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New Developments in French Competition Law Pose Risk of Ex-Post Challenge to Non-Notifiable Transactions

In a significant development for French merger control, on May 2, 2024, the French Competition Authority (FCA) applied the jurisprudence laid down in the recent Towercast case to an alleged anticompetitive agreement matter in the meat-cutting sector.

In its Towercast ruling (C-449/21), the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) held that a merger which is not notifiable (i.e., being below the European and national merger control thresholds) and which has not been subject to a referral under Article 22 of the Merger Regulation 139/2004 of 2004 may be challenged a posteriori by the European Commission or a national competition authority if an abuse of dominant position resulting from the merger but detachable from it can be established.

Less than a week after the Towercast ruling, the Belgian Competition Authority applied the principles set out by the CJEU by opening an ex officio investigation into the acquisition of the edpnet group by Proximus, ordering interim measures in June 2023 to ensure the continuity of edpnet’s activities and its operational and commercial independence from Proximus, ultimately leading to the sale of edpnet’s activities post-closing in November 2023. The president of the FCA, Benoît Cœuré, said that this instrument could “now be used, bearing in mind that its conditions of use are restrictive”. This has now been confirmed by the FCA’s May 2 decision, on which Cœuré said was an “important clarification for merger control”, particularly regarding Article 101 TFEU.

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European Competition Review 2022

This Review provides legal counsel and their teams easy reference guidance on essential EU competition law developments covering key areas of law and policy. Topics covered include:

  • Cartels & Restrictive Agreements
  • Abuse of Dominant Position
  • Merger Control
  • State Aid
  • Legislative and Policy Developments

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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.

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Annual EU Competition Review 2018

McDermott’s Annual EU Competition Review summarizes key developments in EU 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, Paris and Germany.

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EU Court of Justice Confirms Annulment of Commission Prohibition Decision Due to a Procedural Irregularity

On 16 January 2019, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) dismissed the appeal by the European Commission (Commission) against the 2017 judgment of the General Court of the European Union (GCEU). This annuls the Commission’s decision to block the proposed acquisition of TNT Express NV (TNT) by United Parcel Services (UPS) in its entirety (C-265/17 P). The judgment reminds the Commission that it must maintain a balance between the need for speed and the observance of the rights of the defence in merger proceedings.

IN DEPTH

Background

By decision on 30 January 2013, the Commission blocked the proposed acquisition of TNT by UPS (Case M.6570).

On 7 March 2017, the GCEU annulled the Commission’s decision in its entirety on the grounds that (i) the Commission infringed UPS’s rights of defence by failing to communicate to UPS the final version of an econometric model on which it relied in its prohibition decision and that (ii) UPS might have been better able to defend itself if it had at its disposal the final version of that model.

The Commission challenged the GCEU judgment before the CJEU. First, the Commission argued that it was not required to communicate the final econometric analysis to UPS. Second, the Commission claimed that even if UPS’s rights of the defence had been infringed, the GCEU should have dismissed UPS’s plea alleging infringement of the rights of the defence as ineffective because a significant impediment to effective competition (“SIEC”) could in any event be established in Denmark and the Netherlands without having to rely on the econometric model concerned.

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot

United States: April – June 2018 Update

The second quarter of 2018 ushered in a trial defeat for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the beginning of a new era at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In June, Judge Richard J. Leon of the US District Court for the District of Columbia denied the DOJ’s requested injunction of the AT&T/Time Warner acquisition. The case marked the first litigated vertical challenge by the Antitrust Division in nearly 40 years. DOJ filed a notice of appeal of the district court’s decision. At the FTC, four new commissioners were sworn in in May, with a fifth to join upon the approval of current commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen to the US Court of Federal Claims. With the transition nearly complete, new FTC Chairman Joseph Simons announced plans to re-examine and modernize the FTC’s approach to competition and consumer protection laws, possibly charting a new course for FTC antitrust enforcement.

EU: April – June 2018 Update

In this quarter, we saw two significant developments concerning the issue of gun-jumping. First, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) clarified the scope of the gun-jumping prohibition, ruling that a gun-jumping act can only be regarded as the implementation of a merger if it contributes to a change in control over the target. Second, the European Commission (EC) imposed a €124.5 million fine on Altice for having breached the notification and the standstill obligations enshrined in the EUMR by gun-jumping. The EC also issued two clearance decisions following Phase II investigations in the area of information service activities and the manufacture of basic metals. (more…)




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European Court of Justice Provides Guidance on Scope of the Standstill Obligation Enshrined in the EU Merger Regulation

Pursuant to the EU merger control rules, a transaction that falls within the purview of the EU Merger Regulation (EUMR) must be notified to the European Commission (Commission) in advance (Article 4(1) EUMR), and must not be implemented until cleared by the Commission, known as the “standstill” obligation (Article 7[1] EUMR). A principal rationale behind the standstill obligation is to prevent the potentially negative impact of transactions on the market, pending the outcome of the Commission’s investigation.

