Ewoud Sakkers | Johan Ysewyn
Friday 17 October 2014, Friday 24 October 2014, Friday 7 November 2014
Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron
In the course of his time off blogging, Nicolas has remained pretty productive on the academic front. Here are the abstracts and links to some of his latest work:
1. A sequel to the World Cup, with a short paper on the UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulation. In brief, he expressess doubts that the FFPR recently introduced by UEFA will promote competition in the football industry. According to Nico’s view, the FFPR is likely to create an ‘oligopoleague’ of football clubs that will freeze the market structure, to the detriment of the smallest clubs. The conclusion is that the FFPR may well constitute an unlawful agreement under Article 101 TFEU. The paper can be downloaded here.
2. A paper arguing that the TeliaSonera judgment on price squeezes has been in part repealled by subsequent case-law. The paper resorts to a short numerical example to show the flaw of finding a price squeeze in the presence of positive margins. The final version of this paper was published in the “Revue du Droit des Industries de Réseaux“, a new journal on the regulation network industries. See here: Price Squeezes with Positive Margins – Economic and Legal Anatomy of a Zombie (Final)
3. A presentation on the General Court’s Judgment in Intel, where he argueS that the Guidance Paper is not yet dead. In his view, the impact of Intel is confined to leveraging rebates – ie retroactive rebates – which are subject to a quasi per se illegality standard. As for the other rebates – eg incremental rebates – they remain subject to a rule of reason standard, though the assessment method need not be quantitative. The General Court also has generalized the Article 102(3) defense in abuse of dominance cases, though it is complex to see if this will be practical. The paper concludes with an optimistic note on the future of the Guidance Paper, and discusses the more philosophical point of whether Article 102 should seek to protect competitive OUTCOMEs or rather the PROCESS of competition. Nicolas submits that if 102 protects the PROCESS of competition, this should not dispense agencies and complainants to bring a certain degree of economic evidence in support of their allegations. See here: Intel v Commission – ABC Seminar – 10 07 14
4. A presentation on “Problem Practices”, ie practices that do not fall neatly within the conventional antitrust prohibitions: planned obsolescence strategies, most unfavored customer clauses, IP tracking- pricing, etc. He gave a speech on this at the CCP (University of East Anglia) Annual conference on Problem Markets arguing that existing EU rules can be flexibly stretched to capture such practices, and that we do not need a Section 5-type provision in our legal framework. In other words, he submits that there is no gap within the EU competition toolbox. See here: Problem Practices – CCP
5. A presentation on the principles of effectiveness and procedural autonomy in EU competition law given before an audience of judges at EUI as part of a seminar hosted by Giorgio Monti. See here: The Principles of Equivalence and Effectiveness -Petit
Nicolas is currently writing papers developing the content of presentations 3 and 4, so he’ll be grateful to anyone interested in sharing thoughts on those.
In the past few days there have been some remarkable competition-developments coming from EU Courts, the last of which took place only minutes ago in the Greek lignite case (if you’re only interested in that one you can go directly to the bottom of the post). This is just a quick overview of some of those recent developments:
Some were anecdotal, such as President Barroso giving testimony as a witness before the General Court.
Others are relevant mainly for cartel geeks, such as the GC’s granting reductions of fines in 3 paraffin wax cartel related cases, in which it also (a) carried out a particularly detailed review of the exercise of decisive influence between a parent and its subsidiary (Sasol, available here); (b) observed a violation of the principle of equal treatment and, most unusually, found an infringement of the principle of proportionality in the calculation of the basic amount of a fine (but only due to the peculiar circumstance that the Commission had partly taken into accout the turnover of a company that had merged, in the course of the cartel, with another company participating in the infringement; see the Judgment in Esso, available here); and (c) shed some light on the assessment of the exercise of decisive influence in JV settings (in RWE, available here).
