investigation focuses on Amazon’s role as both a platform provider (through Amazon marketplace) and a participant on that platform (through its first-party retail offerings), asking whether Amazon’s use of sensitive data from independent retailers is in breach of EU competition rules. Specifically, the Commission will look into (1) the standard agreements between Amazon and marketplace sellers, which allow Amazon’s retail business to analyze and use third-party seller data; and (2) the role of data (including competitively sensitive marketplace seller data) in selecting the winners of the “Buy Box,” which allows customers to add items directly to their shopping carts and accounts for the majority of Amazon transactions.

As we cautioned previously, with so many competition authorities weighing in on how to assess tech competition, this confluence of inquiries and investigations can pose a challenge for global enterprises operating under an international patchwork of approaches. Technology-focused, data-intensive businesses should consider seeking antitrust counsel to monitor developing competition trends and implications across jurisdictions.

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 …

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.

CMA Orders Parties to Unwind Integration During Ongoing Investigation

For  the first time, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has flexed its regulatory muscles by ordering the unwinding – during the course of its ongoing investigation – of a completed acquisition. In a demonstration of its willingness to use all of the tools at its disposal – regardless of deal size or complexity – the CMA ordered Tobii AB (Tobii) to reverse any integration that had taken place as a result of its completed acquisition of Smartbox Assistive Technology Limited and Sensory International Ltd (Smartbox).

 

Background

Tobii announced its acquisition of Smartbox for £11 million in cash through a debt-financed deal in August 2018. Both are relatively small tech companies that provide specialist “augmentative and assistive communication” (AAC) for those with speech disabilities through hardware and software solutions, including eye-gaze cameras.

Following completion of the transaction, Tobii took various steps to integrate the Smartbox business, including entering into an agreement (Reseller Agreement) whereby Smartbox would act as reseller of Tobii products in the UK and Ireland, the discontinuation of certain Smartbox R&D projects, and the withdrawal of certain Smartbox products from the market.

CMA Investigation

In September 2018, the CMA opened an investigation into the completed transaction and subsequently found that it would lead to less choice, higher prices and reduced innovation for customers. The CMA gave the parties one week to submit undertakings to address these concerns, or the CMA would proceed to an in-depth, Phase 2 investigation.

Despite the parties offering various undertakings designed to alleviate the CMA’s concerns, these were not deemed sufficient and, on February 8, 2019, the CMA referred the transaction for Phase 2 investigation, simultaneously imposing an interim order preventing preemptive action.

Unwinding Order

Following further investigation during the Phase 2 process, the CMA issued – for the first time – an unwinding order. The order requires the parties to reverse integration and restore the parties to the positions in which they would have been had the integration not taken place. The parties are required to fulfil any open orders pursuant to the Reseller Agreement, but terminate it once these are fulfilled. Moreover, the unwinding order requires Smartbox to supply certain products which had been discontinued. Smartbox is also required to reinstate all R&D projects, including investment and staff allocations, which were discontinued due to the acquisition.

In imposing the unwinding order, the CMA concluded that the integration actions taken by the parties might prejudice the Phase 2 reference or impede the taking of any action by the CMA to rectify competitive harm caused by the transaction.

The CMA is scheduled to make its final decision on the transaction by July 25, 2019.

Practical Implications

The imposition of an order to unwind integration in a small tech deal could be seen as the CMA wielding a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but the Tobii/Smartbox case reflects several of the CMA’s priorities for 2019, including an increased focus on tech deals and the protection of vulnerable consumers.

The willingness of the CMA to use the full range of merger control tools at its disposal impacts not only tech deals, but deals in all industry sectors, regardless of size and complexity. Parties in completed transactions, which might affect competition in the UK, but which are not notified to the CMA, should consider carefully what steps to take in terms of integration, and whether and how those steps could be reversed if required to do so by a CMA unwinding order.

The CMA’s approach in this case also highlights the perils of not notifying transactions prior to completion. While the UK merger control regime is voluntary in theory, the consequences of not notifying are such that, in practice, the regime requires parties to carry out a careful pre-transaction assessment of the impact on competition in the UK and the risk of the CMA’s launching an investigation, instead of simply concluding that filing is not required because the UK regime is voluntary.

For more information, contact Douglas Lahnborg ([email protected]) or Matthew Rose ([email protected]).

