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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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EU Competition Commissioner Vestager Nominated for a Second Term – a Tale of Two Hats

What Happened:

On 10 September 2019, European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen nominated Margrethe Vestager as Competition Commissioner for a second consecutive term. As part of a structural shake-up of the Commission, involving the institution of eight Vice-Presidents, three of whom will be “Executive Vice Presidents”, she will additionally serve as “Executive Vice President for a Europe fit for the Digital Age”. As head of the competition portfolio Ms. Vestager will be supported by DG-Comp. As chief coordinator of the digital portfolio she will be supported by the Commission’s Secretariat-General. With respect to the latter role in particular, Ms. Vestager will be charged with ensuring that “Europe fully grasps the potential of the digital age and strengthens its industry and innovation capacity” and will be responsible for specific initiatives including new laws governing digital platforms and a potential tax on digital companies. Subject to European Parliament consent, which is expected to be given, she will carry out this dual rule until 2024.

What This Means:

Ms. Vestager’s mission as Competition Commissioner will be based on the following priority actions:

  1. Strengthening competition enforcement in all sectors: this tenet focuses on improving case detection, expediting investigations and facilitating cooperation with and between EU national competition authorities, including global cooperation among competition authorities.
  2. Evaluate and review Europe’s competition rules: this will cover antitrust regulations that are due to expire during her mandate (e.g. the Verticals Block Exemption Regulation (Reg. 330/2010), the ongoing review of the merger control rules and the review of State aid rules and guidance.
  3. Use of the sector inquiry instrument in new and emerging markets: in the context of new and emerging markets, sector inquiries will be carried out in markets that the Commission believes are not working as well as they should, and that breaches of the antitrust rules might be a contributory factor. Ms. Vestager already presided over the Commission’s sector inquiry into the e-commerce sector in 2015.
  4. Develop tools and policies to address the distortive effects linked to state-owned companies or subsidized companies from outside the EU but operating in the EU.

While it is somewhat unusual for a Competition Commissioner to be re-elected for a second term, her re-nomination serves as a testament to widespread appreciation for her unwavering commitment to ensuring consumer welfare. That being said, and against the Commissioner’s mandate to secure enhanced global cooperation amongst competition authorities, the move will likely raise eyebrows on Capitol Hill. This is principally because of Ms. Vestager’s alleged crusade against many of the biggest U.S. tech companies, a path likely to be pursued during the Commissioner’s second term in office. Indeed, her mandate over rule-making related to the digital economy could also give her increased influence over global tech regulation. Furthermore, her mission appears to be heavily influenced by the fall-out of the failed Alstom/Siemens railway merger. It will be interesting to see, for example, what role, if any, industrial policy will play under the EU Merger Regulation going forward. With Ms. Vestager’s focus [...]

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