Of Politics and Competition Law (and on the Google cases too)
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.