 

New EU Rules on Foreign Investments: All You Need to Know About the New Screening Mechanism

The Council of the European Union (EU) has adopted a new regulation “establishing a framework for the screening of foreign direct investments into the Union” (the Regulation). This is the first time the EU is equipping itself with a comprehensive framework to monitor investments into EU businesses by investors from outside the EU.

The new rules create a cooperation mechanism where EU member states and the European Commission are able to exchange information and raise concerns. The Commission will have the possibility to issue opinions in cases concerning several member states, or where an investment could affect a project or program of interest to the whole EU. However, EU member states remain in charge of reviewing, and potentially blocking, foreign investments on grounds of security or public order. The decision to set up and maintain national screening mechanisms also continues to be in the hands of individual member states.

In the following, we give an overview of the main features of the Regulation.

The New Regulation

Until recently, there were no measures at the level of the EU on the review and control of foreign direct investments. At the national level, such measures have existed in several member states – and amid growing concerns about the impact that certain foreign investments may have on national interests, some member states have made their review procedures significantly more stringent in recent years. However, the decentralized and fragmented nature of the national review procedures raised questions about their effectiveness in addressing adequately the potential (cross-border) impact of foreign investments in sensitive sectors.

To respond to such concerns, the European Commission proposed the Regulation in 2017.

The objective of the Regulation is not to harmonize the formal foreign investment mechanisms used in EU member states, or to replace them with a single EU mechanism. Rather, it provides a mechanism for EU-wide cooperation and information sharing to allow member states to make informed decisions taking into account all relevant risks and protect pan-European interests. The decision on whether to set up a review mechanism or to review a particular foreign investment remains the sole responsibility of the member states.

The EU Council adopted the Commission’s proposal on March 5, 2019. The Regulation will enter into effect after a transitional period of 18 months following its publication in the Official Journal, expected to take place on March 21, 2019.

Under the Regulation, the competent authorities of the EU member states remain in charge of screening foreign direct investments under the applicable national laws. The role of the European Commission is to facilitate coordination and to advise member states where it considers that an investment would likely affect security or public order in one or more member states.

Transactions Subject to Review

The Regulation does not put in place a review requirement for foreign investments; rather, it sets up a procedural framework for screening mechanisms created by the EU member states. The rules of the Regulation apply to any national “procedure allowing to assess, investigate, authorize, condition, prohibit or unwind foreign direct investments.”

The definition of “foreign direct investments” is broad and does not require an investment above a defined threshold of shareholder rights or the acquisition of control in the target company. Any investment “aiming to establish or to maintain lasting and direct links” with a business in “in order to carry on an economic activity” in an EU member state is sufficient. The investment must be made by a “foreign investor,” defined as “a natural person of a third country or an undertaking of a third country.” Third countries are countries outside the EU. Therefore, the Regulation does not apply to the screening of cross-border investments inside the EU.

 

Procedure

The aim of the Regulation is to enhance cooperation and increase transparency between EU member states and the European Commission. To this end, it creates a “cooperation mechanism” that requires member states to inform each other and the Commission of incoming foreign direct investments affecting security and public order (→ EU Cooperation Mechanism for the Screening of Foreign Direct Investments):

  • Where a member state screens a foreign direct investment, it is obliged to notify the other member states and the Commission by providing, “as soon as possible,” certain information on the investment (→ Information Requirements). The other member states can then comment and the Commission can issue a (nonbinding) opinion within certain time limits, normally within 35 calendar days following the notification (this period is extended if other member states or the Commission request additional information).
  • Where a foreign direct investment in a member state is not undergoing screening and other member states or the Commission considers that the investment is likely to affect security or public order, the latter may request from the former certain information on the investment (→ Information Requirements). The other member states and the Commission may then provide comments or a (nonbinding) opinion, respectively, to the member state receiving the foreign direct investment. The time limit for comments and opinions is 35 calendar days following the receipt of information on the investment, although extensions are possible.

Although the final screening decision is the sole responsibility of the member state receiving the foreign investment, it is required to give “due consideration” to the comments of the other member states and the opinion of the Commission. Moreover, in cases where the Commission believes that the foreign direct investment may affect projects or programs of “Union interest,” the member state receiving the investment is required to take “utmost account” of the Commission’s opinion and provide an explanation if the opinion is not followed. Project and programs of “Union interest” are defined in the Annex of the Regulation. They currently include:

  • European GNSS programs (Galileo & EGNOS);
  • Copernicus;
  • Horizon 2020;
  • Trans-European Networks for Transport (TEN-T);
  • Trans-European Networks for Energy (TEN-E);
  • Trans-European Networks for Telecommunications;
  • European Defence Industrial Development Programme; and
  • Permanent structured cooperation (PESCO).

