The Unintended Consequences of the Case Law on Restrictions by Object
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.