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European Commission Announces New Approach to Merger Review Referrals Falling Below Thresholds

Under current EU merger control rules, whether a concentration has to be notified to the European Commission (“Commission”) depends, among other things, on the level of revenue generated by the parties worldwide and in the European Union.  A key question that has sparked considerable debate in recent years is whether the current merger control thresholds cover all transactions that have the potential to harm competition, or whether there is a so-called “enforcement gap”.

On September 11, during the International Bar Association’s 24th Annual Competition Conference, Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager announced that the Commission intends to change its approach towards referrals to the EU from national competition authorities. Commissioner Vestager noted that although the current, revenue-based thresholds set out in the EU Merger Regulation generally work well, revenue does not always reflect a company’s significance – particularly in innovative sectors, such as the pharmaceutical and digital sectors. In other words, innovative firms with low revenues may have a significantly out-sized market presence.

This issue is not entirely new, and has been debated in recent years – for example, in connection with possibly amending the thresholds set out in the EU Merger Regulation.  On this point, however, Commissioner Vestager pointed out that “changing the merger regulation, to add a new threshold like this, doesn’t seem like the most proportionate solution”.

Instead, as a solution to this shortfall, Commissioner Vestager stated that the Commission intends to broaden its approach to cases referred to it from one or more EU Member States, stating that the Commission will “[…] start accepting referrals from national competition authorities of mergers that are worth reviewing at the EU level – whether or not those authorities had the power to review the case themselves”.

The current referral system set out in the EU Merger Regulation enables the Commission to review concentrations that fall below the EU thresholds. Indeed, in recent years, certain significant transactions have been reviewed by the Commission only after an upward referral, as they did not fulfil the jurisdictional thresholds of the EU Merger Regulation, including for example Apple/Shazam (2018), Microsoft/GitHub (2018) and Facebook/WhatsApp (2014). Under the current rules, the Commission can review transactions which fall below the EU merger control thresholds on the basis of referrals from national competition authorities where:

  • the concentration is notifiable in at least three Member States; or
  • where the concentration affects trade between Member States and threatens to significantly affect competition within the Member State(s) making the request for a referral.

The Commission has discouraged national competition authorities from referring cases to the Commission  in instances when they themselves did not have the power to review because national merger control thresholds were not met.

The proposal announced by Commissioner Vestager would change this approach, and would allow a broader universe of cases – including those which fall below national thresholds – to be referred to the Commission.  Ms. Vestager explained that “those referrals could be an excellent way to see the mergers that matter at a European scale, but [...]

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q2 2020

In the United States, despite requesting additional time to review pending mergers, the US antitrust agencies have continued their work through the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reached settlements with a number of merging parties during Q2 2020, and the FTC is proceeding to trial in several merger cases. Both the FTC and the DOJ are conducting investigational hearings and depositions via remote videoconferencing technology such as Zoom. The FTC also announced it prevented 12 deals from closing in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Five of the transactions were blocked and another seven were abandoned due to antitrust concerns, putting the FTC on pace for one of its busiest years for merger enforcement in the past 20 years.

In Europe, in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the European Commission (EC) warned that merger control filings would likely not be processed as swiftly as usual. The EC encouraged parties to postpone merger notifications because the EC envisaged difficulties, within the statutory deadlines imposed by the EU Merger Regulation, to elicit relevant information from third parties, such as customers, competitors and suppliers. In addition, the EC foresaw limitations in accessing information on a remote basis. This period thus saw a drop in merger notifications to the EC; however, notifications increased in June and July.

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European Commission Consultation on Ex Ante Regulation of Online Platforms: Is Change Coming?

In parallel to a public consultation to seek feedback from the public regarding the New Competition Tool, the European Commission (Commission) is consulting on a proposal for an ex ante regulatory instrument that would ensure that “online platform ecosystems controlled by large online platforms that benefit from significant network effects remain fair and contestable, in particular in situations where such platforms may act as gatekeepers”.

This proposal stems from a range of concerns which, according to the Commission, could lead to large-scale unfair trading practices, less innovation and reduced consumer choice.

Feedback on the Commission’s inception impact assessment was due on 30 June (85 opinions were collected). The period for stakeholders from public and private sectors to contribute to the Commission’s public consultation (via online questionnaires) ends on 8 September 2020.

Identified Need to Regulate Large Online Platforms

In its inception impact assessment, the Commission noted that the number of digital ecosystems controlled by a handful of large online platforms have multiplied and businesses and (final) consumers have become increasingly dependent upon them.

According to the Commission, these large online platforms can gain market power due to their ability to accumulate a considerable amount of data, to access different technical assets and to easily expand into new markets and leverage their advantage (i.e. data) from their services. As a result, the key role that these “gatekeepers” play in the online economy has led to imbalances in bargaining power vis-à-vis users and competitors, making it particularly difficult for smaller digital firms to bring innovative solutions to the market. The Commission is further concerned that the current EU regulatory framework does not specifically address “the economic power” of these platforms at the source of these issues aforementioned.

Notably, Regulation (EU) 2019/1150 of 20 June 2019 on promoting fairness and transparency for business users of online intermediation services (Platform to Business Regulation or P2B Regulation) came into effect in July 2020. It aims to address the imbalance that exists between online platform providers and business users by imposing a number of transparency obligations on online intermediation services, such as e-commerce market places, applications stores, online social media. However, the Regulation does not take account of market power and further does not specifically address, in its present form, the issues stemming from gatekeeper power. The P2B Regulation also leaves outside of its scope emerging practices, such as certain forms of ‘self-preferencing’, data access policies, and unfair contractual provisions. As such, the Commission does not believe that the P2B Regulation, as is, can address the problems that it has observed.