In addition to creating the cooperation mechanism, the Regulation also imposes certain minimum standards for the national screening mechanisms of EU member states. These include:

  • National rules and procedures must be transparent and not discriminate between third countries.
  • Member states must set out the circumstances triggering a screening, the grounds for screening and the applicable detailed procedural rules.
  • Member States must apply timeframes that allow them to take into account the comments of other member states and the opinions of the Commission under the coordination mechanism.
  • Confidential information must be protected.
  • Foreign investors and the undertakings concerned must have the possibility to seek recourse against screening decisions of the national authorities.
  • National screening mechanism must include measures necessary to identify and prevent circumvention.

Substantive Assessment

The Regulation does not attempt to harmonize national rules on foreign investments in the EU member states. However, it does provide a list of factors that the member states and the European Commission may take into consideration when conducting their assessment. This includes potential effects on the following:

  • critical infrastructure (incl. energy, transport, water, health, communications, media, data processing, finance);
  • critical technologies and dual use items (incl. artificial intelligence, robotics, semiconductors, cybersecurity, aerospace, defense, energy storage, quantum, nuclear, nano- or biotechnologies);
  • supply of critical inputs (incl. energy, raw materials, food);
  • access to sensitive information (incl. personal data); or
  • freedom and pluralism of the media.

 

Agree to Disagree: Competition Authorities Differ on Approach to Digital Platforms

Tech giants have captured the attention of competition agencies around the world. As we have previously shared, the FTC is in the midst of a series of hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century, including sessions on Big Data, Privacy, and Competition and the Antitrust Framework for Evaluating Acquisitions of Potential or Nascent Competitors in Digital Marketplaces. Multiple European regulators (the EU, Germany and now Austria) recently launched investigations into Amazon. Technology platforms are a priority for many other enforcers as well, from China to Australia to the UK.

With different competition authorities weighing in on how to assess tech competition, there is the potential for divergence in intensity of enforcement as well as whether existing competition doctrine suffices. Disparities are borne out by recent statements emanating from U.S., Australian, and UK competition agencies and officials.

Fresh remarks from the U.S. DOJ Antitrust Division indicate the agency does not support a regulatory approach to platforms and the digital economy. In a speech last week, agency head Makan Delrahim addressed Antitrust Enforcement in the Zero-Price Economy, noting that while zero-price strategies have “exploded” with the rise of digital platforms, “the strategy of selling a product or service at zero price is not new, nor is it unique to the digital economy.” Mr. Delrahim acknowledged the divergent views of how antitrust enforcement should treat such products and services, which range from exemption from antitrust scrutiny entirely to the creation of new, specially crafted rules and standards. Rejecting both of these “extreme views” as “misplaced,” he emphasized the ability of current antitrust doctrine – including the consumer welfare standard – to tackle the issue, stating: “[W]e do not need a wholesale revision of the antitrust laws to address competitive concerns in these contexts. . . . [O]ur antitrust laws and principles are flexible enough to adapt to the challenges of the digital economy.” Mr. Delrahim called for “careful case-by-case analysis” in enforcement. He touted the innovation and benefits that zero-price strategies have brought to consumers, crediting the country’s “pro-market economic and legal structures” and cautioning against “distortions of our antitrust standards” to address issues like privacy and data protection if they do not impede the functioning of the free market.

His speech echoes a view Mr. Delrahim and others at the Antitrust Division have expressed previously regarding the need (or lack thereof) for new rules to address the antitrust implications of “big data.” In an October 2018 speech regarding startups, innovation, and antitrust policy, Mr. Delrahim remarked that “accumulation of data drives innovation and benefits consumers” in many ways (including by enabling zero-price offerings), and that forced sharing risks undermining innovation by reducing incentives for both incumbents and new entrants. Invoking Trinko,[1] he stated that “free and competitive markets” – not antitrust agencies or courts – are best equipped to determine “how much data should be shared, with whom, and at what price.” Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bernard Nigro, Jr. has taken a similar position, stating that “forced sharing of critical assets reduces the incentive to invest in innovation” and that “where benefits to sharing exist, they can be best captured by the parties negotiating in a free and competitive market, not by government regulation.”

