The Opinion of Advocate General Wathelet in the very interesting Greek lignite case came out yesterday. This is the second time in recent weeks that the AG’s Opinion makes an impact in the competition scene with a tightly argued proposal (the previous one was his Opinion in Teléfonica).
You might remember that sometime ago we held our first
and so far only ménage à trois debate precisely in relation to the General Court’s Judgment in the Greek lignite case:
[Guest post by Pablo Ibañez Colomo]
It would seem that the Spanish super-quango is more active than one would have assumed (in particular given what is currently going on within the tax authority of the country). The newly-created CNMC has fined four football teams (including Real Madrid and Barcelona) and the broadcaster Mediapro EUR 15 million for concluding exclusive licensing agreements for a period exceeding three years. Such terms contravened a previous decision adopted by the – then – CNC in 2010.
The case is interesting, first, because the Spanish government passed (in 2010, at pretty much the same time that the original decision was adopted) legislation that set a four-year term for exclusive licensing agreements between teams and broadcasters. One could claim that, insofar as the contentious agreements complied with the relevant sector-specific legislation, they were concluded in good faith. Accordingly, the fine would be unjustified. In light (pun intended) of Consorzio Industrie Fiammiferi (pun intended, I’m on fire!), it is clear, however, that this is not a valid defence. Legislation did not preclude undertakings from concluding agreements for a shorter period and thus from complying with Article 101 TFEU (which was clearly applicable in this case).
A second reason why the case is interesting is because it shows that the three-year limit for exclusive licensing agreements is now set in stone. There is no reason why this should be the case. A three-year term is not necessarily pro-competitive. It all depends on the context in which the licensing agreement is concluded. If the goal of this bright-line rule is (as I assume) to preserve the contestability of markets for the acquisition of television rights, then it may sometimes be too short. A new entrant (as BSkyB was back in the early 1990s) may need a longer period to reduce uncertainty and recoup its investments. By ruling out any flexibility, a rigid interpretation of Article 101(1) TFEU can very well have the perverse effect of protecting the incumbent. These are the problems of applying competition law as regulation, which I highlighted elsewhere, and of assuming that UEFA Champions League, Bundesliga and Premier League were rightly decided, in spite of the overwhelming evidence suggesting the opposite.
On 20 November we wrote a post on cartel fines saying the following:
“In spite of temporary appearances, though, one should not expect these figures to remain as they are. The upcoming LIBOR decision will certainly inject some significant (record breaking?) “capital” into this years’s numbers. On top of that, there appear to be a number of cartel decisions
stuck somewhere in the pipeline (interestingly, only one cartel decision has so far been adopted in 2013)!.
We got it right (not that it was very difficult):
On the 27th, the Commission adopted a cartel decision fining North Sea shrimp producers [BAD JOKE ALERT] -what you’d call s
hel lfish cartellists- with 28 million euros.
And yesterday, the Commission imposed the highest fine ever (1.7 billion euros) on a number of banks within the framework of the LIBOR investigation (still ongoing in relation to a number of parties who chose not to settle).
An interesting coincidence: yesterday representatives of the troika “advising” Spain on economic issues recommended that banks avoid any price wars (no kidding). Anyone sees mixed signals??
Also yesterday, the Commission unconditionally authorized the Microsoft/Nokia deal. It’ll be interesting to
appeal (this time I’m kidding… or not) read the decision once it’s published :)
Finally, yesterday we had a reception to celebrate the launching of the procedural bible. A great evening all round.
Last week I wrote a post about the Groupe Gascogne Judgment (and other stuff) which has elicited some interest. Somehow oddly, I will now present counter-arguments against all those who… actually agreed with me.
Given that I wrote about the Judgment within minutes of its publication I obviously hadn’t thought the issue through. My initial reaction was (and regarding these points it still is) that by endorsing the De Grüne Punkt solution (i.e. choosing actions for damages as the procedural path to compensate breaches to the right to be judged within a reasonable time) instead of the Baustahlgewebe one (under which the ECJ itself would reduce a fine on account of the said breach when ruling on an application brought before it), the Court of Justice was adopting the less practical solution, and one that could provoke strange situations. Some of you have developed this last point in several comments to that post.
Now, after some reflection (although not much, to be frank) I think I may see what the Court and one of the commentators to the post meant, even if the Judgment’s reasoning may perhaps not have been crystal clear (please note the understatement).
