On June 29, 2023, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) delivered a preliminary ruling in the Super Bock Bebidas vs. Autoridade da Concorrência case (C-211/22) on the questions referred by the Tribunal da Relaçao de Lisboa (Lisbon Court of Appeal). To some extent, the recent judgement is not particularly noteworthy or innovative, as it mainly applies well-established EU competition law principles prevalent through existing case law. However, the Super Bock case marks a significant step forward by introducing these principles for the first time in the context of vertical price-fixing agreements.
On April 20, 2023, the EU Commission (Commission) adopted and published a package to simplify the procedures for reviewing concentrations under Regulation (EC) 139/2004 of January 20, 2004 (European Union Merger Regulation – EUMR). This package includes a set of three materials comprising (i) a revised Merger Implementing Regulation (Implementing Regulation), (ii) a Notice on Simplified Procedure (Notice), and (iii) a Communication on the Transmission of Documents to the Commission (Communication). The new notification forms (Form CO, Short Form CO, Form RS and Form RM) are also provided as Annexes to the Implementing Regulation.
The core objective of the package is to simplify merger review procedures, with a targeted 25% reduction on reporting requirements. This evolution is more than welcome, especially in light of the very recent Regulation on foreign subsidies distorting the internal market (FSR) which recently entered into force, imposing additional burdens on M&A transactions. We discuss this recent entry into force of the new FSR in our last article, available here.
This new package intends to bring significant benefits for businesses and advisers in terms of easing preparatory work and related costs. Relieving this administrative burden lying on the parties to a concentration should hopefully speed up the approval process by the Commission. The new package will apply from September 1, 2023.
In line with the evolution of the economy and the ongoing growth of online business and global trade, we’re seeing a corresponding increase in competition regulation and a rise in enforcement across all authorities. In our latest International News, we take a deep dive into the issues at play.
The growth of the online economy has triggered the US Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) update of its 20 year old .com Disclosures: How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising guide, and the development of an analytical framework for all digital distribution across the European Union. In just one seismic shift under the new EU Vertical Block Exemption Regulation 2022/720, dual-pricing, i.e., setting different wholesale prices for online/offline sales by the same distributor, is no longer considered a hardcore restriction unless its purpose is to prevent the effective use of the internet to sell the goods or services.
In the United States, there is an increased focus on anticompetitive mergers and acquisitions (M&A). The Biden Administration, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, and the FTC have all stated that the regulatory landscape needs to be reshaped to better reflect dynamic markets, and their priority is the aggressive pursuit of litigation against offending parties rather than the granting of consent decrees. The tendency to “sin first and beg forgiveness later” will emphatically no longer work, as a recent French gun-jumping case demonstrates.
Both the United States and the European Union have also turned their attention to investigating wage fixing and no-poach labour market violations that are not connected with M&A or business collaborations. It’s clear that competition/antitrust authorities are determined to expand their remit.
On March 24, 2022 the Council of the EU and the European Parliament reached political agreement on the “Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on contestable and fair markets in the digital sector” (Digital Markets Act or DMA). The political agreement comes just 15 months after the European Commission published its legislative proposal. The DMA aims to ensure fair and contestable markets in the digital sector. It will, once formally adopted, impose a set of prohibitions and obligations on “core platform services” providers that are designated “gatekeepers” under the DMA. It will also enable the Commission to carry out market investigations and sanction non-compliant behavior.
Along with the Digital Services Act, the DMA forms part of a comprehensive reform of the digital space in the European Union, and is a key component of the “European digital strategy” to make Europe fit for the digital age.
On March 7, 2022, changes to both the Belgian Code of Economic Law (CEL) as well as the Belgian Criminal Code (BCC) were published in the Belgian Official Gazette (Belgisch Staatsblad, Moniteur belge).
The main changes include:
- Introducing a filing fee in notifications of concentrations
- Folding the rules and formalities relating to leniency programmes in the CEL and fine-tuning them
- Fine-tuning the provisions on the cooperation with other NCAs and the European Commission
- Expanding the circumstances in which periodic penalty payments and/or fines can be imposed
- Clarifying which turnover needs to be taken into account for purposes of calculating fines imposed on associations of undertakings and how such fines are to be collected
- Modifying the bid-rigging provision in the BCC to clarify that (criminal) immunity is available for bid-rigging infringements.
