Archive for the ‘Hotch Potch’ Category
The European Commission is a great Institution. When I was an EU law student I used to revere it, and now, after knowing much more about its inner workings, my views are much more nuanced, but still overall very positive, particularly in comparison with what goes on at the national level. Still, it is the EU Institution that should be giving impulse to the EU project, a mission that it has not always accomplished in recent times. And in our field, it is the Commission that calls the shots.
Some readers of this blog have remarked that I tend to be “too” Commission friendly. Some friends at the Commission see it otherwise. I see those opposing views as a good thing (for my views on the importance/difficulty of not taking the same side on every issue, see here).
Frequent readers of the blog may also remember me saying multiple times that the human factor is very often what determines whether institutional arrangements work or nor. An organization or Institution without the right people is very unlikely to function as it should. Today I want to insist on that point.
[Those interested in reading more can click here]
Lack of recent blogging activity on my side has to do with the complexities of juggling a particularly busy period at work (currently writing from Luxembourg, again) with parenting a little man, half-training for a triathlon next Saturday (this guy tricked me…) and participating at a couple of very interesting, but not so well-timed, conference appearances. It is about the latter that I wanted to write.
On Wednesday I participated as chair/speaker at ERA’s workshop on competition law in banking and financial services in Brussels [The slides used by all speakers will be uploaded in this post asap]. As all ERA events, it was most interesting.
But on Friday I had the great privilege of being the guest lawyer (literally) at the conference organized by the Association of European Law Judges, the European Commission and Uppsala University in Sweden (pictured above). It is remarkable, and probably unparalleled in any other field, to see a very large number of judges from practically every Member State and with all sorts of different backgrounds getting together to discuss issues such as, in this occassion, multi-sided markets. As I told them, it is quite refreshing to speak at a gathering where attendees are only interested in an honest discussion about the law (and know that there is life and law beyond two provisions in a Treaty). I explained that, by contrast, many other conferences in our field are two-sided and consist of practitioners paying to be listened to by potential clients and competitors… The judges in Uppsala grasped complex stuff, exchanged ideas and were a genuinely nice group of people. I was so impressed that I thought they deserved a mention here, and so do DG Comp’s policy guys, who significantly contribute to making these events possible to the benefit of all of us working in this field. My humble contribution consisted of a tuned-for-judges version of my now stump speech on two-sided markets (my slides are available here: Lamadrid_AECLJ Uppsala
And by the way, in case you haven’t noticed, Chillin’Competition is about to reach its first million visits. Pablo and I are have some ideas on how to celebrate it, but suggestions are welcome!
P.S. Happy birthday to Pablo; as a gift, I promise him a couple of upcoming posts on more substantive stuff
A decent fiction or joke should generally aspire to have some element of truth in it. In our April Fools’ day piece on the appointment of Joaquín Almunia as new EU judge there were, at least, a couple of criticisms elements that had a significant link with reality, and there have been recent developments concerning the two of them:
-A first element of reality was contained in the paragraph that said that “[t]he appointment would take place within the timely addition to the Court of 12 more judges, just when the existing ones had managed to clear the backlog”.
That news could have been a joke in its own right, but it really wasn’t, it was criticism to In fact, a piece published in today’s Financial Times “Judges multiply as EU states fail to agree on appointments” (by Duncan Robinson) is devoted to this reality. The piece does well explaining the poor job that Member States do when it comes to Court-related decisions. In a nutshell, after years of the Court asking for additional staff to clear the backlog in the face of a Council that could not take decisions because of national interests at play, it was decided to hire additional référendaires (clerks); between that and the increased productivity of the existing judges the General Court managed to half the time needed to decide cases. And now, when the problem seems to be solved, Member States are doubling the number of judges. The FT reports that some judges are unhappy (I bet). An arguably wrong and certainly extemporaneous decision to remedy their own inaction. Congrats to the Council for once again giving arguments to those who distrust EU institutions (please note the irony).
-A second reason why our hoax piece may have been taken seriously by some related to our references to how politics could play a role in the selection process adopted by the Spanish government despite the new introduction of a new merit-based appointments procedure. This was really feared by some. Concerns, fortunately, seem to have been misplaced, at least for now: Chillin’Competition is proud to be the first to report that the Spanish Government has made an excellent and truly merit-based choice for new Spanish Advocate General in the name of Manuel Campos Sánchez-Bordona, currently a Supreme Court Judge and formerly, among others, a référendaire at the ECJ. His track record at the Supreme Court, where he dealt, among others, with many competition cases makes him a highly reputed figure in the antitrust community. A great addition to ECJ and very good news for EU law, albeit possibly at the expense of the sound development of competition law in Spain.
We competition lawyers are probably more stupid than other lawyers (and that’s saying something!). Think about it, on the behavioral side many lawyers essentially work with only two provisions (Arts 101 and 102 TFEU) and they don’t really know what to do with them. Granted, I’m oversimplifying, but perhaps not so much: how many people have a clear idea of what a restriction of competition is? [my previous experiment on this point was used by some to criticize our discipline; see here] How many know how to extract the consequences of Article 101(2) [see here for my take]? And how many know how to apply Article 101(3)?