Proposed Options

In this context, the Commission has proposed three alternative or complementary policy options:

  • Option 1: A revision of the P2B Regulation, adding prescriptive rules on specific practices that are currently addressed by transparency obligations in the Regulation, as well as on aforementioned new emerging practices.
  • Option 2: A horizontal framework empowering a dedicated regulatory body at EU level to collect information from gatekeepers for the purposes of assessment of their business [...]

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European Commission Initiates Consultation on Possible New Competition Investigation Tool

On 2 June 2020, the European Commission (the Commission) published its inception impact assessment (or roadmap) on the possible adoption of regulation that would introduce a new market investigation tool. This assessment was immediately followed by the launch of a public consultation to seek views and feedback from the public regarding such a tool. The new tool would enable the Commission to investigate and impose behavioural and/or structural remedies on businesses with significant market power, whether dominant or not – and without any prior finding of a competition law infringement. As such, this new tool could present a significant risk and potential burden for companies with market power. On the other hand, it offers potential benefits to market participants, such as new entrants, who might otherwise see their access to markets foreclosed.

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Quarter 1 2020

In the United States, The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) faced new issues this quarter with the unprecedented challenges brought about by the COVID-19 global pandemic. In March, the agencies made certain changes to the merger review process to accommodate businesses and counsel working remotely. However, merger reviews, challenges, trials and consents have continued as usual at both agencies despite the additional obstacles.

In Europe, the European Commission (EC) also put in place special measures to ensure business continuity in the enforcement of merger control during the COVID-19 crisis. The first quarter of 2020 also saw the United Kingdom’s official departure from the European Union, which has consequences on the enforcement of EU competition law in the United Kingdom.

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FTC, DOJ Issue Antitrust Statement On Covid-19 Response Collaborations

On March 24, 2020, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and US Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a Joint Antitrust Statement Regarding COVID-19. In this statement, the FTC and DOJ recognize that public health efforts in response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) require government and private cooperation. To address the speed at which companies and individuals must engage in COVID-19 response activities, the FTC and DOJ will respond to COVID-19-related requests for advisory opinions and business review letters within an expedited seven days of receipt of all information.

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COVID-19 and EU Competition Proceedings: Extraordinary Times Call for Extraordinary Measures

In the midst of the ongoing global effort to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, the Directorate-General for Competition (DG Competition) of the European Commission (EC) and the EU courts are taking measures to prevent the spread of the virus among individuals whilst at the same time seeking to ensure that the EU economy remains as stable as possible. The situation remains highly fluid for the foreseeable future. Companies are therefore urged to stay abreast of the continually changing measures being taken.

WHAT HAPPENED

EC Staff working on “non-essential” projects are working remotely from home. However, officials who hold “critical” functions, such as the Commissioner, the Director-General and Heads of Unit, will generally be present at DG Competition, although working on a shift basis. In-person meetings will be replaced by video conferences going forward. DG Competition staff who are dealing with the provision of State aid exemptions during the crisis are being considered “critical”.

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2019 in Review: Overview of Cartel Investigations

The Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) was active in 2019. At the beginning of 2019, the DOJ was preparing for trial in six matters and had 91 pending grand jury investigations. Throughout 2019, the DOJ made public several new investigations, including in the commercial flooring industry, online auctions for surplus government equipment, the insulation installation industry and suspension assemblies used in hard disk drives. The DOJ also announced developments in other ongoing investigations.

Meanwhile, the European Commission (Commission) entered into settlements with parties in three cartel cases: Occupant Safety Equipment, FOREX and Canned Vegetables. The Commission imposed total fines of €1,469 million in 2019. In March 2019, the Commission launched an online tool to submit documents and information in the context of leniency and settlement proceedings.

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | FTC and DOJ Continue M&A Transaction Investigation While UK CMA Continues Role as Key Jurisdiction in Merger Clearance Process

Antitrust regulators in the United States and Europe were very active in the final quarter of 2019. The FTC and DOJ continue to investigate and challenge M&A transactions in a variety of industries. Events of this quarter highlight the importance of states in merger enforcement. As well, recent FTC activity highlights the regulators’ focus on preventing monopolists from buying nascent competitors.

In Europe, the UK CMA continues to expand its role as a key jurisdiction in the merger clearance process, which will only accelerate with Brexit. The EC agreed to clear, subject to conditions, acquisitions in the aluminum production and battery industries as well as in the wholesale supply and retail distribution of TV channels after conducting Phase II reviews. Moreover, the EC opened new in-depth investigations into transactions in the copper refining and engineering sectors.

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Annual European Competition Review 2019

McDermott’s Annual European Competition Review summarizes key developments in European competition rules. During the previous year, several new regulations, notices and guidelines were issued by the European Commission. There were also many interesting cases decided by the General Court and the Court of Justice of the European Union. All these new rules and judicial decisions may be relevant for your company and your day-to-day practice.

In our super-connected age, we can be inundated by information from numerous sources and it is difficult to select what is really relevant to one’s business. The purpose of this review is to help general counsel and their teams to be aware of the essential updates.

This review was prepared by the Firm’s European Competition Team in Brussels and Paris. Throughout 2019 they have monitored legal developments and drafted the summary reports.

Access the full report.




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