By contrast, other jurisdictions and industry observers considering the competitive implications of digital platforms have questioned the status quo. In their view, control of valuable data provides a competitive advantage and raises entry barriers that may entrench a platform’s dominant position and lead to competitive or consumer harm. At a higher level, France and Germany just announced an effort to overhaul competition rules to enable European companies to better develop technologies that compete on the global stage.

For example, last week the Australian Productivity Commission and the New Zealand Productivity Commission released a joint report that reviews how most effectively to address the challenges and harness the opportunities the digital economy creates (particularly for small- to medium-sized enterprises). In a section titled “Existing competition regulation may not be adequate for digital markets,” the report addressed the challenges of applying existing laws to the digital economy, including (among others) that zero-price goods and services complicate the analysis of market definition and market power, and that data “is an increasingly important business input and may be a source of market power” but is not adequately captured in traditional competition policy. Although the report acknowledged that in some cases technological developments might obviate the need for regulation (and in others the mere threat of regulation may be enough), it posited that new regulation might be necessary to maintain competitive markets: “[I]f ‘winner-take-most’ markets do end up prevailing, competition regulators may need to consider extending tools such as essential service access regimes to digital services.” An essential service (or “essential facilities”) regime would treat a digital platform’s data as an input essential to competition and require the platform to provide its competitors with reasonable access to it. In contrast to the Productivity Commissions’ suggestion, U.S. competition enforcers to date have been loath to treat digital platforms as essential facilities.

The Productivity Commissions’ report comes on the heels of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) Digital Platforms Inquiry preliminary findings released in December. The ACCC expressed similar concerns about the rise of digital platforms and the threat they pose to consumers and the competitive process. Addressing what it found to be Google’s and Facebook’s market power in a number of markets,[2] the report encouraged governments to be “responsive, and indeed proactive, in reacting to and anticipating challenges and problems” posed by digital platforms. It offered eleven preliminary recommendations to address these concerns, including: amending merger law to expressly consider potential competition and the data at issue in the transaction, requiring advance notice of any acquisition by a large digital platform of a business with activities in Australia, and tasking a regulatory authority with monitoring the conduct of vertically integrated digital platforms. The report also proposed areas for further analysis, such as: a digital platforms ombudsman, the monitoring of intermediary pricing and opt-in targeted advertising. As such, indications from Australia suggest calls for more competition intervention have some teeth.

The UK may have a similar appetite, as indicated by a new Parliament publication addressing “Disinformation and ‘fake news.’” The statement calls for increased oversight and greater transparency into “how the big tech companies work and what happens to our data,” highlighting Facebook’s treatment and monetization of user data as an example of why intervention is needed. In addition to recommending a compulsory Code of Ethics overseen by an independent regulator with “statutory powers to monitor relevant tech companies,” the publication advocated for greater competition law scrutiny of and enforcement against digital platforms, including an investigation of Facebook and a “comprehensive audit” of the social media advertising market. Invoking existing “legislative tools” such as privacy laws, data protection legislation, and antitrust and competition law, the report cautioned: “The big tech companies must not be allowed to expand exponentially, without constraint or proper regulatory oversight.”

Operating under an international patchwork of competition approaches can present a challenge to global enterprises. Technology-focused, data-intensive businesses should consider seeking antitrust counsel to monitor developing competition trends and implications across jurisdictions.

_________________________________

[1] Verizon Communic’ns, Inc. v. Law Offices of Curtis V. Trinko, LLP, 540 U.S. 398, 407-08 (2004).

[2] The preliminary report finds that Google has market power in online search, online search advertising and news media referral services, and that Facebook has market power in social media services, display advertising and news media referral services.

German Competition Authority Investigates Amazon

The German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has opened abuse proceedings against Amazon for practices related to the German marketplace amazon.de. This move comes not long after the European Commission initiated a preliminary investigation into Amazon’s use of transaction data.

In both the German and the EU case, the competition concerns appear to be linked to Amazon being not only the largest online retailer but also the largest online marketplace for competing retailers. There are, however, important differences between the two investigations: While the Commission is looking at “exclusionary abuse,” i.e. conduct hindering the competitive opportunities of its rivals, the FCO investigates potential “exploitative abuse,” i.e. imposing conditions that are significantly more onerous for retailers using the marketplace than they would be in a competitive environment (see the FCO’s press release).

