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The General Court on the scope of the Commission’s powers to request information

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On Friday 14 March the General Court issued seven Judgments in cases T-292/11, T-293/11, T-296/11, T-297/11, T-302/11M T-305/11 and T-306/11. We represented one of the seven applicants (needless to say, the opinions below are exclusively my own, and in no way can be attributed to my client or my colleagues).

I had already anticipated those Judgments noting that -irrespective of who the prevailing parties were- they would be of great interest and procedural relevance. [The Judgments came out while I was lecturing on competition procedure at the Brussels School of Competition, so I discussed them almost live].

The cases concerned seven appeals lodged by cement companies against massive -arguably unprecedented- requests for information, and they are important because the Court was asked to clarify whether there are any real limitations to the Commission’s investigative powers.

There have been two groups of Judgments:

-In six cases the applicants grounded their appeal on the lack of motivation of the information request. In those cases the GC has ruled (a) that although “it is true that “the presumed infringements [were] set out in very general terms which might well have been made more precise”, they have the minimum degree of clarity in order to be able to be considered to be consistent with the requirements of EU law; and (b) that even if “the size of the workload caused by the volume of information and the very high degree of precision in the response format imposed by the Commission cannot be reasonably disputed”, that workload was not disproportionate in the light of the necessities of the enquiry and the extent of the presumed infringements.

[Intermission: Too often, when the Court decides to dismiss an application it practically denies any reason to every argument made by the applicant). This wasn't the case here, and the Court was objective and transparent enough to acknowledge that there could be problems, but that they were overridden by effectiveness considerations. I like it better this way].

-The content of the Judgment in the seventh case (T-296/11 in which we acted for the applicant) is different, as explained in the Court’s press release http://curia.europa.eu/jcms/upload/docs/application/pdf/2014-03/cp140035en.pdf

Instead of focusing our arguments on lack of motivation (which we thought would at most have only given us a temporary victory), we had posited that the criterion of “necessity” in Art. 18 of Regulation 1/2003 should be interpreted not in light of what the Commission intends or hopes to find, but in the light of the elements that the Commission has and that raise the suspicion triggering the investigation. We claimed that otherwise the criterion of necessity would be devoid of any practical significance.

The GC has accepted the theory (as it did in Prysmian and Nexans -now pending before the ECJ- regarding inspections). According to the GC, the Commission is not obliged to disclose to the companies the preliminary evidence at its disposal, but it must have enough evidence to justify the information request (paras. 38-40).

In this particular case, and since the Court acknowledges we had “put forward factors capable of casting doubt on the sufficiently serious nature of the evidence concerned”, the Commission was very exceptionally asked to produce a summary of its file. Luis Ortiz Blanco and myself were asked to go to Luxembourg to access it and make observations without being allowed to disclose anything not even to our client [I'm not disclosing anything confidential because this is all explained in paras. 23-26 of the Judgment]. This is what explains that a great part of the Judgment is redacted as confidential.

Obviously I can’t say or even hint at anything that’s not been disclosed in the non-confidential version of the Judgment. Essentially, the Court explains that in the light of the Commission’s file the Institution could have validly addressed the exhaustive and exhausting information request to the applicant. The reasoning (mainly contained in para 59) is that even if we did offer an alternative interpretation of the elements in the file, the Commission cannot be asked at a preliminary stage to have evidence so consistent as to be sufficient to establish an infringement; it’s enough to have evidence that -at a preliminary stage and absent third party contextualization- would have arouse a reasonable suspicion.

The lines of what’s reasonable are of course blurry, and the Court’s approach is -rightly or wrongly- deferential to the Commission and to the need of safeguarding the effectiveness of its investigations, particularly at an early stage. Some may fear that if Courts started annulling requests for information (or Phase I clearance decisions, to pick a “random” example) then the floodgates would open. However, failing to annul those categories of decisions systematically and regardless of their merits or lack thereof those may also be akin to conferring carte blanche on the Commission, and that (regardless of the unquestionable good intentions of the Institution) might also have drawbacks.

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Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

14 April 2014 at 9:38 am

Restrictions of competition by object under Article 101(1) TFEU: chapeau bas, Prof Wahl!