Today I’ll focus only on the last of these questions, to which the answer is: very few, and I’ll give you an example.
(Note: the first half of the post is mere background; the more interesting stuff is emphasized in bold at the end. The following may be a bit dense, but I bet that if you manage to read it you’ll find it quite interesting)
In the early days the Commission essentially did what it pleased with 101(3), using it often with common sense but with very little, and often divergent, reasoning, thus bordering on the arbitrary. The Court didn’t put much order in that mess: starting with Consten & Grunding it devised the manifest error of assessment test to review the legality of “complex economic assessments”, a label which was said to apply to the application of Art. 101(3). The result of this approach is that prior to the adoption of Regulation 1/2003 the Court only rendered a handful of Judgments (30 approximately) dealing with this sub-provision, which nevertheless is at the core of our enforcement system.
Following the adoption of Regulation 1 the Commission ceased applying Article 101(3) as well, seemingly acting under the assumption that its Guidelines on the application of what then was Article 81(3) would fill the void. But the Guidelines didn’t fix much and, in fact, as will be seen in a second they also created new trouble. Also, Article 5 of Regulation 1/2003 (later interpreted by the ECJ in Tele2Polska effectively precluded national competition authorities from adopting individual exemption decisions under Article 101(3) TFEU (they can only conclude that there are no longer grounds for action)
The result is that the Commission seldom undertakes a serious evaluation of 101(3) in its individual cases, that EU Courts very rarely have the chance to review its application and that national competition authorities can’t do it to a full extent either (in spite of the fact that decentralization was intended precisely to empower them to do it…). Passivity in this regard is so extreme that even when the ECJ has instructed the Commission to perform a 101(3) assessment, the Commission has felt free enough to take a pass (we’re currently working on a case wich is a perfect example of this).
Far from being unimportant, I often contend that many of the problems encountered in modern competition law (like the object/effect debate and the discussions on how far into the “legal and economic context” one must look within 101(1)) (see here, for instance) derive from the fact that 101(3) isn’t taken seriously in individual cases.
But what is even worse is that the very exceptional cases in which Article 101(3) is indeed applied, it doesn’t seem to be properly applied.
I’ll give you an example, resorting to an issue I dealt with in my presentation on two sided markets at the Swedish Competition Authority’s Pros and Cons conference a few weeks ago and which, I realized, not many seem to be aware of.
Let’s take a simple question which should have a straightforward answer:
Can you balance the efficiencies obtained in one market against the restrictions of competition caused in a different market?
–When this question first arose before EU Courts it was made it pretty clear that any positive effect should naturally have to be considered, regardless of the relevant market in which it occurs:
“For the purposes of examining the merits of the Commission’s findings as to the various requirements of Article [101(3)] of the Treaty (…) regard should naturally be had to the advantages arising from the agreement in question, not only for the relevant market (…) but also, in appropriate cases, for every other market on which the agreement in question might have beneficial effects, and even, in a more general sense, for any service the quality or efficiency of which might be improved by the existence of that agreement” (Case T-86/95, Compagnie Générale Maritime and others,  ECR II-1011, paragraphs 343 to 345).
Sounds pretty unequivocal, right? Well, again, keep on reading….
– Then came the Guidelines on 81(3) and ruined it. Para. 43 of the Guidelines states that “[n]egative effects on consumers in one geographic market or product market cannot normally be balanced against and compensated by positive effects for consumers in another unrelated geographic market or product market. However, where two markets are related, efficiencies achieved on separate markets can be taken into account provided that the group of consumers affected by the restriction and benefiting from the efficiency gains are substantially the same”. In other words, they said precisely the contrary to what the case law said. And, cunningly enough, the Commission did so citing in its support the very same case law that it was departing from (not that EU Courts haven’t occasionally done the same regarding their own case-law…) Indeed, the footnote (57) accompanying this paragraph refers to Compagnie Générale Maritime (quoted above) but adds a long explanation aimed at confining the Court’s ruling to the very specific situation at issue in that Judgment, in which the group of consumers affected by the restriction and the efficiencies is said to have been the same. Read it for a good example of manipulation a lawyer-like interpretation of the case law.
– This very same issue returned to the EU Courts in the post-guidelines era with the Mastercard case. And instead of correcting the Guidelines’ intendedly wrong interpretation of the earlier case law, the Courts endorsed it, and I’m not sure that they did so consciously.
Click here to continue reading
about how the Commission lawyered everyone:
My inactivity on the blog this week has to do with a couple of Court deadlines and me finding my way through the intrincacies of fiscal rules, telecomm technicalities and trading jargon on different matters (ah, the renacentist life of the competition lawyer…). I’ll try to compensate for my non-posting guilt feeling with some advertising:
-Given that our previous post on the Commission’s new initiative for recruiting competition specialists seems to have attracted quite some interest, we thought that you would also be interested in the information published today regarding all details of the competition competition; if so, you can read all about it here.
