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Beware of “Gun Jumping”: EU Court Upholds EUR 20 Million Fine Imposed On Norwegian Seafood Company

Between 2012 and 2013, Marine Harvest ASA (“Marine Harvest”), a Norwegian seafood company, acquired Morpol ASA (“Morpol”), a Norwegian producer and processor of salmon. Marine Harvest notified the transaction to the European Commission under the European Union’s Merger Regulation (“EUMR”), but implemented it prior to the European Commission having granted clearance. In 2014, the European Commission imposed a EUR 20 million fine on Marine Harvest for “jumping the gun”. On 26 October 2017, the General Court of the European Union (“General Court”) confirmed the European Commission’s decision (“Decision”).

WHAT HAPPENED:

On 14 December 2012, Marine Harvest entered into a share and purchase agreement (“SPA”) with companies owned by Jerzy Malek, the founder and former CEO of Morpol. Under the SPA, Marine Harvest acquired 48.5% of the shares in Morpol (“Initial Transaction”). The Initial Transaction was closed on 18 December 2012. On 15 January 2013, Marine Harvest submitted a mandatory public offer for the remaining 51.5% of the shares in Morpol (“Public Offer”). Following settlement and completion of the Public Offer in March 2013, Marine Harvest owned a total of 87.1% of the shares in Morpol (together, the “Transaction”).

Marine Harvest established first contact with the European Commission on 21 December 2012 by submitting a “Case Team Allocation Request”, which initiates the pre-notification process under the EUMR. After submitting various drafts and answers to requests for information, Marine Harvest formally notified the Transaction on 9 August 2013. On 30 September 2013, the European Commission cleared the Transaction subject to some conditions.

On 31 March 2014, the European Commission formally launched a separate investigation into alleged “gun jumping” by Marine Harvest, and in the decision of 23 July 2014, the European Commission imposed a fine of EUR 20 million on Marine Harvest (“Fining Decision”). The European Commission held that Marine Harvest, by implementing the Initial Transaction, had acquired de facto control over Morpol. By acquiring de facto control, Marine Harvest had infringed Art. 7(1) EUMR (“Standstill Obligation”). Under the Standstill Obligation, transactions requiring notification to, and clearance by, the European Commission may not be implemented prior to clearance.

The European Commission rejected Marine Harvest’s argument that the implementation of the Initial Transaction was covered by an exemption provided for in Art. 7(2) EUMR (“Public Bid Exemption”). Under the Public Bid Exemption, the acquisition of control from various sellers through a public bid, or a series of transactions in securities, can be implemented prior to clearance. However, this applies only if the transaction is notified without delay to the European Commission, and if the acquirer does not exercise the respective voting rights. According to the European Commission, the Public Bid Exemption is not intended to cover situations involving the acquisition, from a single seller, of a “significant block of shares” which in itself confers de facto control.

Marine Harvest appealed against the Fining Decision to the General Court. However, with the Decision, the General Court confirmed the European Commission findings, both on substance on with respect to the level of the fine.

WHAT [...]

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Commission Publishes White Paper on Minority Shareholdings

On 9 July 2014, the EU Commission (Commission) published a White Paper (White Paper) entitled Towards more effective EU merger control. The White Paper sets out the Commission’s current thinking on the application of merger control rules to the acquisition of non-controlling minority shareholdings. The Commission’s proposals concerning the application of merger controls to the acquisition of non-controlling minority shareholdings are, however, problematic and may lead to a dampening of investments in Europe. Interested parties, which include companies, industry associations and national competition authorities, have until 3 October 2014 to comment on the White Paper.

Under the current Council Regulation (EC) No 139/2004 (the Merger Regulation), the Commission is only able to review transactions that lead to a change of control. The Commission also has the power to review existing minority shareholdings held by the parties to a notifiable transaction, i.e., one resulting in a change of control. Acquisitions of non-controlling minority shareholdings (also referred to as structural links) by themselves, however, can only be carried out retrospectively under Articles 101 or 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). In other words, under the Merger Regulation, acquisitions of non-controlling minority shareholdings are not subject to prior review by the Commission unless they result in a change of control, and are only subject to after-the-fact enforcement under Articles 101 and/or 102 TFEU. This leads to what the Commission perceives as an “enforcement gap” at EU level, which results in the Merger Regulation not being applied to non-controlling minority shareholdings that have the potential to harm competition, as exemplified by the recent Ryanair/Aer Lingus case.

In contrast, some EU Member States, such as Germany, and some major non-European jurisdictions (including the United States and Japan) are empowered to review some non-controlling minority shareholdings under their national merger control rules. In these jurisdictions, the Commission would contend that no enforcement gap exists, since non-controlling minority shareholdings can be subjected to prior review.

In view of concerns about the enforcement gap, in 2011, the Commission organised studies on the importance of minority shareholdings in the European Union. Subsequently, in June 2013, the Commission launched a public consultation (the consultation paper) on possible modifications to the Merger Regulation, including the expansion of merger controls to capture certain non-controlling minority shareholdings. The consultation paper also considered different models for reviewing non-controlling minority shareholdings. The responses to the consultation paper generally revealed a lack of consensus about the existence and extent of an enforcement gap. Equally, the responses demonstrated that the need to change the Merger Regulation to address a perceived enforcement gap remained a hotly disputed topic.

The 9 July White Paper contains the Commission’s proposed actions in response to the consultation paper. It covers the issue of minority shareholdings and also looks at other areas where the Commission sees the need for a revision of merger control rules, including mechanisms for referring cases between the Commission and the EU Member States. The White Paper was published together with the Commission [...]

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