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
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
I realized yesterday that the slides used by all speakers at the Brussels School of Competition’s and Liège Competition and Innovation Institute’s very interesting conference on Commitment Decisions in EU Competition Policy are available here (the image above corresponds to one of mines; as an animated GIF it looked better in slidehow).
As for my presentation, I don’t think I said anything that was particularly original. I essentially did a 20 minutes quick overview and categorization of the commitment decisions adopted so far on the bases of (a) the (real) underlying reasons to resort to them, which may not always have to do with procedural economy considerations; (b) the sectors they affect (you can observe clear clusters that provide useful insights regarding enforcement priorities complementing regulatory initiatives -or lack thereof-); (c) the theories of harm at issue in each case and (d) the remedies made binding. This exercise made (even more) evident that both the theories of harm and the remedies that we see in these cases are nowhere to be found in Art. 7 infringement decisions. My purpose was merely to provide an objective account of these cases, so I left the discussion on the pros and cons of this approach to my fellow panelists.
Btw, the Liège Competition and Innovation Institute will also be holding other two interesting conferences in the coming days:
Intel v Commission: More eco or more ordo fiendly? next Monday 16 of June
Have a nice w-e!
Minutes after I published the post on endives’ right to be forgotten I received a call from the European Data Protection Supervisor’s office. At first I admit I thought it was someone (my first suspect was that guy from 21stcenturycompetition because he’d read a draft of the endive thing; don’t worry, Kevin, I won’t disclose you thought it was serious) returning the joke, but it wasn’t, and I got invited to speak next Monday the most interesting (but closed door) Workshop on privacy consumers, competition and big data (to be held at the European Parliament and arranged in the wake of the EDPS report that we –actually Orla- discussed here).
I’d solemnly committed myself to have a life and not take on any more non-work (non-billable, that is) stuff in the coming weeks/months, but it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. My topic is Market Power in the Digital Economy.
Three days later, on Wednesday 5 June I’ll be providing an overview of the commitment decisions adopted by the Commission since the enactment of Regulation 1/2003 at the Brussels School of Competition’s annual conference. This event you really should attend (click here for info: Programme_Commitments in EU Competition Policy – 5 June 2014).
[ I apologize in advance to all attendants at these two conferences: I’ve an important General Court deadline on Friday and then a bachelor party weekend, so preparing might be a challenge. Yes, this is the ol old expectation-lowering trick ! ]
Then on 8 July I’ll be lecturing on EU competition procedure and on Special and Exclusive Rights (Art. 106) at the College of Europe’s Competition Summer School for Chinese officials. Talking with Chinese officials about how competition law applies to public measures should be quite an interesting experience. And then on the 11th same procedural class in the context of the College’s summer course on competiiton law.
And then, following my first paternity leave in September, I really plan to take on less of these commitments.
Well, on 28 November I’ll be participating at the Swedish Competition Authority’s annual and always excellent Pros and Cons conference, which on this edition will be devoted to Two Sided Markets, but I couldn’t say no to that either…
If you want to know everything about the use of commitment decision in EU Competition Law…
Monsieur le Prof Petit is a quick guy in many respects. The most recent illustration of this characteristic of his is that, within a few days of the unofficial announcent that the Intel Judgment will be out on 12 June, he’s managed to arrange a seminar about it. It will take place on 16 June, and the program is available here: Conference Intel v Commission – Programme and Registration Among the speakers are two economist who were working at the Commission when the decicion was adopted (Damien Neven and Frank Maier Rigaud), as well as Robert O’Donoghue, Jean François Bellis and Damien Geradin.
A few days later, on the 5th of June, the Brussels School of Competition (“BSC”) and The Liège Competition & Innovation Institute (“LCII”) will be holding a half-day conference on “Commitments in EU Competition Policy” in Brussels. More info is available here.
Finally, Nicolas’ assistant at University has also asked me to advertise one more conference,this one about The repair of competition harms in France and in Europe: State of art and future changes. It’ll be held on Tuesday May 13th in Paris.
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.
It’s been two months since Nicolas temporarily left this blog for a half a year stint at DG Comp’s Private Enforcement Unit.