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Note by Alfonso: Advocate General Wahl’s Opinion in Groupement de Cartes Bancaires out on Friday, and its take at clarifying the object-effect conundrum is remarkable. Pablo Ibañez Colomo offers his views on the Opinion below:

Advocate General Wahl’s opinion in Groupement des Cartes Bancaires v Commission (published last Friday, and available in French and in Greek only for the time being) is a model of lucidity and flexible thinking. It is also very much in line with an article of mine on the subject, but that is plain irrelevant. What matters, and what makes this opinion remarkable, is that it manages to capture the logic underlying the existing case law addressing the boundaries between restrictions by object and by effect. Many commentators and some advocates general have tried in the past few years to identify the elusive factors that should be considered when establishing whether an agreement restricts competition ‘by its very nature’. Paragraph 56 of the opinion sets out a formula that is, in my view, more accurate and elegant than any previous attempt (the fact that I am forced to read it in French for the moment probably adds to the latter):

 ‘Ne devraient donc être considérés comme restrictifs de concurrence par objet que les comportements dont le caractère nocif est, au vu de l’expérience acquise et de la science économique, avéré et facilement décelable, et non les accords qui, au vu du contexte dans lequel ils s’insèrent, présentent des effets ambivalents sur le marché ou qui sont porteurs d’effets restrictifs accessoires nécessaires à la poursuite d’un objectif principal non restrictif de concurrence’.

In other words, what really matters is whether, given the context in which it is concluded, an agreement is a plausible source of efficiency gains. Thus only those agreements that have no credible redeeming virtues are understood to restrict competition by object. A careful reading of the relevant case law shows, in my view, that this is the ‘default methodology’ (which is the expression I use in my article) – or, if one prefers, ‘l’appréciation plus standardisée’ (as Advocate General Wahl writes in his opinion) – followed by the ECJ when it examines the nature of agreements under Article 101(1) TFE. The methodology changes, and rightly so, when market integration as an objective is directly at stake in a case (as is true of agreements restricting parallel trade).

From Societe Technique Miniere to Pronuptia and Delimitis, and from Remia to Wouters and Asnef-Equifax (to mention just a few landmark rulings), the ECJ has followed the same approach, which revolves around an analysis of the rationale behind the agreement. The Court typically seeks to identify the reasons why two or more firms would introduce some restraints in an agreement. If it appears that such restraints are a plausible means to achieve legitimate business objectives, it concludes that the agreement does not restrict competition by its very nature. In Groupement des Cartes Bancaires, the parties to the agreement claimed that it was intended to address free-riding issues and therefore that it did not have a restrictive object. In light of the relevant case law, the question in these proceedings is whether this story is a credible one given the nature of the agreement and the context in which it was concluded.

The opinion is notable for other reasons, of which I mention a couple:

- It is sometimes claimed that the category of ‘object restrictions’ captures those agreements that can be presumed to have anticompetitive effects (the famous speed-limit analogy and variations thereof). This interpretation of the notion is problematic insofar as it sits at odds with the principle, well established in the case law, whereby an agreement may restrict competition by its very nature irrespective of the effects it produces. Advocate General Wahl emphasises, in this same vein, the importance of distinguishing between the analysis of the nature of the agreement and the analysis of its effects. If the question of whether an agreement restricts competition by object depends on its presumed effects, the two would be confused. The rulings mentioned above indeed confirm that the two are separate steps and that the Court has been careful not to mix them (and has rightly reacted when the General Court has done so, as in Glaxo Spain – also discussed in the opinion).

- The opinion shows that, when confined to its role, the use of economic analysis can be very useful and, more importantly, wholly uncontroversial. Advocate General Wahl does not rely on economic analysis for normative purposes (that is, to state how the law should be, or to claim that the case law is misguided), but as a tool (among others) to make sense of a legal issue. Economics is used in the opinion, in other words, as a guide – a code – to decipher a complex reality. I hope this opinion contributes to a more fluid dialogue between disciplines. I was pleased and surprised to even find a reference to Rochet and Tirole’s ground-breaking work on two-sided markets – which, as you all know by now from Alfonso’s last post, is ‘the single most important and fascinating subject in contemporary antitrust (and beyond)’.