Save for the introduction of filing fees in concentration notifications, these changes were introduced to bring the Belgian competition law rules in line with “EU Directive 2019/1 to empower the competition authorities of the Member States to be more effective enforcers and to ensure the proper functioning of the internal market” or “ECN+ Directive” for short.
In our super-connected age, we are inundated with information. It can be difficult to select what is really relevant to one’s business. The purpose of this Review is to provide legal counsel and their teams easy reference guidance on essential EU competition law developments covering key areas of law and policy, to help keep you up to date on the latest requirements.
Inside you’ll find:
Cartels and Restrictive Agreements
From geo-blocking to pay-for-delay agreements and bid-rigging, find out the latest legal developments in restrictive practices.
Abuse of Dominant Position
Excessive pricing in the healthcare sector and a monopoly on online searches are key areas of development.
Gun-jumping remains a real focus for the European courts, with additional judgments on the provision of misleading information in merger proceedings.
Transfer pricing and rules governing subsidiaries are hot topics, with the courts keeping an eye on excess profits and tax rate schemes.
Legislative and Policy Developments
Digital markets is the focal point of policy development in Europe, as verticals agreements also come under scrutiny.
Click here to read the full Review.
On September 22, 2021, the EU General Court (GC) upheld a decision from the European Commission (Commission) by which it fined telecommunications operator Altice for gun jumping (T-425/18, Altice Europe v Commission). In particular, the GC affirmed that the Commission could impose two separate fines: (i) a fine for implementing a concentration prior to its clearance by the Commission, and (ii) a fine for implementing a concentration prior to its notification. In coming to those findings, the GC also clarified the appropriateness of certain pre-closing covenants and information exchanges.
- In December 2014, Altice signed a share purchase agreement (SPA) with telecommunications operator Oi to acquire PT Portugal. The deal was subject to EU merger control.
- Prior to signing, Altice began communications with the Commission to inform it of its intention to acquire PT Portugal. Shortly after signing, Altice sent a case-team allocation request to the Commission and commenced pre-notification discussions with the Commission. Altice formally notified the transaction in February 2015; in April 2015, the Commission cleared the acquisition subject to commitments.
- A gun-jumping investigation arose following press reports of contacts between Altice and PT Portugal, which took place before the adoption of the Commission’s clearance decision.
- Three years after clearing the acquisition, the Commission concluded that Altice infringed both the notification obligation and the standstill obligation under the EU Merger Regulation and imposed two separate fines with a total amount of EUR 124.5 million.
- The Commission found that Altice had the possibility of exercising decisive influence or had exercised decisive influence over PT Portugal before the adoption of the clearance decision and, in some instances, before notification:
- Certain pre-closing provisions included in the SPA gave Altice the right to veto decisions regarding PT Portugal’s commercial policy.
- Based on these provisions, Altice had been involved in the day-to-day running of PT Portugal in several instances.
- Altice brought an action for annulment before the GC, which was dismissed in part. The GC sided with the Commission, but reduced the fine relating to the infringement of the notification obligation by 10% (from EUR 62.25 million to EUR 56.025 million). The GC considered it appropriate to lower the fine because Altice had informed the Commission of the concentration before the signing of the SPA, and it had sent a case-team allocation request to the Commission shortly after signing.
- The notification obligation and standstill obligation can be subject to separate fines. The GC held that the notification obligation (obligation to act) and standstill obligation (obligation not to act) are separate obligations. Because each obligation was violated, the Commission was entitled to impose two fines.
- Pre-closing provisions included in a SPA cannot afford a purchaser the possibility to exercise decisive influence over the target. EU merger rules do not preclude pre-closing provisions in a SPA aimed at protecting the value of the target between signing and closing. However, such provisions can only be [...]
