In a welcomed attempt to align their approaches, the antitrust enforcers of the European Competition Network (ECN)1 have published a brief joint statement on the application of competition law during the Covid-19 crisis.
If one may regret that its content remains too high-level, it is an important step, which comes just shortly after the European Commission adopted a specific temporary State Aid framework in order to offer Member States the flexibility required in this exceptional context to support businesses impacted by the critical disruptions caused by the Covid-19 outbreak (commented here).
In addition to flexible public support measures, businesses need more clarity as to whether they can similarly benefit from a flexible enforcement of antitrust rules. At a time where businesses are put under considerable pressure, no one seems to question the fact that increased cooperation between them may be necessary, not to say indispensable for some economic sectors to continue to address basic consumers’ needs; likewise, there are reasons to believe that the traditional special responsibility of dominant firms may be harder to assume in the current circumstances.
Here and there, voices have rapidly been raised about the need to explicitly relax competition laws or their enforcement to allow companies to continue to meet European consumers’ vital needs while not dreading subsequent antitrust investigations (see for instance: the public statement issued by EuroCommerce, a trade association of European retail and wholesale companies, advocating for a waiver of normal competition rules to allow retailers to “share information on supplies and arrang[e] deliveries to the homes of people who cannot get out”).
At the same time, faced with the risk of a generalization of inflated prices for products or services in high demand due to the pandemic, antitrust enforcers naturally feel the need to be extra-vigilant and ensure that adequate safeguards remain in place, despite their own challenges of having (at least for some of them) their personnel working from home. It explains why some enforcers (such as the German Federal Cartel Office) have been vocal about the fact that existing competition law rules already provided sufficient flexibility and that they would continue to crack down on those who would unduly take advantage of the crisis to adopt anticompetitive conducts.
The guidance offered in the ECN’s joint statement strikes a balance between encouraging good-faith solutions and preventing abuses. It combines different approaches that have previously been supported by some European antitrust enforcers. But let’s make no mistake: the underlying message is clear: antitrust rules may bend but will not break, meaning that companies shall not lower their guard and ensure that they take adequate steps to mitigate the antitrust risks.
Flexible antitrust to ensure continued supply
In its joint statement, after acknowledging that “this extraordinary situation may trigger the need for companies to cooperate in order to ensure the supply and fair distribution of scarce products to all consumers”, the ECN assures that it “will not actively intervene against necessary and temporary measures put in place in order to avoid a shortage of supply”.
The ECN statement yet continues by stressing that “such measures” are likely to already comply with existing competition law, since they would either not be caught by the antitrust prohibitions or would fall under the existing exemptions. In other words, the message is that businesses will benefit from flexibility where this is justified by the Covid-19 pandemic, mostly because this flexibility is already an inherent part of the existing antitrust regime.
While nothing is said about what would be accepted as “necessary measures” or what is meant by “temporary” measures, some illustrations may already be found in decisions concerning topical sectors taken by some national enforcers. For instance, the Norwegian antitrust enforcer recently approved a three-month cooperation between Norwegian airlines in order to allow them to continue to ensure critical activities for citizens. Likewise, the German Cartel Office seems to have taken a softened approach to cooperation in the retail sector to the extent it is necessary to ensure continuous supply.
If useful, these precedents, however, leave numerous questions unaddressed.
To help companies navigate these issues, the members of the ECN seem willing to provide “informal guidance” to companies, which is a good thing in theory but clearly does not provide the same level of comfort as proper formal decisions. One may also have some doubts as to the enforcers’ ability to respond adequately in a timely manner to consultations considering that many of them have already made it clear that stakeholders needed to be prepared to face significant delays in the handling of pending investigations and merger control reviews.
It is hence to be hoped for that the members of the ECN will take inspiration from the UK CMA and will shortly, individually or jointly, follow-up with more detailed guidance.
Flexible antitrust to avoid excessive price increases
To tackle the other main issue, the risk of exaggerated inflation, the ECN joint statement contains a warning to companies that prices of “products considered essential to protect the health of consumers in the current situation (e.g., face masks and sanitising gel)” should “remain available at competitive prices” and that antitrust enforcement will continue to fight against antitrust infringements such as cartels or abuses of dominance. To the same end, the ECN joint statement also explicitly recalls that manufacturers can continue to use their right to set maximum prices.
This position is in line with the messages sent previously by several European antitrust enforcers. For instance, the Latvian Competition Council warned against price cartels resulting in overpayment for consumers. The Greek Competition Authority has communicated that it would indulge vertical agreements tending to maintain prices at a low level (maximum or recommended prices), which otherwise could be deemed anticompetitive in certain circumstances; conversely, resale price management (minimum prices) would still be examined and prosecuted.
However, one may wonder whether antitrust (flexible or not) is the appropriate tool to tackle excessive pricing problems in the current context. Why? Because, it may not offer a timely remedy (as a prior investigation will still be needed); because, the concept of exploitative abuse to address excessive prices traditionally raises several complex legal questions, and even more if we are to speak about temporary dominance resulting from the current context.
One may therefore not exclude that, in the most critical situations, European Governments will prefer ex-ante regulation over ex-post regulation, like in France where the price of hydroalcoholic gel was eventually fixed by decree.
1 ECN is the network for coordination between the national competition authorities (NCAs) within the EU/EEA, the European Commission (DG Comp) and the EFTA Surveillance Authority.