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 THIS MEANS:

The Decision is an impressive reminder that gun jumping, i.e. the implementation of transactions prior to clearance by the relevant antitrust authorities, can entail severe consequences. Under European merger control law, the European Commission can impose fines of up to 10% of the group’s total turnover on companies infringing the Standstill Obligation. Antitrust authorities in most other major antitrust jurisdictions have comparable sanctioning tools.

The Decision also confirms that the acquisition of a minority stake may well be considered as conferring de facto control. This applies in particular to situations where the minority shareholder is highly likely to achieve a majority at the shareholders’ meetings, taking account of the size of its shareholding and the level of attendance of other shareholders at shareholders’ meetings in preceding years. The General Court furthermore emphasises that the mere possibility to exercise control is sufficient for a breach of the Standstill Obligation. Whether the acquirer actually makes use of that possibility (Marine Harvest argued it did not) is of no relevance.

Finally, the Decision clarifies that the European Commission is entitled to apply a narrow interpretation of the Public Bid Exemption. Parties who intend to rely on the Public Bid Exemption for (partly) implementing transactions prior to clearance should do so, if possible, only after consulting with the European Commission. Indeed, the European Commission, confirmed by the General Court, held that Marine Harvest acted negligently in not having consulted with the European Commission. Marine Harvest’s negligence was a main factor for the European Commission to conclude that a significant fine should be imposed – even though, as Marine Harvest argued throughout the proceedings, the European Commission did not impose a fine in a very similar, previous merger case.

On 7 September 2017, the European Court of Justice issued a decision (Decision) on the interpretation of the European Union Merger Regulation (EUMR). The Decision clarifies the conditions under which the EUMR applies to the setting-up of joint venture companies.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • 3(4) of the EUMR stipulates that the “creation” of joint ventures requires a notification only if the joint venture “performs the functions of an autonomous economic entity” (Full-Function JV).
  • Companies with management dedicated to its day-to-day operations, as well as access to sufficient resources including staff, finance and assets usually qualify as Full-Function JV. If the joint venture has only one specific function for the parent companies (e.g. supplying input products or services), and has no or only very limited own resources, it is unlikely to be considered a Full-Function JV.
  • There has been considerable uncertainty whether Art. 3(4) EUMR applies only to the creation of a new company (greenfield operation), or whether it also applies if joint control is acquired over an existing company.
  • The European Commission significantly contributed to this uncertainty by repeatedly taking inconsistent and contradictory positions. In a fairly unusually move, the ECJ’s Advocate General chastised the European Commission, calling it “extremely regrettable” that the European Commission did notcommit to a clear and uniform approach and then apply it consistently”.
  • The ECJ’s Decision comes at the request of an Austrian court. The Austrian court had to decide whether the acquisition of joint control over a small asphalt plant–which does not qualify as Full-Function JV–requires notification and clearance under the EUMR by the European Commission.
  • The ECJ has now held that the change of sole control to joint control only requires a notification under the EUMR if the newly created joint venture qualifies as a Full-Function JV.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • The Decision brings much-awaited clarity to a key issue of European Union merger control.
  • If two or more companies create a joint venture company, it will be subject to the EUMR only if it qualifies as s Full-Function JV. This applies both to greenfield operations, where a new company is created, and the change from sole to joint control over an existing company. Whether a notification to the European Commission is actually required, will depend on whether the jurisdictional turnover thresholds under the EUMR are met.
  • The creation of joint ventures which do not qualify as Full-Function JV does not require notification to and clearance by the European Commission. However, these joint ventures may still be subject to merger control in one or several EU Member States.
  • The European Commission required and accepted in the past the notification of transactions which involved the creation of joint ventures not qualifying as Full-Function JV. Following today’s decision by the ECJ, it appears that the European Commission did not have jurisdiction. An interesting question to be explored in the coming weeks and months is therefore whether the Decision somehow affects the legality of these transactions.