While the standstill obligation represents a clear-cut rule, it can often be a significant challenge for businesses to apply in practice. Failure to get it right, however, can result in draconian penalties. Indeed, the Commission’s recent €124.5 million fine on Altice, which comes in the wake of a spate of enforcement actions in this arena, bears testimony to an increasingly hard stance against companies flouting the notification requirement/standstill obligation. (more…)




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Advocate General Wahl Delivers Opinion on Legality of Bans on Online Sales via Third-Party Platforms in Selective Distribution Systems

According to Advocate General Nils Wahl’s opinion, delivered on July 26, in the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) case Coty Germany GmbH v Parfümerie Akzente GmbH (case C-230/16), suppliers of luxury goods may prohibit their authorized retailers from selling their goods via third-party internet platforms. Such bans do not necessarily infringe Article 101(1) of the Treaty of Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) (which prohibits anticompetitive agreements).

Background of the Case

On July 16, 2016, the Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt lodged a request for a preliminary ruling with the CJEU asking whether selective distribution systems that serve to ensure a “luxury image” for the goods constitute an aspect of competition that is compatible with Article 101(1) TFEU and, whether bans on sales via third-party internet platforms constitute a restriction “by object” and should be viewed as “hardcore restrictions” under the Commission’s Vertical Agreements Block Exemption Regulation (VBER).

The initial dispute arose when Coty, a supplier of luxury cosmetics in Germany, brought an action against one of its authorized retailers, Parfümerie Akzente, for having infringed a provision in Coty’s selective distribution agreement that prohibited the retailers from distributing the luxury products via third-party platforms, such as Amazon, in order to preserve the brand image. The agreement provided that the authorized retailers could only sell the products online through an “electronic store window,” provided that the luxury character of the products was preserved. (more…)




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The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) Confirms the Commission’s Approach to Hybrid Settlements

The case follows on from the Commission’s Animal Feed Phosphates cartel decision pursuant to which fines totalling €176 million were imposed on a number of producers of animal feed for price fixing and market sharing throughout the EEA.

During the investigation into the infringement, all the companies involved engaged in settlement discussions with the Commission with a view to obtaining a 10 percent reduction in the fine that would otherwise have been imposed had they not settled with the Commission. However, during the settlement process Timab, a subsidiary of the Roullier Group, decided to withdraw from the settlement procedure. The Commission therefore followed the standard administrative infringement procedure against Timab – despite the fact that it had entered into settlements with the other companies involved in the cartel. This was the first time, therefore, that the Commission rendered a decision in a so-called ‘hybrid’ case i.e. where some parties settle but others do not.

During the initial settlement discussions, several meetings were held between the Commission and Timab, during which evidence of the infringement was discussed. On the basis of the evidence available, the Commission informed Timab that a fine in the range of €41 to €44 million would be imposed on it. However, in its final decision of 20 July 2010, the Commission levied a fine of nearly €60 million on Timab.

Timab challenged the Commission’s decision before the General Court of the European Union (GCEU) in case T-456/10, claiming that the Commission had infringed its legitimate expectations regarding the amount of the fine, on the one hand, and its right not to incriminate itself, on the other. Such challenge was unsuccessful, however.

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EU Court Rules That Royalties for Unpatented Technology Are Not Necessarily Anticompetitive

On 7 July 2016, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) handed down a judgment on whether Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) must be interpreted as precluding effect being given to a licence agreement requiring the licensee to pay royalties for the use of a patent which has been revoked (Sanofi-Aventis v. Genentech, Case C-567/14).

Background

In 1992, Hoechst granted a licence to Genentech for a human cytomegalovirus enhancer. The licensed technology was subject to one European patent and two patents issued in the United States. In 1999, the European Patent Office revoked the European patent.

Under the licence agreement with Hoechst, Genentech was obliged to pay a one-off fee, a fixed annual research fee and a running royalty based on sales of finished products. Genentech never paid the running royalty, however, and in 2008 it notified Hoechst and Sanofi-Aventis (Hoechst’s parent company) that it was terminating the licence. Hoechst and Sanofi-Aventis believed that Genentech had used the enhancer to manufacture its blockbuster drug Rituxan and was therefore liable to pay the running royalty on its sales of that drug.

Sanofi-Aventis initiated two separate actions. In the United States, it brought an action alleging that Genentech infringed the two US patents. The US courts ultimately decided that there was no infringement of the patents in question. Sanofi-Aventis also submitted an application for arbitration against Genentech before the International Court of Arbitration to recover the royalties.

In the arbitral award, the sole arbitrator held that Genentech had manufactured Rituxan using the enhancer and that the company was therefore required under the licence to pay Sanofi-Aventis the running royalties. According to the arbitrator, the commercial purpose of the licence was to avert all litigation on validity. Thus, payments already made under the licence could not be reclaimed, and payments due had to be made regardless of whether the patent had been revoked or was not infringed.

Genentech brought an action before the Paris Court of Appeal seeking annulment of the arbitral award. The company relied on public policy arguments, claiming that a requirement to pay for the use of technology that Genentech’s competitors could use without charge put Genentech at a competitive disadvantage and contravened Article 101 TFEU. The Paris Court of Appeal stayed the proceedings and made a preliminary reference to the CJEU.

CJEU Judgment

The CJEU explained that royalties reflect the parties’ assessment of the value that is attributable to the possibility of exploiting licensed technology, and that this assessment may still apply after expiry of the period of validity of the patent. The court referred to established case law (Case 320/87 Ottung) and held that, where the licensee is free to terminate the licence agreement by giving reasonable notice, an obligation to pay a royalty throughout the validity of the agreement (i.e., not the validity of the IP rights) does not fall within the purview of the Article 101(1) TFEU prohibition.

The CJEU argued that Article 101(1) TFEU does [...]

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