In the course of this short period he’s managed to single handedly unblock negotiations on the Commission’s proposal for a Directive on Antitrust Damages, and he’s adapted very well to the fonctionnaire lifestyle (meaning that he’s now taking some days of holidays) ;) (jokes aside, congrats to Eddy de Smijter and to the rest of the people involved in the negotiations about the Directive).
As he anticipated in his farewell post, Nico is maintaining all academic activities. Within that context, he’ll soon be participating at a conference on one of is favorite topics organized by his University. So, on 24 April the Liège Competition and Innovation Institute will be hosting a conferece in Brussels on Conflicts of Interest, Ethical Rules and Impartiality in EU Competition Policy .
Although Nicolas knows that I don’t share the same passion for the topic (or maybe precisely because he does?), he’s asked me to advertise the conference here. So voilà. It will feature representatives from the General Court, the European Commission, the OECD, the Belgian Competition Authority, as well as lawyers in private practice, The New York Times’ Brussels correspondent and ULG Professors and Researches, including Nico himself. Even Emilly O’Reilly (the current Ombudsman, whom you may remember from this) is on the tentative list of speakers.
Why do I say I don’t share the passion for the issue? Because whereas some improvements could possibly be made in the rules -mainly regarding their transparency-, I think we should be careful in not overshooting the mark. Otherwise we’d risk creating the impression that there’s a major endemic problem where I’m not at all sure there’s one (I, for one, I’m much more concerned about the Commission’s recruitment processes and about internal rules that oblige experienced people to rotate jobs too often or too soon). Anyone working in Brussels for some time will have worked with, against and before friends or professional acquaintances (sometimes the line is drawn too thinly). In my experience who you have on the other side doesn’t matter (at least for good: I do know of situations where lawyers’ friends deciding on cases have been unnecessarily harsh on them just to make a point and dispel any concerns, and that’s as unfair as the contrary) and there are enough checks and balances to avoid problems. The only positive consequence of working before people who know you is that they will perhaps trust you, provided that you have never proved not worthy of that trust (and competition law practice is also a game of repeated interactions), but I don’t see what’d be wrong about that.
As I told Nico back when he wrote his controversial piece on this subject, what’s different in our field is that our “relevant market” is very narrow; we’re not so many lawyers/economists repeatingly interacting among us and with the same academics, officials and judges. The only solution to the perceived problem, as framed, would be to have virginal public officials and lawyers who have not moved around jobs, who know no one, who haven’t studied at the same places, who haven’t worked with different people and who haven’t established a personal rapport with those in their field. In my view, at least, in that case the cure (assuming it were feasible, quod non) would be worse than the disease.
That said, considering the speaker line-up I’ve no doubt the conference will be most interesting.
This is a last call: exactly in one week (on thursday, 3 April) the Academy of European Law (ERA) will be holding an afternoon workshop on Two sided markets in abuse of dominance and merger cases.
I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that this is the most interesting possible event ever to have been organized on what definately is the single most important and fascinating subject in contemporary antitrust (and beyond).
The two speakers (Thomas Graf and Lars Wiethaus) are great; the Chair a bit less so.
If you haven’t done so yet, you can still register here.
As a teaser, I leave you with the only slide I’ve been able to come up with so far ;)
The European Commission has in recent years been very active applying State aid rules to tax provisions and regimes. The first paper I ever wrote back in 2004 (don’t read it, it was initially done for a tax course and I was a 20 year old student…) dealt with those issues; now, ten years later, I’ve taken interest again on this subject and am currently involved in a handful of cases dealing with the taxation/State aid interface before the General Court.
The fact is that the Commission has recently undertaken a more proactive and prominent role in resorting to State aid rules to public initiatives that, in its view, facilitate aggressive tax planning. Those of you attending the 2014 Competition Forum back in February will recall that the Commission held a panel on “Taxation and Competition Policy”, in which it inquired about the role of State aid investigations in tackling tax evasion, tax fraud and aggressive tax planning (a video recording of the discussion as well as the transcripts of the speeches are available here).