European Commission and National Authorities Take a Stand Against Excessive Pricing by the Pharmaceutical Industry
The European Commission and national competition authorities (NCAs) are very actively fighting a number of anticompetitive practices in the pharmaceutical industry. Enforcing the prohibition against excessive pricing has become a particular area of focus for competition authorities in Europe.
The European approach to excessive pricing differs from that followed in the United States, where excessive pricing does not amount to a violation of antitrust laws.
In the European Union (and the United Kingdom, for now), dominant businesses are not allowed to directly nor indirectly impose unfair purchase or selling prices. The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has established a two-pronged test for use in investigating excessive pricing. It must be determined i) whether the difference between costs actually incurred and the price actually charged is excessive, and, if yes, ii) whether or not a price has been imposed that is either unfair in itself or when compared to competing products.
In practice, competition authorities have historically been wary of prosecuting excessive pricing, partly because they do not want to act like price regulators, and partly because it can be difficult for an authority to establish that a price is excessive. In the last couple of years, however, the Commission and several NCAs have overcome their reticence.
Click here to read the full article in our latest International News.
The European Commission wants to be able to block or conditionally approve transactions, mainly in the digital economy and in the pharmaceutical sector, even when the thresholds for notification are not met. In publishing its new Article 22 Guidance, the Commission has significantly expanded its ability to review transactions. Parties to a transaction, especially in the digital economy and in the pharma sector, should bear this in mind when strategising on deal timing and any potential remedies. They will also have to take into account the possibility that the transaction will be blocked. For third parties, this opens another possibility to stop a transaction, to extract remedies from the notifying parties or to even roll back an implemented transaction.
- Article 22 of the EU Merger Regulation (EUMR) allows for one or more Member States to request the Commission to examine any merger that does not have an EU dimension but meets the following cumulative conditions: it affects trade between Member States, and it threatens to significantly affect competition within the territory of the Member State or States making the request (Article 22 Conditions). Fulfilment of the Article 22 Conditions ensures that a merger has a sufficient nexus with the European Union and the referring Member State(s).
- Traditionally, the Commission has discouraged the use of Article 22 EUMR in merger cases that were not notifiable under the laws of the referring Member State(s). This is principally because the Commission considered such transactions unlikely to have a significant impact on the internal market.
- Recently, however, there has been an increase in the number of mergers involving companies that play, or may develop into playing, a significant competitive role on the market, despite generating little or no turnover at the time of the merger. This development has been found to be particularly significant in the digital economy, where services regularly launch with the aim of building up a significant user base and/or commercially valuable data inventories, before the business is monetised, and in the pharma sector, where transactions have involved innovative companies conducting R&D with strong competitive potential, even if such companies have not yet finalised, let alone exploited commercially, the results of their R&D activities. Because of the absence of, or low, turnover of one the parties to such transactions, they invariably escape assessment under national merger control rules.
- With a view ensuring that non-notifiable yet potentially problematic mergers do not fly under the radar of merger control review, on 26 March 2021 the Commission issued practical guidance (Article 22 Guidance) on when it might be appropriate for a Member State to refer such mergers to the Commission for merger control review.
In the United States, despite initial obstacles because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 rounded out to be the busiest year for mergers and acquisitions (M&A) enforcement in nearly two decades. In the fourth quarter, US agencies challenged five transactions. November 2020 saw the most premerger filings in any month since 2001. Mergers and filings in the United States are predicted to remain at high levels into the new year in light of the current economic climate. The antitrust agencies have continued to maintain that their evaluation and investigation of anticompetitive harm will remain rigorous despite the uncertain times.
In Europe, the European Commission (EC) and the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) had a busy last quarter of 2020. The EC completed several in-depth investigations, including the Fiat Chrysler/Peugeot merger. The EC approved this transaction with behavioural remedies. With respect to policy and legislative developments, the EC published the much-anticipated draft of the Digital Markets Act, which is intended to regulate the market behaviour of large online platforms which act as “gatekeepers” in digital markets. Given the end of the transition period for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, the CMA published a guidance paper explaining how it will conduct its work following Brexit.