-Many experts on EU Competition Procedure will be gathering in Brussels on 6-7 November at the Global Competition Law Centre’s 10th annual conference titled “10 years of Regulation 1/2003: challenges and reform“. The programme and all registration info are available here.
– The 9th Junior Competition Conference -set up by the editors of the Competition Law Journal and which we have always supported and gladly advertised- will be taking place on Friday 6 February 2015. It will have two themes: (1) The New Frontier: Competition Law and the Financial Services Sector; and (2) Control of Unilateral Conduct and the ‘Goldilocks’ Dilemma: Too Much, Too Little or Just Right? For details of the Call for Speakers, please visit this web page. If you would like to speak at the conference, please contact the organizers at email@example.com by 21 November 2014 with an expression of interest and a short outline of your proposed topic.
Having to spend a couple of quieter than usual days sick at home, I decided to catch up and so some summer reading on some recent European Commission’s publications.
As you know, DG Comp is quite prolific from a literary viewpoint (I’m not saying that this is because anyone there may have free time). Aside from an extraordinary number of soft law instruments it has also tried new genders, such as show-off comics, and regularly issues other
seldomly read stuff.
A first point to be made –and oddly enough I’ve just realized about it- is that the Competition Policy Newsletter has disappeared for good. I don’t know what has led to its termination, but it’s a pity; the articles featured in it often offered interesting insights on how some cases were viewed from the inside. The publication has been replaced by the Competition Policy Brief, which mainly deals with policy issues; not really the same concept.
A great candidate for an article on the Competition Policy Newsletter would have been the case on spare pieces of luxury watches shelved yesterday by the Commission, which did not find an infringement. This marked the first and only time that the Commission has used the claw-back clause provided for in Article 11(6) of Regulation 1; it took the case from a national competition authority (the Spanish) that was on the verge of sanctioning it and now it has concluded that there is no infringement. [For advertising disclosure purposes: we were active in both the national and EU phases of the case representing a number of the companies investigated].
I’ve also done some catching up on actual decisions. We keep on complaining that the Commission adopts fewer infringement (Art 7) decisions in non-cartel cases than it should and that we lack guidance, but then very few people read the scarce ones there are. How many people have, for instance, read Telefónica/Portugal Telecom, which raises very interesting and never discussed points on the self-assessment of restrictive agreements? The very recently published Motorola decision is also an interesting read for those geeky enough.
Then I skimmed trough the latest set of documents published by DG Comp in relation to the 10th anniversary of Regulation 1/2003, namely the Communication on Ten Years of Antitrust Enforcement under Regulation 1/2003: Achievements and Future Perspectives and the accompanying Staff Working Documents (here and here) Aside from interesting stats on enforcement, these documents contain a cautionary discussion on institutional issues related to national competition authorities (in relation, mainly, to their independence vis à vis political authorities, the necessary appointment of members of the authority on the basis of merit, “amalgamation of competences” risking “a weakening of competition enforcement”). I wonder if they had any specific NCA in mind… Some of the understatements in these papers make evident a couple of problems; for instance, when the Commission says that the “mechanism by which the Commission is informed of national courts judgments (…) has not worked optimally”, what it means to say is that national courts have completely ignored this mechanism in practice.
But what those documents are mainly about –and they’re right on point- is in identifying procedural divergences across Member States as the next obstacle to tackle. This is a recurrent issue on which I’ve insisted every time I had the chance (both in lectures and papers like this one –the others are in Spanish-). At the present moment, and due to the principle of procedural autonomy, very significant differences remain regarding, for instance, inspection powers, discretion to take on cases, powers to impose structural remedies, regulation of commitment decisions, leniency rules, existence of cartel settlements, procedural rights and calculation of fines. This leads to the result that the application of the same –EU competition- rules is very likely to lead to very different outcomes depending on the authority dealing with the case (and rules on jurisdiction often make it difficult to predict who that would be). To me, this is legally the big, fat, painted elephant in the EU competition enforcement room (hence the pic –taken at a Banksy show- at the top of the post)
Lastly, I also read a few speeches by high officials at DG COMP. In preparation for a paper which will touch a bit on commitment decisions and on the technology sector, I read a speech by Vice President Almunia on commitment and settlement decisions in which –this grabbed my attention- he referred to the e-books case explaining that the Commission “accepted commitments in a nascent and extremely dynamic market which called for quick and decisive action”. Why is that so, you may ask. The response is contained in para. 90 of the Staff document on the 10 years of Regulation 1 referred to above: at the beginning of a special section on IT, Internet & Consumer Electronics, the Commission states that “these are industries characterized with strong network efforts [it seems quite likely that they meant to say effects, not efforts] which enable the lock-in of customers and further strengthening of dominant positions. Vigilance on the part of competition authorities is thus warranted”. So, we’re told that nascent and extremely dynamic markets call for quick and decisive action because of the risks generated by network effects. The thing is that I sort of recall having read something different somewhere…