In my post I only gave one view, and I believe that it’s good that readers also get to see the contrarian arguments. Not that I’m second gessing myself, but I don’t like it when we criticize Judgments/decisions without trying to understand first the reasons underlying the choice of a given approach (believe it or not Judges, clerks and Commission officials are actually clever enough not to be producing absolute nonsense all the time, as some lawyers like to claim). In other words, in some cases they may choose the wrong solutions (particularly if they ever rule against me in one of my cases -not that this actually would ever happen-; please note the
implicit advertising claim), but there are always reasons for every approach they chose, and it’s healthy for us to try to identify them and debate them on their merits.
Cutting to the chase: it could be argued that endorsing Baustahlgewebe would have implied creating a specific regime that could only address the problem (a) only in competition cases [given that it is the sole area where the Commission enjoys the power to impose sanctions; in all other cases (frozen assets, for instance) actions for damages would be the only practicable solution], and (b) only in cases where a given company were to lose a first instance appeal before the General Court. Also, c) an assessment of damages by the ECJ would require it to rule on factual issues (namely harm quantification), when its jurisdicion is limited by the Treaty to points of law only. Furthermore, d) by providing that excessive delay in itself may open the door for an action for damages/a remedy, the ECJ could be effectively avoiding the possibility that “victims” might go to the ECHR (according to the ECHtR’s case law, there’s no “victim” in the sense of Art. 34 of the ECHR when the national legal system already envisages a remedy/compensation for the breach).
I can see how all these might have resonated within a Court like the ECJ. And it is probably true that Gascogne may be more “legally perfect”, albeit arguably at the cost of practicality and risking the odd situations pointed out in the previous post.
In spite of those perfectly valid arguments, I think I liked other solutions better, for instance:
a) one under which both Courts could assess the existence of excessive delays without it being necessary for parties to bring an additional action (the Commission, in fact, has done this in several past cases, and Courts could too). This is not legally unorthodox; it would not not be a matter of damages as such, but a reason to mitigate an initial sanction made more burdensome by the passing of time in the absence of judicial review. A solution of this sort is common to many national criminal law systems and is justified not on the actual damages suffered, but rather on the fact that there was an additional element (excessive time) subsequently added to the intended outcome of condemnation (i.e. the sanction). To counter-argue again against myself: admittedly, the quasi criminal nature of competition law may not be criminal enough for these purposes.
b) a compromise, middle-way and probably less legally controversial solution under which the ECJ would be competent to declare a violation of the right to a fair proceeding by account of excessive delays on the part of the GC (as it arguably did in this specific Judgment). Only quantification would then be left to the GC itself should the party wish to lodge an additional action for damages. For full disclosure: this is an alternative solution that we’re actually advocating before the ECJ in a pending case. But it’s reasonable, isn’t it?
On second thoughts, the recent
bad case law on the notion of “restriction by object” may incidentally, and unexpectedly, fetter the margins of the Commission, and in particular its ability to handle all cases under the obese Article 9 procedure.
As hinted recently by DG Italianer in a most interesting speech, cases such as Irish Beef (C-209/07), Expedia (C-226/11), Slovak Banks (C-68/12) and Allianz Hungary (C‑32/11) all suggest that agreements which are devoid of the “obvious” capacity to harm competiton are nonetheless “restrictions by object” because they are “serious” violations of the law.
In other words, those infringements are restrictions by object because they are sinful – in competition cases, the Court says “by nature injurious to the proper functioning of normal competition” – so sinful that they should be prosecuted even absent anticompetitive intent or effects.
This line of judicial precedents brings restrictions of competition close to the notion of “infractions objective” known in criminal law. Take murder: you can be convicted of homicide even if you unsuccessfully or unwittingly try to kill someone (in some legal orders, it is even illegal to shoot a dead body). Closer to competition law, take insider trading. You can be sentenced even if you use insider information unknowingly or ineffectively.
The bottom line: such infringements are so morally sinful that they should be prosecuted just for the sake of it. Regardless of their impact. Regardless of their motives. Full stop.
Now, let us revert to competition law. If the concept of a restriction by object means infringements that are morally sinful or morally so “serious” that they should be unlawful for the sake of it, then the Commission should no longer be free to settle such cases and decline to reach a finding of infringement.
This is the rule applied in most criminal law systems, where in principle the gravest infringements (eg crimes such as homicide, rape, etc.) cannot be subject to settlements.
The same should apply in competition proceedings. Restrictions by object ought to be treated under Article 9. If restrictions by object are that bad, then the sole procedural way to handle them is under Article 7 . Full stop.