Against a background of lack of political consensus on how to deal with harmful tax competition and what is seen as tax avoidance, the Commission is keen on being regarded as a proactive authority (it’s not the first time that competition policy is used to achieve results that couldn’t be attained by governments and legislators).
As part of this effort, the Commission has sent information requests to various Member States in order to assess the compliance of tax ruling practices (advanced binding decisions in fiscal matters which may allow for special treatment for some particular companies) and patent box regimes (incentives designed to encourage companies to make profits from their patents) with state aid rules. Yesterday the European Commission went through the trouble of issuing a Press release aimed at naming and shaming Luxembourg for having failed to provide information (specifically, the names of thelargest 100 companies benefitting from the patent box regime) , invoking fiscal secrecy.
I was quoted yesterday in a Bloomberg piece in relation to this news, so I though it’d be interesting to
recycle my thoughts explain my views in a bit more detail here:
This is a highly sensitive area where publicly visible messages (such as yesterday’s press release) may send powerful signals and give rise to concern on the parts of governments and companies, and where playing to the gallery might therefore be considered useful at times. That’s part of the game and shouldn’t surprise anyone.
But if we’re realistic, we should realize that (for as long as fiscal policy remains within the realm of nation States), there’s a limit to what can be achieved with State aid rules, and that it’s doubtful that the current investigation, focused on patent box regimes and tax rulings, will yield any meaningful results:
- Patent box regimes have been authorized in several Member States, and the Commission has consistently accepted that they do not confer the selective advantages that would qualify them as State aid.
- With regard to tax rulings –and whereas I’m not aware of the details of the investigation- even in the event that the Commission were to find incompatible State aids, this would only have the effect of suppressing divergent tax treatment within the Member State at issue (the Commission can only identify as aid deviations from “the system of reference” provided by the State’s standard tax regime ). This would therefore not at all address the main, big picture, concern linked to divergent treatment across, and beyond, different Member States.
It’d nevertheless be interesting to follow developments on this area. The amounts that could be in play for many companies would make any antitrust fine look insignificant. Anyone in need of a lawyer? ;)
On 20 March the Global Competition Law Center will be holding its 68th lunch talk. The topic is the 2014 Communication on the notion of State Aid, and the speakers Vittorio di Bucci (Director at the EC’s Legal Service), Nicola Pesaresi (Head of Unit, DG Comp) and my colleague/boss José Luis Buendía (Partner at Garrigues). You can register (this is an interesting, brief and cheap one: 30 euros) via this website.
The Institute for European Studies at the VUB in Brussels will be starting a series of lectures on the role of national competition law and national competition authorities. The inauguaral lecture will be delivered by Alexander Italianer (Director General at DG Comp) on 21 March at 12. More info is available here.
Also on 21 March there will be a seminar on the application of competition law by judges and arbitrators (in Madrid and in Spanish, though), organized within the framework of the course that Luis Ortiz and myself co-direct there.
On 3 April ERA will be hosting an afternoon workshop on Two sided markets in merger and abuse of dominance cases here in Brussels featuring Thomas Graf (Cleary Gottlieb), Lars Wiethaus (E.CA Economics) and myself. This is not to be missed. The program is available here: Two Sided Markets in Merger and Abuse of Dominance Cases (ERA)
The 21st St.Gallen International Competition Law Forum ICF (“Current issues and developments in competition law“) will be held on May 15th and 16th 2014. Even though for some odd reason we haven’t been invited to speak there (which obviously lowers the quality of any event ;) ) we acknowledge that the speaker line-up is otherwise quite impressive. Further information including a detailed programme are available on the conference website: http://www.sg-icf.ch/.
Last but not least, the book Comparative Private Enforcement and Collective Redress Across the EU, edited by Barry Rodger, is just out. Looks quite promising.
P.S. And speaking of ads, I’ve just checked Chillin’Competition’s ad-related earnings and we get approximately $4 per month (which is slightly below my hourly rate) for approximately 25,000 monthly visits. We have high aspirations, though, and, I tell you, one day we’ll be getting enough to pay for at least two monthly beers.