That challenges against the proportionality of fines imposed within the 10% limit are unlikely to be successful was confirmed by last week’s Judgment from the ECJ in the Telefónica case. Telefónica had challenged the GC’s Judgment upholding the controversial decision sanctioning it for a margin squeeze abuse. The ECJ’s Judgment contains nothing of particular interest (aside from an interesting explanation of why the General Court’s review is fully compatible with the requirements stemming from the ECHR). The case will mostly be remembered because of Advocate General’s Wathelet’s Opinion both on the issue of proportionality as well as on the qualities of the appeal lodged by Telefónica, which we’re told broke a record as the lenghtiest in the history of the ECJ. (For those of you who are wondering whether limitations on the number of pages didn’t apply, you should know that there’s a way to bypass them, which I won’t explain here in the interest of the efficient use of Court’s resources…).
And, finally, most interesting news came from Luxembourg minutes ago, as the ECJ has annulled the General Court’s Judgment in the Greek lignite case concerning the joint application of Articles 106 and 102 TFEU. As you may recall, some time ago we held a most interesting ménage à trois debate on the GC’s Judgment with Marixenia Davilla (see here), José Luis Buendía (see here) and Makis Komninos (see here). The ECJ and the Advocate General have followed the approach that José Luis had forecasted (the Mr. 106 nickname has a justification).
The Judgment is much more important than many may realize at first sight. The main issues raised by the case are covered in our previous posts, so I refer you to those. Observe only that the Judgment goes pretty far -in the right direction, I would argue- in ruling (in para 46) that “[a]ll that is necessary is for the Commission to identify a potential or actual anti‑competitive consequence liable to result from the State measure at issue. Such an infringement may thus be established where the State measures at issue affect the structure of the market by creating unequal conditions of competition between companies, by allowing the public undertaking or the undertaking which was granted special or exclusive rights to maintain (for example by hindering new entrants to the market), strengthen or extend its dominant position over another market, thereby restricting competition, without it being necessary to prove the existence of actual abuse“.
The Judgment would insuflate some life to Art. 106 which, as I said last week, has a tremendous potential which still today remains largely unused. This would nonetheless largely depend on politics at the incoming Commission and on the Commission’s discretion, and, judging by history, I’m not opimistic. As the GC reminded us with another Order last month declaring an appeal inadmissible (here), “the Commission’s refusal to act under Article 106(3) TFEU following the filing of a complaint by an individual against a Member State does not constitute a challengeable act“. This ruling is based on the max.mobil case-law, which I’ve always seen as unfortunate and in need of repeal.
In some previous posts we’ve commented on the interface between the competition rules and data protection/privacy regulation, which is one of the trendiest topics in international antitrust these days.
As you may recall, the European Data Protection Supervisor recently held a high level workshop (high level but for my intervention on it, that is) on Privacy, Competition, Consumers and Big Data. On Monday, the EDPS made available on its website a report summarizing what was discussed in the workshop (conducted under Chatham House rules). The EDPS’ summary is available here: EDPS Report_Privacy, competition, consumers and big data.
For more, you can re-read Orla Lynskey’s A Brave New World: The Potential Intersection of Competition Law and Data Protection Regulation as well as the interesting comment by Angela Daly on my latest post on the issue.
The German Monopolkommission has also addedd its voice to the debate by issuing a recent report (“A competitive order for the financial markets“) which contains a section on data-related questions regarding the internet economy. The Press Release (in English here) expressess some concerns but notes that, according to the report, “an extension of the competition policy toolkit does not (yet) seem advisable on the basis of current knowledge and understanding“.
In a recent post on the diluted legality of competition law I voiced out the view that our discipline could partly be losing its last name, a development for which I blamed a number of factors. However, some developments in the past few weeks have led me to think that perhaps I missed a critical feature: the increasing involvement of politics in the application of the competition rules.
To be sure, since its inception and all along its development, antitrust law –as a public policy tool at the core of the economic Constitution of any State- has had as much of a tight link with politics as it has with economics. But whereas economics not only provides a justification for the existence of the rules but also plays an important role in the development of legal rules and in individual cases, politics had traditionally exerted its influence in the exercise of enforcement discretion, and arguably not so much in the development of the rules and the outcome of cases.