Lastly, I will also mention that writing this post brings very good memories of a great seminar (and even better post-seminar!) to which Luis Ortiz Blanco and Alfonso invited me last year and in which I had the chance to discuss these questions with some luminaries from the Commission.

 

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

31 March 2014 at 12:26 pm

Antitrust quote of the day and the evolution of the law on refusal to supply

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In 1989 late Philip Areeda (picture above) wrote one of the most influential and cited antitrust pieces in the history of the discipline: Essential Facilities: An Epithet in Need of Limiting Principles, 58 Antitrust L.J. 841. I recall my first reading of this article as student at the College of Europe and how I truly enjoyed it (at roughly the same time I remember having felt the same about Joseph Weiler’s The Transformation of Europe) (yes, those were two good indicators of geekishness). From time to time I’ve gone back to that piece from Areeda, and as a fan of pendulum-based evolutional/historical theories, I’ve quite often cited one particular excerpt therein; here it is:

As with most instances of judging by catch-phrase, the law evolves in three stages: (1) An extreme case arises to which a court responds. (2) The language of the response is then applied -often mechanically, sometimes cleverly- to expand the application. With too few judges experienced enough with the subject to resist, the doctrine expands to the limits of its language, with little regard to policy. (3) Such expansions ultimately become ridiculous, and the process of cutting back begins“.

I think this captures the evolutionary process of the law in many other areas of law in general and of competition law in particular. To mention only one among many possible examples, I used it some days ago to explain the evolution of the notion of the “single and continuous infringement” under Art. 101 TFEU.

There’s an interesting additional thought in relation to this quote. A few years after this piece was published the ECJ ruled on Magill, and I think it’s not at all unreasonable to say that Areeda’s piece was pondered by the Judges in that case (see, and cast your vote, here). Now, if you think about it, Areeda in many ways anticipated how the evolution of the law on refusal to supply would discur in Europe:

(1) Magill was a extreme case to which the Court responsed with a reasoning that was very much tailored to the facts at issue (a point often forgotten); (2) The language of the response was then applied -possibly mechanically, as an illustration of judidicial inertia (not to be confused with stare decisis)- to other factual settings and, with too few judges experienced enough with the subject to dare to nuance it (?), the Magill criteria consolidated in cases like Bronner and IMS. (3) Their consolidation as the sole relevant criteria ultimately became perhaps unreasonable and inconvenient, which led to an attempt to nuance them [the Commission's -in my view very reasonable- claim in the first Microsoft Decision that “there is no persuasiveness to an approach that would advocate the existence of an exhaustive checklist of exceptional circumstances and would have the Commission disregard a limine other circumstances of exceptional character that may deserve to be taken into account when assessing a refusal to supply.” (para. 555)].

As you know the the General Court did not follow the Commission on that particular point, not because it disagreed, it just didn’t need to rule on that point because it thought the Magill criteria were in any event fulfilled. That was done with the aim of minimizing the chances of getting quashed in an appeal and at the cost of some legal contortionism. In my view, it would have been desirable for the Court to assess whether all “extraordinary circumstances” to identify a refusal to suppy could or not be subsumed within the Magill criteria. Instead the Court gave a practical illustration of how its hammer can make square pegs fit round holes (an exercise that was repeated a few months later in BUPA re the Altmark criteria).

For a most interesting discussion on the legal contortions in Microsoft featuring some of the people who were actually associated to the case see the 16 comments to Nicolas’ post on The Magill-IMS Re-animator.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

6 March 2014 at 6:28 pm

On information requests and their limits

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The latest entry in 21st Century Competition (Kevin Coates’ very good blog; btw, pictured above is a capture of his work keyboard) explains that the Commission has improved its habits regarding information requests and that there may still be some margin for further improvement.

Kevin’s views are, as always, sensible and well explained [he also has good taste for recommending other people's writings; see here in relation to the ongoing Android investigation]. They also bring a thought to mind: is self-restraint the only limitation -other than the general principle of proportionality- that the Commission faces in relation to its powers to gather information?

Together with my colleagues Luis Ortiz and Napoleón Ruiz (no kiddin’) I am arguing in a case that is currently pending before the General Court (T-296/11) that this shouldn’t be the case [btw, I'm not disclosing anything not public given that an interim measures order was already published].

