De minimis and Article 102 TFEU: how to make sense of Post Danmark II (and Tomra, and Expedia)
There is a fundamental aspect of Post Danmark II that, I realise, is still poorly understood. I know I have already written quite a bit about the judgment, but it makes sense to say a word about it before the discussion loses topicality.
In paras 70-73 of Post Danmark II, the Court refused to set a de minimis threshold in the context of Article 102 TFEU. This is sensible and, may I add, wholly uncontroversial. When a firm holds a dominant position, anything that it does is potentially exclusionary (in the sense that it ‘is liable’ to have anticompetitive effects).
By the same token, when it is shown that a practice implemented by a dominant firm is likely to have exclusionary effects, it is by definition the case that these effects will be appreciable. Again, I fail to see anything controversial in this regard. Suffice it to think, by analogy, of an exclusive distribution agreement implemented by a supplier with a 35% market share. If this agreement is found to have restrictive effects on competition within the meaning of Article 101(1) TFEU, these effects will be appreciable.
Where does the misunderstanding come from?
The Court refuses to set a de minimis threshold, true, but this fact does not mean that dominant firms’ practices are always abusive. This key aspect of the judgment is not very well understood. As I explained during my talk, Post Danmark II is clear in saying that the exclusionary effects of standardised rebate schemes need to be established. It is simply not enough to assume that this practice can have exclusionary effects.
What is the practical consequence? Standardised rebate schemes may fall outside the scope of Article 102 TFEU if, for instance, the dominant firm is not an unavoidable trading partner, or if the relevant market is not conducive to foreclosure. If the practice is unlikely to have exclusionary effects, it will not be caught by Article 102 TFEU. The fact that the Court refused to set a de minimis threshold is entirely compatible with a finding that the practice is not abusive.
The analogy with Article 101 TFEU.
Allow me to go back to the example I used above to illustrate my point. An exclusive distribution agreement where the supplier has 35% of the market falls outside the scope of the de minimis Notice (the market share is above 15%). It also falls outside the scope of the Block Exemption Regulation (the market share is above 30%). Does this mean that the agreement is necessarily caught by Article 101(1) TFEU? No. Provided that it is not ‘by object’, its likely restrictive effects on competition will have to be established (and not simply assumed) under Article 101(1) TFEU. This point is eloquently explained by the Commission in the Guidelines on vertical restraints (para 96, if you are curious). Well, the same is true in the context of Article 102 TFEU (as far as ‘by effect’ practices, like standardised rebate schemes, are concerned).
Expedia and Tomra: two provisions, a single logic.
As I pointed out in my first reaction on the ruling, the statements about de minimis found in Post Danmark II are only truly relevant for ‘by object’ practices, that is, for those practices that are deemed abusive irrespective of their impact on competition. This category includes, as the law stands, exclusive dealing and loyalty rebates.
The authority or the claimant would not have to show that exclusive dealing is likely to have exclusionary effects on competition to establish an abuse. In this sense, it is different from the standardised rebate schemes examined in Post Danmark II. If evidence of the likely exclusionary effects is not necessary in the case of exclusive dealing, it would not be a valid defence to argue that the practice is de minimis. This is the point made by the Court in Tomra, which from a positive perspective seems uncontroversial too.
One may dislike this outcome, but is it any different from what we observe in the context of Article 101(1) TFEU? Remember Expedia, where the Court held that agreements between undertakings that (i) restrict competition by object and (ii) have an effect on trade between Member States are never de minimis. Expedia and Tomra can be said to follow the same logic. Where a practice is deemed anticompetitive ‘by object’, the appreciability of the effects becomes irrelevant.