Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

European Commission’s literature

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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 The publication has been replaced by the Competition Policy Brief, which mainly deals with policy issues; not really the same concept.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

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

30 July 2014 at 2:59 pm

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