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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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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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Crisis & Compliance: EU Competition Law During COVID-19

Amid the economic shocks caused by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, many industries are facing reduced demand for their products and services. Other industries—notably healthcare and food—are adjusting rapidly to expanding demand requirements and changing consumption patterns due to large-scale population confinement in several countries. Significant over- or under-capacity can create incentives, or even the necessity, to collaborate in ways that may push the limits of antitrust and competition rules.

On 23 March 2020, the European Competition Network (ECN) took unprecedented action. ECN, the network of competition enforcement authorities in the European Union, issued a joint statement announcing that its members will not actively intervene against “necessary and temporary” measures, including cooperation among competitors, in order to avoid a “shortage of supply.” At the same time, the ECN cautioned that its members would actively intervene against any measures taken by companies to limit the supply or charge excessive prices for critical products, such as masks or hand sanitising gel. This joint statement followed steps taken by several competition authorities in Europe to signal relaxed antitrust treatment of certain types of collaboration.

This article provides an overview of how companies can navigate these rapidly evolving developments in line with EU competition law. In brief, competition rules still apply, but are sufficiently flexible to allow critical industry adjustments during economic shocks that cannot be addressed in the short term by market forces, which are currently in turmoil.

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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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