What’s with this obsession with the objectives of EU competition law?
Bob Solow, a Nobel Prize laureate, once said the following of Milton Friedman: ‘Everything reminds Milton of the money supply. Well, everything reminds me of sex, but I keep it out of the paper’. I think very often of this superb quote (and of the money supply) when reading competition law scholarship.
It would seem that there is always a valid reason to discuss the objectives of EU competition law, or to explain a legal controversy by reference to them. Authors disagree about the substantive standard that should apply to a practice? It must be the case that they disagree about the objectives that should guide EU competition law. A discussion about, say, vertical restraints? Pondering whether consumer welfare should be the goal underpinning the enforcement of Article 101 TFEU is absolutely necessary.
What I find interesting is that, the more I dig into the case law and administrative practice, the more apparent it is to me that the objectives of EU competition law are of marginal relevance in the decision-making process. My own research efforts lead me to the conclusion that, with very few exceptions, this question plays a very limited role (if at all) when the Commission or EU courts consider whether, and in what circumstances, a given line of conduct should be prohibited. It is simply a mistake to assume that a specific substantive test follows logically from a particular objective, or that a disagreement about the objectives that should guide EU competition law necessarily results in a disagreement about the test to apply in the context of a particular case.
Against this background, I asked myself why this issue features so prominently in academic and non-academic discussions. I can think of the following explanations (as usual, I would very much welcome your thoughts):
- Use as a rhetorical device: Challenging someone’s position by arguing that the arguments are only valid when a given objective is endorsed is often very effective. ‘What you say makes sense, but unfortunately consumer welfare is not the objective of EU competition law’, is indeed a powerful rhetorical device that can, moreover, prove useful to avoid addressing difficult questions.
- It is relatively easier: abstract discussions about the objectives of EU competition law may not be very useful in practice, but they often require little effort, or at least much less effort than reading carefully the case law and administrative practice and inferring principles from them. It is probably the case that the latter, no matter how necessary, is also less attractive for many.
- The influence of economics: It makes sense for economists to think about issues by reference to a benchmark against which the lawfulness of a practice can be established. The influence of economic analysis in the field may explain why even academic and non-academic lawyers display a tendency to go about questions in the same way. This is an additional reason why doctrinal analysis may be neglected.
For those readers who thought they would never see it, there you have it: I have just provided a clear example of why the influence of economic analysis might have proved negative in one important respect: it may have the effect of inducing legal scholars to engage in research that is not significant or that contributes little to the understanding of the discipline. I guess this blog can still bring surprises every now and then!