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New European Commission Guidance Acquisitions of Nascent Competitors on the Radar

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.

What Happened

  • 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.

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q4 2020

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.

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Annual European Competition Review 2020

McDermott’s Annual European Competition Review summarizes significant developments in the field of European competition law. 2020 saw several important legislative and policy developments, including EC guidance on foreign direct investment, the promulgation of a temporary framework for antitrust cooperation in the context of COVID-19 and the issuance of a rare competition law comfort letter thereunder. Furthermore, in addition to a number of interesting EC decisions, key judgments were handed down by the EU Courts, including in relation to the conditions for assessing “by object” infringements, the notion of “gun jumping” and jurisdiction under the EU merger regulation and tax planning measures under EU State aid rules. All these new rules and judicial decisions may be relevant for your company and your day-to-day practice.

In our super-connected age, because we are inundated with information from numerous sources it can be difficult to select what is really relevant to one’s business. The purpose of this review is therefore to help general counsel and their teams to be aware of, and to conduct their business in line with, essential EU competition law developments.

This review was prepared by McDermott’s European Competition Team in Brussels. Throughout 2020 they have monitored legal developments and drafted the summary reports.

Click here to read the full Review.




European Commissions Continues to Amend COVID-19 Temporary State Aid Framework

On January 28 2021, the European Commission (Commission) amended its COVID-19 Temporary State aid Framework (Temporary Framework) for the fifth time. The Commission adopted the Temporary Framework at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis (March 19 2020) to support the economy and help Member States set up various aid measures. Since the adoption of the Temporary Framework, the Commission has approved hundreds of national COVID-19 support measures.

Given that the COVID-19 crisis continues to affect the European economy, the European Commission adopted a fifth Amendment to the Temporary Framework, which includes the following changes:

  • Extension of the Temporary Framework until December 31 2021;
  • Higher aid ceilings regarding limited amounts of aid and support for uncovered fixed costs;
  • Clarifications and amendments to several provisions.
  • The continued temporary removal of all countries from the “marketable risk” country list under the STEC (Short Term Export Credit) insurance Communication.

Our latest alert summarizes the key takeaways and immediate impact of this amendment.

*Author, Partner Hendrik Viaene, recently joined McDermott from Deloitte Legal, where he led the global Centre of Expertise in Competition and Regulatory Law. His practice focuses on EU competition and regulatory law, and he demonstrates in particular an in-depth technical skill and encyclopaedic knowledge of State Aid issues.

A seasoned and skilled litigator, he has successfully represented numerous clients before the European Court of Justice and Belgian courts. His practice additionally covers cartels, licensing agreements, merger control, abuse of dominance, and distribution agreements. His wide-ranging expertise extends over a number of sectors, including energy, chemicals and paints, automotive, financial data, recycling and waste management, telecoms, construction, renewables, media, private equity and the financial industry.

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New German Antitrust Rules: A Positive Move for Compliance Programs

What has changed?

  • On January 19, 2021, new German antitrust rules entered into force under the 10th amendment Act to the Act against Restraints of Competition (ARC) and introduced a number of significant changes.
  • The Act, inter alia, revised the provisions relating to fine calculation for antitrust violations, and in doing so underlined the importance of compliance programs. For further changes, please refer to our previous blogpost.
  • Specifically, an objectively effective compliance program can now lead to a reduced fine being calculated if the German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) concludes that certain conduct is in violation of antitrust rules, but the company had implemented appropriate compliance measures before the violation.

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New German Merger Control Thresholds: A More Business-Friendly Approach?

What Happened:

  • On January 19, 2021, major changes to German antitrust/competition law, i.e. the 10th Amendment Act to the German Act Against Restraints of Competition (ARC) entered into force.
  • In addition to introducing stricter abuse control, in particular over digital companies with a strong market position (so much so that one may refer to the act as the “ARC Digitisation Act”) and effecting changes to procedural rules and cartel prosecution, the new law also introduces substantive changes in merger control rules which may bring significant relief for international transactions. More information on the ARC Digitisation Act and other altered antitrust/competition rules  will follow in this blog.
  • The thresholds of German merger control have traditionally been very low in comparison to other international regimes. The German legislator has now decided to significantly increase the domestic turnover filing thresholds. Last week’s discussions in the German parliament and in its economic committee surprisingly resulted in even higher thresholds than originally proposed in the bill presented by the German government.

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q3 2020

In the United States, mergers and acquisitions appear to be bouncing back after a muted start to the year due to COVID-19. Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) filings in Q3 2020 were up significantly over Q2, but still down from the mergers & acquisitions (M&A) boom we saw in Q3 and Q4 of 2019. Against the backdrop of a pandemic, we also saw significant developments in the approaches taken by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) in reviewing proposed acquisitions. The FTC has recently announced an intention to expand its retrospective analysis of consummated mergers; DOJ has restructured its merger review operations to reflect changes in how the economy operates and to allow the regulator to further specialize its review efforts; and the regulators jointly proposed amendments to the HSR premerger notification regulations that are likely to increase the number of filings required for private equity organizations.

In Europe, as a result of the ongoing pandemic, the European Commission (EC) received a lower number of notifications (78) compared to the same period in 2018 and 2019 (106 and 116 respectively). In August, however, the number of notifications made to the EC returned to a level that has been seen in previous years (30). That being said, in September, the number of notifications fell again (24). In terms of key cases, the EC approved the acquisition of Bombardier Transportation by Alstom. With respect to policy and legislative developments, the EC announced a new policy of accepting referrals from national competition authorities in cases where the national thresholds for notification have not been met. This new policy is expected to be implemented by mid-2021. The EC also plans to introduce changes to the merger control procedural rules with a view to bringing more deals within the ambit of the EC’s simplified procedure, and to reduce the amount of information that parties are required to provide.

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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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