On the application of competition law to State measures and on the apparent inapplicability of Art. 101(3). (ECJ’s Judgment in Joined Cases C‑184/13 to C‑187/13, C‑194/13, C‑195/13 and C‑208/13)
Over the weekend I was able to catch up with some readings (notably on two-sided markets in anticipation of this conference), but also on recent case-law that I hadn’t yet had the chance to read. Thanks to this exercise I was able to become aware, among other things, of the content of an ECJ Judgment of 4 September 2014 on which I have read no comment whatsoever. This may be understandable because the case only deals with interesting legal issues, and not with high-stakes matters where the law is seemingly absent, which are lately the only ones grabbing commentators’ attention…
The Judgment at issue – Anonima Petroli Italiana (“API”)– is a preliminary ruling responding to questions posed by an Italian Court in relation to an Italian law pursuant to which the price of road haulage services for hire and reward cannot be lower than minimum operating costs, which are in turn fixed by a body composed mainly of representatives of the economic operators concerned.
The Italian Court asked, in essence, whether any such legislation was compatible with Article 101 read in conjunction with Article 4(3) TEU as well as with the Treaty provisions on free movement of services.
As some of you may recall, the possibility of applying Article 101 to State behavior pursuant to its joint application with other Treaty rules was born in Inno Attab in 1977 [btw, I just found this little jewel commenting on the earlier case law on the subject]. The reasoning used back then by the Court was that Art. 4(3) TEU (at the time 10 TCE) prohibited Member States from depriving Treaty rules of their effet utile; given that former Article 3.g) (deleted from the Lisbon Treaty at the behest of Mr. Sarkozy; remember?) established undistorted competition as one of the goals of the EU, it was held that Member States could not adopt measures depriving competition rules of their effect utile. This doctrine was considered potentially huge at the time, but never lived up to its promise due in part to the restrictive interpretation endorsed by the Court in the November Revolution of 1993 in the Reiff, Ohra and Meng cases), according to which a State measure could not by itself run counter the Treaty rules in the absence of a certain behavior on the part of the undertakings (unlike, by the way, what happens with Art. 106 as recently re-stated in the Greek Lignite case).
The ECJ’s recent Judgment concludes that by delegating the power to fix minimum tariffs on a committee composed of a majority of representatives of the economic operators who are not bound to observe public interest criteria in their (non-reviewable) decisions, the legislation at issue runs counter the effet utile of Article 101 by preventing undertakings from setting lower tariffs (the Court doesn’t however clarify whether the restriction is “by object” or “by effect”).
My 3 comments:
- The Judgment shows that this doctrine is well alive, even if it isn’t kicking, and this regardless of the elimination of former Article 3.g). A lot could be done with this doctrine if competition authorities took it seriously. But instead of using the well-developed tools at their disposal (like this one or like Art. 106), competition authorities are busy stretching the interpretation of others (like the one of selectivity in State aid, as seen in the recent openings of proceedings in relation to tax rulings).
- Regarding possible justifications, that the ECJ seems to apply the “objective justification” test developed in Wouters, Meca Medina, etc. very naturally and not as anything exceptional, very particularly when it deals with conduct adopted by regulatory or quasi regulatory authorities (albeit not only in those cases, as shown by Pierre Fabre). Some of you may legitimately observe that this fits oddly with the Judgment in Irish Beef, where the ECJ held that “[i]t is only in connection with Article [101(3)] that [other legitimate interests] may, if appropriate, be taken into consideration for the purposes of obtaining an exemption from the prohibition laid down in Article[101(1)]”.
- Quite strikingly, the ECJ does not include a single mention to Article 101(3) (and this despite the fact that the questions referred to it cited Article 101 in its entirety and not to 101(1) alone). It basically states that since the measure falls within 101(1) TFEU then Article 101 prohibits it. In my view, under normal circumstances, and in proper application of the Court’s case law, the Court should have said that it was up to national Courts to assess whether the conduct at issue could benefit from Article 101(3), the assessment of which is mandatory. This
errorbypassing of Article 101(3), not only at the practical but also at the theoretical level (and on the part of the only institution that took it seriously in the wake of Regulation 1), further confirms the point I made some time ago (and have subsequently cited many times) about the slow death of this provision.