The European Commission recently reaffirmed that industrial policy objectives have no role to play when it comes to applying the EU merger control rules. Despite unusually intense industrial and political pressure to get the Siemens/Alstom railway merger done, Competition Commissioner Vestager has forcefully reiterated that the substantive test under the EU Merger Regulation remains exclusively competition based.

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

In the past couple of years, the European Commission has decided to review and evaluate the functioning of different aspects of the EU merger control regime regulated by EU Regulation No. 139/2004 of 20 January 2004 on the control of concentrations between undertakings (the EU Merger Regulation), its implementing regulation and related notices and guidelines.

The process started in 2014 when the Commission adopted a White Paper titled “Towards More Effective EU Merger Control” (the White Paper), which presented the Commission’s view that EU merger control worked well and that no fundamental overhaul of the system was needed. The Commission did, however, identify specific amendments to the EU Merger Regulation to make it more effective.

In the wake of the positive feedback it received during the consultation it organised following the publication of the White Paper, the Commission launched another public consultation in October 2016 on the “Evaluation of procedural and jurisdictional aspects of EU merger control”, through which it is seeking feedback from stakeholders on the effectiveness of certain additional procedural and jurisdictional aspects of EU merger control. Stakeholders have until 13 January 2017 to respond.

Continue Reading Overview of the Proposed Reforms of the EU Merger Control Regime

In May, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) required Hikma Pharmaceuticals PLC to divest its 23 percent interest in Unimark Remedies, Ltd. and its US marketing rights to a generic drug under manufacture by Unimark as a condition to allowing Hikma to complete its acquisition of Roxane Laboratories. The FTC was concerned that Hikma’s continued holding of a 23 percent interest in Unimark after consummation of its proposed acquisition of Roxane would create the incentive and ability for Hikma to eliminate future competition between Roxane and Hikma/Unimark in the sale of generic flecainide tablets (a drug used to treat abnormally fast heart rhythms) in the United States.

The FTC’s divestiture requirement was unusual but not unprecedented. The Horizontal Merger Guidelines identify three theories of competitive harm associated with an acquisition or holding of a small but significant minority interest in a competitor.

  1. Minority ownership, and any associated rights, such as veto rights over the competing firm’s budget or strategic decisions, or representation on its board of directors, may allow the shareholder to forestall, delay or otherwise hamper the competing firm’s further development or marketing of competitive products
  2. The holder of a minority interest in a competing firm has diminished incentives to compete aggressively with the competitor firm because the holder obtains an economic benefit from the success of the competing firm through its partial ownership of that competitor.
  3. The holder of a minority interest in a competing firm may have access to non-public, competitively sensitive information of the competing firm, and thus may be better able to coordinate its business decisions—such as pricing, output, or research and development efforts—with those of the competing firm, thus diminishing competition.

These theories of potential antitrust harm from minority interest acquisitions are not unique to the United States; other competition agencies, including the European Union’s competition directorate, accept and apply these theories when considering the competitive impact of a firm’s actual or proposed partial ownership interest in a competitor. However, the United States applies a significantly lower threshold than the European Union (and other competition agencies) for the pre-acquisition notification of an entity’s acquisition of a minority, non-controlling interest in another firm.

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On 20 April 2016, the European Commission (Commission) cleared, under its merger control rules, the acquisition of Equens and PaySquare by Worldline subject to, amongst others, a commitment to license technology to any customer interested, at Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) conditions.

Worldline is a French provider of payment services and terminals, financial processing and software licensing and e-transactions services. Equens offers a number of services across the value chain of both payments processing and cards processing services. Its fully-owned subsidiary, PaySquare, provides merchant acquiring services.  This transaction combines two large payment systems operators, active across the full value chain in both payment processing and card processing services.

The EU antitrust regulator was concerned that the acquisition would have raised certain issues with respect to, in particular, merchant acquiring services in Germany.  The Commission’s market investigation revealed that Worldline’s Poseidon software and modules are used by the majority of German network service providers (including PaySquare), there are no other readily available alternatives to Poseidon and post-transaction, Worldline would have the ability and the incentives to favour its new subsidiary PaySquare, in terms of price and quality, over other network service providers relying on Poseidon.

In order to address the Commission’s concerns, the companies offered a commitment to grant licenses for the Poseidon software on FRAND terms during a period of 10 years. Specifically, this commitment consists of the following elements:

  • The granting of a license for Poseidon and its modules to third-party network service providers under FRAND terms and capping of the maintenance fees
  • A monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance with FRAND terms by a licensing trustee and by a group composed of network service providers
  • Giving access to the Poseidon source code under certain conditions
  • Transferring the governance of the ZVT protocol, on which most German point of sale terminals run, to an independent not for profit industry organisation

The Commission’s decision to accept this commitment is interesting for a number reasons; the Commission generally has a strong preference for structural rather than behavioural undertakings, FRAND obligations are typically applicable to technologies that are standardised, and this case presents the first time that a commitment to licence on FRAND terms has been used as a remedy under the EU Merger Regulation.