The approach of the FCO is based on special features of German competition law, which facilitate proceedings against abuses of market power:

First, regarding the issue of market power, the German prohibition on abusive market conduct applies not only to companies with a dominant market position (as under EU law) but also to companies with “relative market power,” which is a less demanding standard. A company has relative market power if small or medium-sized customers or suppliers are dependent on it and cannot reasonably switch to other companies for the supply or the sale of a particular type of goods or services. The FCO believes that Amazon may be dominant or may have relative market power because it functions as a “gatekeeper.” In fact, Amazon has become so powerful in Germany that many retailers and manufacturers depend on the reach of its marketplace for their online sales.

Second, regarding the existence of abuse, the FCO suspects that Amazon is abusing its market position to the detriment of sellers active on its marketplace by imposing unfair terms and conditions. Here, the FCO relies on the case law of the German Supreme Court, which has decided that the use of unfair terms and conditions by a dominant firm can constitute an abuse – provided it is because of its dominance or relative market power that the firm is able to impose such terms and conditions. In other words: there must be a causal link between the firm’s market power or dominance and the unfair terms and conditions. It is not yet clear how the FCO will establish such a link.

Regarding the terms and practices that will be scrutinized, the FCO has listed the following provisions as being potentially illegal:

  • liability provisions
  • choice of law and jurisdiction clauses
  • rules on product reviews
  • the non-transparent termination and blocking of sellers’ accounts
  • withholding or delaying payment
  • clauses assigning rights to use the information material that a seller has to provide with regard to the products offered
  • terms of business on pan-European dispatch

The FCO’s Amazon investigation shows some similarities to its ongoing proceedings against Facebook (see our previous Blog post). Both cases are focused on the use of unfair terms and conditions. The FCO has said that it will issue its Facebook decision in early 2019. We expect that decision to set the direction for the Amazon investigation.

 

Platform Bans: German Competition Authority Critical Despite Coty Judgment

Since last year’s “Coty” judgment of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), it may have seemed settled that authorized dealers in a selective distribution network can be prohibited from selling products via third-party marketplaces, i.e. online platforms operated by third parties such as Amazon.[1] However, in a recent position paper, the German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has expressed a much more nuanced view.[2]

According to the Coty judgment, EU competition law generally allows the banning of online third-party platforms in selective distribution systems, especially for luxury goods. First, where such a ban is applied without discrimination and in a proportionate manner to the distribution of luxury goods and with the objective of preserving the luxury image of such goods, the ban is not considered a restriction of competition. Second, in all other cases – for example where the goods in question are not “luxury goods” – the ban may be justified by the Vertical Block Exemption Regulation (VBER), provided the market shares of the parties are below 30 percent.[3]

The FCO, however, makes it clear that there are several issues that remain unsolved, even after the Coty ruling.

First, the FCO points out that the Coty judgment deals with “luxury goods” and that it cannot simply be applied one-to-one to other types of products, including high-quality products. Thus platform bans for non-luxury goods may, in fact, infringe competition law, even within selective distribution systems. In the absence of a clear definition separating “luxury goods” from other (high-quality) branded products, accepting outright bans of online platforms will, therefore, be anything but automatic.

Second, the FCO explains the policy that it proposes to apply outside the (limited) scope of the Coty ruling, i.e. to non-luxury goods, including high-quality branded products: it considers that a general prohibition on using third-party online platforms is likely excessive and that less restrictive measures, such as specific quality requirements, will normally suffice to protect a brand image. For example, the FCO explains that dealers could be required to have their own online shop on the marketplace rather than share a product page with other dealers.

Third, the FCO also puts a question mark over the application of the VBER to third-party platform bans. The ECJ decided in its “Pierre Fabre” judgment that manufacturers generally cannot prevent their distributors from using the internet as a sales channel.[4] An outright ban on internet sales is normally an infringement of EU competition law. However, in “Coty,” the ECJ added that a mere ban of third-party platforms does not amount to a prohibition on using the internet – provided distributors are able to run their own online shops and are unrestricted in using the internet for advertising and marketing purposes so that customers can find their online offers via online search engines. The FCO now points out that consumer preferences and the relative importance of different sales channels may vary between EU member states. According to the FCO, marketplaces and price comparison sites are much more significant in Germany than in other EU member states. In Germany, banning the use of marketplaces could reduce a distributor’s visibility to such an extent that the ban becomes equivalent to a complete ban of online sales and, thus, unlawful.

In a nutshell, the FCO is not prepared to generally accept the legality of third-party platform bans and it can be expected that it will continue to challenge such prohibitions if they have restrictive effects on competition.