Article 18 of Regulation 1/2003 provides that the Commission may require undertakings “to provide all necessary information“. In our view, however, this provision should not be interpreted as granting the Commission absolute discretion.

If our interpretation is correct and the Commission does not enjoy carte blanche in this regard, then the criterion of necessity in Article 18 should be interpreted in an objective manner; otherwise it would be rendered meaningless, with the ensuing risk of fishing investigations. We posit that the objective element of reference could only be given by the indications of the existence of an infringement that are already in the Commission’s power, and not just by reference to the subject-matter and purpose of the investigation. The recent and most interesting Prysmian and Nexans Judgments (in relation to inspections) would seem to lend support to this idea.

This interesting question, however, won’t remain open for long. The General Court is set to deliver its Judgments on a few parallel cases on 14 March (with the exception of ours, which had a very interesting post-hearing procedural peculiarity on which I can’t yet comment). We’ll provide you with our views on these Judgments as soon as they’re out.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

6 February 2014 at 6:48 pm

Oops! Anecdotal evidence on the assessment of evidence

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As I mentioned on a previous post, for quite some time now I have been attempting (or rather planning) to finish a lengthy piece about evidence in cartel cases. Any of you weird enough to also find these things interesting –or who are otherwise obliged to follow the developments in this area- might have also noticed an increased willingness on the part of EU Courts to engage in a critical analysis of factual elements regarding evidence.

One illustration of this intermittent but commendable approach can be seen in a recent Judgment in case T-379/10. The Judgment concluded that the Commission did not have sufficient and reliable evidence to find that there had been a particular infringement (an agreement on minimum prices for low end ceramic products for the French market in 2004 by the members of an association –AFICS-).

In paras. 110-121 of the Judgment the Court motivates its conclusion, assessing one by one each of the four items of evidence put forward by the Commission. In a nutshell, it rules that (i) a third party’s reply to the SO wasn’t valid evidence because it had not been disclosed during the administrative procedure; (ii) that leniency statements by another party, given that they are contested, are not “on their own” sufficient proof of the infringement; (iii) that a chart provided together with a leniency application wasn’t enough, because it was “undated and contains nothing that might link it to the AFICS meeting of 25 February 2004 or to any anti-competitive discussions (…) In particular, the chart does not mention the names of competitors or any minimum or maximum prices which those competitors should apply”; and (iv) that yet another party’s leniency application, despite confirming exchanges of minimum prices within AFICS during 2002-2004, disputed the recollection of facts related to the specific meeting of February 2004. [Keep this last bit in mind; we’ll come back to it in a sec].

Few national Courts would have engaged in a similar assessment. The easy way out would’ve been to say that (ii) and (iv) corroborated each other and were moreover corroborated by (iii), and possibly also by (i). Since the appraisal of factual evidence is not a matter of law (however malleable this may be), that assessment would have most likely not been appealed before the ECJ. The GC nevertheless did not take this safe shortcut, and it should be commended for that rigorous approach. I wish all Courts did the same.

There is a problem, though. This sort of assessment occurs in some cases but not in others. For the most extreme example possible (I’m not aware that this has ever happened before), see…. the very same infringement!! Yep, in two other parallel Judgments issued on the same day, by the same Judges and in relation to the same facts (case T-373/10, paras. 286-296; and T-364/10, para 324), the General Court declares that that very same alleged infringement (really, the same one, the agreement on minimum prices at the meeting of February 24 2004) had been properly found by the Commission.

And the reasoning to do so resorts pretty much to the shortcut I described above; i.e. that (ii) and (iv) corroborated each other. What is more, the party that made the leniency statements that I referred to above as item (iv) actually received a 6% fine reduction for having contributed to proving that infringement (yes, the one that had not been proved in the parallel case!).

So we have two different solutions to the same exact issue. Not sure about how this gets fixed now (I understand there are pending appeals against these Judgment).

I have some friends who like to claim that no one reads Judgments anymore, but I thought that was only endemic outside the Court itself…  ;)  In the Court’s defense, however, I guess this -among other things- is what may happen when the workload is very significant and Member States don’t agree on increasing resources (i.e. the number of Judges).