The link between politics and competition enforcement might have been more obvious at the national level, where national competition authorities often are attached (organically or otherwise) to the Government at issue, which often appoints its members in the light of political considerations. It’s against this backdrop that one has to interpret the European Commission’s recurrent calls for independence of national competition authorities (most recently on a Staff working paper issued last Wednesday).
I think it’s fair to say that the influence of politics on the European Commission’s application of the competition rules has been more tenuous. For the most part, EU competition law has developed under the auspices of a firm political view on the advantages of competition in a system of social market economy, but in isolation from short-sighted political interests/small politics. This is largely explained by the theoretical legal status of the Commission as a body independent from Member States, and by the practical status DG Comp as a quasi-specialized agency within the Commission that one was not to second-guess. However, there are signs that this might be changing. In recent times national politicians have increasingly given their views on how competition law should be applied (here is one very recent example), and so have members of the European Parliament and a number of EU Commissioners. Moreover, they are doing so not only when their national interests are at stake (political solutions have been and are all the more common in State aid cases and in some high-stakes mergers), but also concerning investigations of potential infringements.
There are several examples of this evolution. Most recently we have seen politicians –mainly Chancellor Merkel- vouching for the approval of the Telefónica/E-Plus deal (see here). But perhaps the best illustration of the trend can be found in the Google case, on which we have written extensively on this blog.
This is a case in which DG Comp has extracted (arguably using the commitment procedure and its impressive record in judicial review of 102 decisions to stretch the boundaries of current legal standards) a set of significant commitments on the part of Google (see my comments here), going beyond what US authorities did. This could be regretted by people interested in the clarity of the law, but would normally have been seen as a practical enforcement success on the part of the Commission. However, a number of motivated and well-funded complainants –led by some smart lawyers who know how to play with the system and who deserve credit for getting near what I would’ve thought was impossible- now start to seem capable of derailing the commitment procedure by politicizing it. First, the German and French ministers for economics wrote a most unusual joint letter to Vice-President Almunia asking for a tougher stance on Google. And now, a widely extended rumor has it that a few EU Commissioners are being persuaded not to approve any Article 9 decision during Mr. Almunia’s tenure. As you can imagine, not all Commissioners are persuaded with sophisticated legal arguments related to evidence on foreclosure and the such, some being more receptive to political lines alien to antitrust analysis, mainly “don’t let these guys off the hook because they don’t pay taxes in Europe and because the US spies on us”. Obviously, this has nothing to do with the law, or at least with competition law.
It’s difficult to guess how this will turn out. As recently explained in the FT (Alex Barkers’s coverage of EU competition issues is, by the way, excellent) “[s]ome people involved think the pressures make it more likely Mr Almunia will decide to launch a formal probe of Android”. And indeed, the Android investigation may be the second leg of this political game, and once again the Commission might be under enormous pressure to take a hardline. [By the way, if you’re interested in reading about the competition issues involved in the Android investigation, I would very much suggest you read the insightful pieces recommended by Kevin Coates here ;) as well as this interesting brand new piece on the matter (particularly enjoyed footnotes 26 and 127…) (thanks to Jorge Marcos –ULg- for drawing our attention to it)]
Much more could be said about the politicization –and possible transformation- of antitrust and I look forward to your comments, but I’ll close it off now (mainly because the Word Cup final is already on). Some of you will recall my piece on Antitrust and the Political Center, in which I outlined some views on how antitrust embodies a centrist political ideology and can contribute to the expansion of sensible political views internationally. Well, in my view, the same is not true the other way around; infusing minor, short-sighted, political goals into the application of competition law can only contribute to disfigure even more a branch of the law which –let’s not forget- is, on its sanctioning dimension, quasi criminal in nature.
The political agreement in having technical competition rules applied by independent agencies is now an established idea, heralded internationally by the European Commission. And it makes sense because in spite of its unquestionable benefits, competition law’s constituency is diffuse and unable to mobilize politicians in the right direction. If you ask me, competition law can better serve its goals when dissociated from small politics.