However, the FCO also recognizes that Amazon Marketplace has become increasingly important for manufacturers and that many manufacturers can no longer afford to exclude this particular sales channel from their distribution system. The rising market power of Amazon Marketplace is of particular concern for the authority because of Amazon’s dual business model. Amazon is a “hybrid platform” that acts both as an intermediary for online dealers and as an authorized dealer for the same products. The FCO highlights the risks that follow from this setup: in particular, independent dealers could be disadvantaged or squeezed out of the market. The FCO is very clear about its intention to keep online markets open and that it will closely monitor Amazon’s growing market power with this in mind.

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[1] EU Court of Justice judgment of December 6, 2017, Coty Germany GmbH vs. Parfümerie Akzente GmbH, C-230/16, EU:C:2017:941.

[2] “Competition and Consumer Protection in the Digital Economy: Competition restraints in online sales after Coty and Asics – what’s next?” published on the FCO website (link).

[3] Commission Regulation (EU) No 330/2010 of April 20, 2010 on the application of Article 101(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to categories of vertical agreements and concerted practices.

[4] EU Court of Justice judgment of October 13, 2011, Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmétique SAS vs. Président de l’Autorité de la concurrence a.o., C-439/09, [2011] ECR I-9447.

UK’s Proposed Investment Scrutiny Powers Are Far-Reaching

Douglas Lahnborg and Matthew Rose present a comparative discussion on the recently issued National Security and Investment White Paper, which proposes a significant expansion of the UK government’s powers to scrutinize foreign investment beyond those available in other leading economies. The white paper introduces powers to intervene in a broad range of transactions in any sector, regardless of deal value, the transaction parties’ market shares, or their revenues. If the proposals are brought into force in their current form, the UK regime would be one of the most stringent in the world, with wide-ranging implications for foreign and domestic companies and projects in sensitive sectors, including technology, energy, infrastructure, telecommunications, real estate and financial services. Read more here.

European Crackdown on Violations of Merger Control Procedural Rules Continues

Last year on this Blog we wrote about the uptick in enforcement action by European competition authorities against violations of merger control procedure (see here).

Yesterday, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) indicated that this trend is set to continue, issuing a fine of £100,000 for a breach of an Interim Order imposed on Electro Rent in its acquisition of Microlease. This is the first time the CMA has fined a company for such a procedural breach.

On the face of it, the fine seems harsh given that the relevant action – serving notice of termination of a lease without the CMA’s prior consent – was discussed with the appointed Monitoring Trustee prior to coming into effect.[1] Indeed, the European Court of Justice (“ECJ”) recently confirmed that parties may take certain actions without violating the standstill obligation imposed under the EU Merger Regulation – including terminating agreements – where such actions do not contribute to the implementation of a transaction.[2] In doing so, the ECJ’s ruling confirmed the commonly held view that merging parties are permitted to take certain steps allowing them to prepare for implementation of a transaction without violating merger control procedural rules.

Given the developing case law on standstill obligations, companies involved in M&A will need to revisit pre-completion protocols, noting that the EU approach seems to be diverging from the CMA’s somewhat more rigid approach to merger control. READ MORE

CMA Launches Consultation Concerning Changes to its Jurisdiction over M&A in the Tech Sector

The UK government considers that transactions in the following sectors can raise national security concerns:

1. quantum technology;
2. computing hardware; and
3. the development or production of items for military or military and civilian use.

In order to allow the UK’s Secretary of State to intervene in transactions in these sectors, the UK government has proposed amendments to the Enterprise Act 2002 that would expand the Competition & Markets Authority’s (“CMA”) jurisdiction to review transactions in these sectors from a competition perspective. READ MORE

Enhancing Fairness in Platform-to-Business Relations in the EU Through a Change of Legal Landscape

Online platforms have become a crucial infrastructure for businesses. They enable small businesses to have easy access to millions of potential customers and create an unprecedented choice of products and services for them. According to a recent Eurobarometer survey on the use of online marketplaces and search engines by small and medium-sized enterprises (“SMEs”),[1] 42% of the respondents declared that they use online platforms and marketplaces to sell their products or services.[2] This survey also indicates that 82% of the respondents rely on search engines to promote and sell their products or services. In short, online platforms play a key role in the growth of the economy and help the digital transformation of small businesses. READ MORE

First Person Extradited From Europe to the United States for Criminal Antitrust Charges—Continued

Can Germany extradite an EU national to the United States for criminal prosecution when Germany’s own nationals are protected from extradition? This question has been put to the European Court of Justice, and the court’s advisor, Advocate General Yves Bot, has said “yes”. READ MORE