The Commission’s decision in Microsoft/Skype contradicts its previous Article 102 decisions in Microsoft I (WMP) and Microsoft II (Internet Explorer).
Read §152 of Microsoft/Skype :
“consumers do not simply use whatever communications product is provided with Windows. The consumers use multiple communications services on multiple platforms, such as Apple iOS and Android, which include their own built-in communications services (Facetime and Google Talk). The parties further submit that some online communications applications such as Facetime and Viber are not even made available for the Windows platform, and yet they are very successful”.
This § tramples on the theory of harm used by the Commission to nail Microsoft in 2004 and 2009: ie that lazy consumers do not use more than one software (no multi-homing), and that they tend to stick to the the default software preinstalled on the platform (users inertia).
Now, the § reproducted above misquotes the Commission’s decision.
In reality, § 151 starts with: “In addition, the parties claim that consumers do not simply use whatever communications product is provided with Windows” blablabla.
But is this really the parties talking here?
Take a look at the full section of the decision:
“151. With regard to a possible tying between Skype and Microsoft’s products, the Commission considers that most of the arguments mentioned above in order to demonstrate the absence of incentives for a strategy of degradation of interoperability (in particular the necessity for Microsoft to maintain and enhance the value of the Skype brand) are also relevant to the assessment of the strategy of tying. 152. In addition, the parties claim that consumers do not simply use whatever communications product is provided with Windows. The consumers use multiple communications services on multiple platforms, such as Apple iOS and Android, which include their own built-in communications services (Facetime and Google Talk). The parties further submit that some online communications applications such as Facetime and Viber are not even made available for the Windows platform, and yet they are very successful.153. Moreover, consumers increasingly prefer services that offer online communications as part of a broader user experience such as Facebook, the recent Google+ and Gmail, which all run on Windows. 154. Competitors would therefore have many possibilities to market and many different means available to attract consumers. 155. In the course of its investigation, the Commission has not received any substantiated replies demonstrating that Microsoft has incentives to tie Skype and Microsoft’s products”.
Read in context, §151 sounds like Commission’s thinking.
There is no rebuttal, no discussion of the parties’ submission. And §151 is planted in the middle of bunch of other Commission arguments, all supportive of the view that there is no risk of bundling.
Now, it would have looked bad for the Commission to say black in 2004 and 2009, and then reverse to white in 2011.
So our Commission friends probably decided to use the parties as scapegoats, and (i) conveniently avoid the blame of inconsistency in decision making; or more plausibly, (ii) the pain of explaining why users of communications services are geeks shopping for software, distinct from the lazy users of media players and browsers.
Improper decision drafting…
PS: stay tuned, my little finger tells me that Alfonso will report on this case very soon.
- Fresh off the Court. This morning the ECJ handed down a Judgment in which it has ruled that the Court itself is not supposed to reduce the fine imposed on a company whenever judicial review by the General Court exceeds a reasonable time. This Judgment effectively and explicitly overrules the Baustahlgewebe Judgment, in which the ECJ had followed the opposite (and in my view much more reasonable approach). Today’s Judgment is premised on the idea that an application for damages brought against the EU would in all circumstances constitute an effective remedy to compensate for any damages caused by the GC’s failure to adjudicate within a reasonable time.
For those of you with less background on general EU law, actions for damages against the EU shall be brought before the General Court. In other words, parties who believe that the duration of proceedings before the General Court was excessively lenghtly should, by means of a different application, ask the General Court itself to ascertain whether its own behavior was appropriate in the light of the circumstances specific to the case and whether the parties suffered any harm. Good luck with that…
- Save the date! On February 7th and 8th AIJA [Association Internationale de Jeunes Avocats) (a generous institution according to which lawyers below 45 qualify as young] will be holding a two-day conference in Bruges under the title “Competition Law 2.0- Competition Law and Technology“. A not-to-be-missed excuse to
spend part of the weekend in Bruges and pay a visit to the greatest beer bar ever discuss hot topics in current antitrust. Both Prof. Petit and myself will be speaking there.
- Speaking of current antitrust debates: the last number of the Journal of European Competition Law and Practice (a great journal that has rightly earned a prominent place in a saturated? market) features various very good articles, including one by our guest blogger Pablo Ibañez on State aid litigation. At another level, it also features a brief piece of mine [the hyperlink only leads to the abstract] about Google’s commitments (you already know my views). Ironically, my comment was written in relation to the first version of the commitments but features in the “current intelligence” section of the journal. Fortunately I did explicitly envisage “likely further tweaks over specific details” and all comments are applicable to the new (leaked) proposal.