A look at my recent posts shows that I have developed a taste for pending issues, whether it is rulings of the ECJ or Commission decisions. Rather than doing something new, I thought I would repeat the trick (I tell myself that the number of comments received in previous posts justifies the non-move). Some will have thought ‘Post Danmark II’ when reading the title. True, there is a second Post Danmark case pending before the ECJ. The little information available on the Court website, suggests that it may be another milestone in Article 102 TFEU case law.
But Post Danmark II has long been old news for most if not all of us (not to mention that discussing this case would involve writing yet another post about rebates). Due to the limited supply of Article 102 TFEU cases, it makes (economic) sense to cherish and discuss every single judgment, even prior to their adoption. Thus from the list of pending preliminary references in competition law, I thought I would repeat the trick by doing something else instead, and rather mention briefly (and invite your comments on) the following:
- Eventech concerns the use of bus lanes by taxis in London. The question is more precisely about the application of Article 107(1) TFEU to regulations that exclude private hire cars (minicabs) from such lanes. The key issue relates to whether such regulations involve the use of State resources. The information that is publicly available suggests that the answer is a clear ‘no’. But given that the Court mentioned in Gibraltar that what matters for the purposes of Article 107(1) TFEU is not the ‘regulatory technique’ but the effects of a measure, one is no longer 100% sure about these things.
- A colleague who is interested in EU law but not in competition law asked me a few weeks ago about the FNV Kunsten Informatie en Media case. This one is about the application of competition law to collective labour agreements. The agreement in question is interesting in that it dealt with the working conditions of self-employed workers who were not subject to it. In spite of the obvious distortions it entails this looks, again, like a straightforward case. What makes it worthy of mention, from my perspective, is that the mechanism used in the agreement to fix wages is not fundamentally different from that underlying the so-called Spanish Google tax. You may remember from my post on the question that the Spanish government seeks to ensure that Google News and other aggregators compensate newspapers for the use of ‘non-significant excerpts’ (I know I repeat myself, but this is a concept that never fails to amaze me) by making it impossible for the latter to relinquish their right (that is, by preventing negotiations between individual newspapers and aggregators).
- There are also some pending cases in Luxembourg featuring Alfonso. But it is probably better to let him comment on those.
As you might have noticed, we took an unnanounced temporary break from bloggin’. First it was due to a particularly intense period of work (I might give more details about it in the future) and then to (my only…) week of Summer holidays during which I wanted to hear nothing about competition law [btw, I read these two very recommendable books (here and here), only to find out that the latter -a dystopian novel about tech companies- does refer to European Commission's antitrust investigations as part of the plot...].
In between this break Chillin’Competition surpassed 750,000 visits [I checked the stats and only in the past year we've had visits from 193 countries (exactly the same as the members of the UN)], which still today feels pretty surprising. We are however increasingly struggling to find the time to improve what we do here; at least in my case, this is proving a challenge (and it’ll be even more in the near future once the upcoming paternity reshuffles my priorities). This is to say that you should expect some significant changes in Chillin’Competition after the summer holidays, hopefully for good.We’ll explain this in more detail soon.
Nicolas -who will soon end his time at DG Comp- and myself discussed a bit about this yesterday when we met by surprise at a corridor of the College of Europe in Bruges; we were simultaneously lecturing in two contiguous rooms and hadn’t realized about it… By the way, I was lecturing to a group of very smart Chinese officials (pictured above) about EU Competition Procedure and Article 106 TFEU (the provision with the greatest unexploited potential in EU Competition Law) and very much enjoyed discussing with them (this in spite of -excellent- consecutive translation, which added a level of complexity to the conversation). In case anyone is interested, here are the two power points I used (although I’m afraid you might have trouble understanding much): EU Competition procedure (CoE-China) and Article 106 (CoE-China) (many thanks, by the way, to Carlos Bobillo and Ana Balcells for taking care of these. One day they’ll realize that the main advantage of spending a few years at a law firm is that you can get someone to do your PowerPoints ;) )
Registration for the 5th edition of the Brussels School of Competition’s specialized programme is now open.
Here’s the programme for the upcoming academic year:
Clinical Seminar 1: Competition Compliance