Have a great weekend!

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

24 January 2014 at 3:07 pm

Posted in Case-Law

Thought of the day

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The Law and judicial review would improve significantly if Court submissions were public.

 

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

11 December 2013 at 4:02 pm

AG Wathelet’s Opinion in the Greek lignite case

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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:

For the moment, the AG’s Opinion essentialy sides with what José Luis Buendía wrote in his contribution to this debate a year ago (see here), and criticizes the solution adopted by the General Court.

There are however other very valid contrarian arguments, all brilliantly outlined in the pieces we published from Marixenia Davilla (part I ), and Assimakis Komninos (part III).

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

6 December 2013 at 11:20 am

Case C-58/12 P Groupe Gascogne v Commission + some other stuff

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- 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.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

26 November 2013 at 12:15 pm

Chilling Case

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Cerro-Bayo_pistemap

In hot Brussels, our friend Johan Ysewyn kindly points us out to a “chilling” case: abuse of dominance by freelance ski photographersSeems I am not the only competition geek on this planet

The facts are cool (cheap punning again). CAPSA runs the ski lift infrastructure of Cerro Catedral, Argentina.

CAPSA has contractually reserved the provision of photography services to DEFOTOS.COM.

And CAPSA has imposed an an extra fee for the use of lifts by freelance photographers.

The Argentinian Competition Commission and the Ministry of Commerce have found abusive discrimination.

This looks to me like the Argentinian version of  Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Corp., 472 U.S. 585 (1985).

However, unlike the US gem, this case is about a secondary line injury discrimination (the sole type of discrimination covered under Article 102 c) TFEU).

Written by Nicolas Petit

24 July 2013 at 12:26 pm

Posted in Case-Law

Weapon of Constitutional Destruction

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salle_seance_20130314

On 5 July, the French Constitutional Court (FCC) issued a decision that may have massive repercussions in France (and which may  trigger debate elsewhere).

In Société Numéricable et autres, the FCC was asked to rule whether the sanctioning powers bestowed upon the French regulator for Telecommunications (ARCEP) were compatible with the Constitution.

In brief, the litigated provision entitles the ARCEP to remove market authorisations and/or to slap financial sanctions on electronic communications operators.

The FCC analysis is straightforward, blunt, brutal:

Considérant que, selon le premier alinéa de l’article L. 132 du code des postes et des communications électroniques, les services de l’Autorité de régulation des communications électroniques et des postes sont placés sous l’autorité du président de l’Autorité ; que, selon l’article D. 292 du même code, le directeur général est nommé par le président de l’Autorité, est placé sous son autorité et assiste aux délibérations de l’Autorité ; que, par suite et alors même que la décision de mise en demeure relève du directeur général, les dispositions des douze premiers alinéas de l’article L. 36-11 du code des postes et des communications électroniques, qui n’assurent pas la séparation au sein de l’Autorité entre, d’une part, les fonctions de poursuite et d’instruction des éventuels manquements et, d’autre part, les fonctions de jugement des mêmes manquements, méconnaissent le principe d’impartialité ; que celles de ces dispositions qui sont de nature législative doivent être déclarées contraires à la Constitution

In English now: the disputed provision does not provide for the separation of investigative and decisional functions within ARCEP. This breaches the principle of “impartiality” . As a result, the sanctioning powers of ARCEP must be declared contrary to the Constitution.

The French competition authority will likely not be impacted by this ruling, given that it is built on the bifurcated agency model.

And other integrated competition agencies can sleep tight (e.g. DG COMP), given the lack of FCC jurisdiction over non domestic affairs.

However, the merit of the FCC decision is to show that the “prosecutorial bias” issue is not a rethorical invention, concocted by disgruntled EU antitrust lawyers at grips with DG COMP.

Even in a country like France, where there is a considerable sympathy towards public institutions and where government agencies are almighty, some fundamental procedural safeguards are to be observed. And it starts with the idea that “he who prosecutes shall not judge (and sanction)“.

Thanks to Elise for the pointer.

Written by Nicolas Petit

12 July 2013 at 4:48 pm

Posted in Case-Law

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