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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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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.




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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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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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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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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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.

Access the full report.




Three Things To Know About French Merger Control

  1. Jurisdictional thresholds

French merger control applies if the turnovers of the parties to a transaction (usually the acquirer(s) including its (their) group(s) of companies, and the target) exceeded, in the last financial year, certain (cumulative) thresholds provided in Article L. 430-2, I of the French Commercial Code (the “Code”):

  • Combined worldwide pre-tax turnover of all concerned parties > €150 million; and
  • French turnover achieved by at least two parties individually > €50 million euros; and
  • The transaction is not caught by the EU Merger Regulation.

Specific (and lower) thresholds exist for mergers in the retail sector or in French overseas departments or communities[1].

In the situation of an acquisition of joint control, a transaction can be notifiable where each of the acquirers meets the thresholds even if the target has no presence or turnover in France.

There is no exception applicable to foreign-to-foreign transactions.

Acquisitions of ‘non-controlling’ minority shareholdings are not notifiable.

  1. Filing is mandatory and failure to file or early implementation can be sanctioned

Under Article L. 430-3 of the Code, a notifiable merger cannot be finalized before its clearance by the French Competition Authority (the “FCA”) but the Code does not provide any specific deadline for the notification. There is no filing fee.

Failure to notify a reportable transaction can be sanctioned by the FCA as follows:

  • A daily penalty can be imposed on the notifying party(ies) until they notify the operation or demerge, as the case may be; and
  • A fine can be imposed on the notifying party(ies) up to:
    • For corporate entities: 5% of their pre-tax turnover in France during the last financial year;
    • For individuals: €1.5 million.

Due to the suspensive effect of the filing, these sanctions also apply when the parties start to implement a notified transaction before receiving clearance (so-called ‘gun jumping’) from the FCA.

Nevertheless, individual exemptions may be granted by the FCA to allow undertakings to close before receiving clearance; in practical terms, exemptions are exceptional and limited to circumstances where insolvency proceedings have been opened, or are about to be opened, in relation to the target.

  1. Timeline of merger control procedure

The majority of notified transactions are cleared in Phase I, which lasts 25 business days as from the receipt by the FCA of a complete notification.

A simplified procedure, which lasts for about 15 business days, is available for non-problematic acquisitions, which is often the case for transactions involving private equity funds. Simplified procedures accounted for about 50% of the notified transactions between May 2016 and May 2017.

Phase II is reserved for problematic acquisitions requiring a deeper examination and takes at least an additional 65 business days.

In addition, parties can pre-notify a transaction with the FCA. The pre-notification procedure can prove to be very useful in order to confirm the notifiability of a transaction, the nature and amount of information that will be required by the FCA [...]

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Five Things To Know About German Merger Control

As reported previously, German competition law was recently amended. The amendments included with the introduction of a “size of transaction”-threshold a notable change with respect to German merger control. The following is a reminder of five important features of German merger control which you should be aware of:

The jurisdictional thresholds of German merger control are easily triggered

German merger control applies if the parties to a transaction (usually the acquirer and the target) exceeded, in the last financial year, certain turnover thresholds. In an interna­tional context, these thresholds are relatively low and easily triggered:

  • Joint worldwide turnover of all parties > € 500 million, and
  • German turnover of at least one party > € 25 million, and
  • German turnover of another party > € 5 million.

There is a new “size of transaction”-threshold

Since June 2017, German merger control can also be triggered if a newly introduced “size of transaction”-threshold is exceeded:

  • Joint worldwide turnover of all parties > € 500 million, and
  • German turnover of at least one party > € 25 million, and
  • “value of compensation” > € 400 million, and
  • The target company has “significant business activities” in Germany (which may be activities with revenues < € 5 million).

The “value of compensation” includes the purchase price and all other assets and non-cash benefits, as well as liabilities assumed by the purchaser.

Acquisition of minority shareholdings may be notifiable

Similar to the HSR Act, but different to European Union merger control and most European jurisdictions, German merger control is not limited to the “acquisition of control”. Additional triggering events are

  • The acquisition of 25% or more of the shares in a company, and
  • The acquisition of a shareholding below 25% if this, combined with other factors (e.g. the right to appoint one out of five members of the board), may have an im­pact on competition (“acquisition of ability to exercise competitively significant influ­ence”).

Review of joint venture situations

German merger control may apply in joint venture situations that are often not covered by other merger control laws:

  •  German merger control may apply to the setting up of a joint venture company, even if the joint venture will have no activities in Germany. The jurisdictional thresholds may be satisfied by the parent companies alone. While there is an exemption for transactions with “no effect in Germany”, it is interpreted very narrowly and applies only in exceptional circumstances.
  • German merger control applies to all joint venture situations where two or more par­ties acquire or continue to hold a shareholding of 25% or more. Examples:
    – A and B set up a 50/50 production joint venture.
    – A acquires sole control and a 70% shareholding, and B acquires a non-control­ling 30% shareholding.
    – A sells 75% of a fully owned subsidiary to B, and retains only a 25% minority shareholding.
    – A, B and C each own 1/3 in a joint venture company. C divests his share­holding [...]

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Reform of German Competition Law

A number of amendments to the German competition law (Amendment) entered into force on 9 June 2017. The key changes are:

  • Merger control: Introduction of a new “size of transaction”-threshold
  • Sanctions for antitrust law infringements: Rules of liability aligned to EU concept, in particular with respect to “parental liability”
  • Private enforcement: Implementation of EU Cartel Damage Claims Directive.

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