In no man’s land- Case T-355/13, easyJet
Last Wednesday, 21st January, the General Court rendered an interesting Judgment in Case T-355/13, easyJet v Commission.
It is well-known that the European Commission has always enjoyed great discretion to reject, shelve or prioritize cases, traditionally under the widely used justification (sometimes pretext) of lack of Community/EU interest (as the case-law has, ever since Automec, acknowledged it may do). With the entry into force of Regulation 1/2003 the Commission was granted another two reasons to dismiss cases (not that it needed them); pursuant to Article 13 it could now dispose of complaints where “one authority is dealing with the case” already (13(1)) or where a complaint “has already been dealt with by another competition authority” (13(2)).
easyJet v Commission concerns the latter scenario.
The facts in a nutshell
In 2008 easyJet lodged three complaints against Schiphol airport with the Netherlands Competition Authority, based on national legislation governing aviation law and on competition law. The authority rejected the complaints by relying on the laws governing aviation (said to be inspired on the competition rules) and by resorting to its priority policy, which enables it to pick the cases with which it deals.
In 2011 easyJet lodged an abuse of dominance complaint with the European Commission. It acknowledged it had lodged similar complaints in the Netherlands and explained that these had never been assessed on the merits.
After two years (so much for the best practices), in 2013, the Commission rejected the complaint arguing, inter alia, that a national competition authority had already dealt with it.
In Wednesday’s Judgment, the Court rules:
1) That the Commission is entitled to reject a complaint which has previously been rejected by a competition authority of a Member State on priority grounds even if the latter has not examined the merits of the case. The Court explicitly endorses an interpretation whereby what’s important is that the national authority has “formally”, however superficially, “reviewed” the complaint (see, e.g. recital 27 of the Judgment).
2) That the above is valid also where, as in the case at hand, the national competition authority rejected the complaint in the course of an investigation conducted under separate provisions of national law (aviation law in casu) “on condition that the review was conducted in the light of the rules of EU Competition law” (see in this regard para. 46 of the Judgment).
In sum, the General Court rules that when a national competition authority rejects a case without having examined its merits, and without having undertaken an analysis on the basis of the competition law rules this is enough to consider that the said authority has “dealt with” the case within the sense of Article 13(2) of the Regulation.
A few comments
It is also widely acknowledged that judicial review in these cases –also starting with Automec– has been rather lenient. At one point some –like me– saw a possible change of trend in CEAHR, but hopes were later dispelled by Protegé (see here for our comments). This Judgment fits within the classic very deferential stream of case law in this domain.
Whereas it’s true that the facts of the case are very specific, my first inclination is not to share the Court’s reasoning; if you see it differently I’d be happy to discuss.
– First of all, I wonder how this all fits with a stream of case-law (actually cited in this very same Judgment), according to which “where the institutions have a broad discretion, respect for the rights guaranteed by the legal order of the European Union in administrative procedures is of even more fundamental importance; those guarantees include, in particular, the duty of the competent institution to examine carefully and impartially all the relevant aspects of the individual case”. (In the same sense see also the often forgotten recitals 79 to 83 of Automec itself). Given that the EU Courts require –at least in theory- that the Commission examine carefully all the relevant aspects of a case prior to rejecting it out of lack of priority, why doesn’t the GC require the same from national competition authorities prior to concluding that they have “dealt” with a case within the sense of 13(2)? Moreover, doesn’t the case law require that the guarantees provided by EU Law be also applied by national bodies when applying EU provisions?
– Secondly, I’m not sure the Commission needed this favor in a domain in which it effectively already enjoyed almost unfettered discretion. Indeed, it didn’t need to invoke Art. 13(2); had it simply said the case lacked EU interest it would have got away with it
– The risk, in my view, is that after this Judgments authorities will be able to dispose of cases out of prioritization reasons without having examined first the relevant aspects of the case, at was required –at least formally- by EU case law, just because another authority chose to do just that before.
In a way, the Judgment might accordingly make it much easier for authorities to play hot potato. Wanna-be complainants would be in between, in no man’s land, with the frustrating feeling that no one wants to even cursorily look at their case.
– The Commission would probably reply to the above that national Courts are still well placed to deal with complaints, that they’re moreover under the obligation to examine the merits of cases and that they have wider powers (such as that of awarding damages). Query: I wonder how the experience of losing a case that the Commission thought was obvious before a Belgian Court (see here) may have altered the Institution’s perception as to how well placed judges are to deal with competition cases. I also think that the Commission often trusts judges to deal with cases that would need an EU-wide consistent solution, ideally from an experienced specialized agency. For instance, the Commission very recently rejected a complaint against the UEFA Fair Play Rules alleging that Belgian Courts were well placed to deal with it (see here; query: is that really a case that should be dealt with by a national Court instead of by the European Commission?)