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Archive for February 4th, 2016

On the notion of restriction of competition (my intervention at the GCLC’s annual conference)

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Last Tuesday I intervened at the GCLC’s annual conference, focused on the notion of restriction of competition.

What follows is an abridged version of my intervention (that does not include some of the worst jokes). Pablo, who gave me significant input and appears as co-author in the slides, and myself will be writing a joint piece on the subject soon.


One remarkable thing that conferences organized by practitioners have with European Commission initiatives is that they all seem to be aimed at working less. We don’t want fines, we don’t want abuse of dominance cases, less focus on key industries, less interventionism, etc. And now we want to clarify what a restriction of competition is?  If competition law is fun (and if we all make a living) it is because it is open ended and evolutive. So in a way these attempts at clarification could be regarded either as a collective suicide or a collective attempt at output limitation [I illustrated the point with a gif of the collective suicide squad from “The Life of Brian” that some considered a bit gore…] Even Commissioner Vestager observed this yesterday.

My role in this collective suicide is to comment on what has been discussed these past couple of days and try to extract, from a legal viewpoint, common threads and lessons.

I had many comments on what has been discussed here, but no common thread. But then last night at the speakers dinner Masssimo Merola gave a brief speech and said that yesterday he had realized about both what he knew and what he did not know. I thought voilà, there’s my structure. So let’s focus on those two questions: what is it that we know, and what is it that we don’t know.


If 50 years into EU Competition policy and centuries after the common law doctrine of restraints of trade was developed a bunch of experts are getting together for two days to ask ourselves something as basic as what is a restriction of competition, an outside observer would immediately think that instead of a bunch of experts we’re a bunch of ignorants!

If we are here enquiring about the notion of restriction, that is because the wording of Articles 101(1) and 102 TFEU do not provide an operational test.

Indeed, if anything that limits competition or commercial freedom were to be legally considered as a restriction in the sense of 101(1), then everything would be caught by 101. As also noted by Sir C. Bellamy yesterday, restraint is the essence of every contract…. particularly marriage.

In my view, there is no point in trying to figure out what a restriction is by looking at the literal wording of Article 101(1) and 102 TFEU. It is a hopeless exercise to find an operational test from such vague provisions. They were intended to be open, adaptable, judge made. That is why I like to say that competition law is a distillation of common sense infused with mainstream economics.

It was said yesterday that there is no room in 101(1) for “consumer harm” and that perhaps we need to re-write article 101. But I think that provision was drafted the way it was precisely so that it would encompass everything: consumer harm and the contrary. It is not because there is no explicit reference in the letter of the provision to consumer harm that the case law cannot evolve in that direction, as it arguably has.

But do we really not know what a restriction is? If the conference has taught us anything is that the problem is not one of the concept in itself, but one of methodology, and even of terminology.

What is a restriction of competition in colloquial and in economic terms is perfectly clear (as clearly explained by Jorge Padilla): it’s a reduction of competitive constraints. The problems rather lie in how a legally relevant restriction is established (Do we look at the short or the long term? Process or outcome? How do we look at the positive effects of a restriction, or an apparent restriction? Can we tell a restriction following a quick look (by object) or do we have to examine in detail all circumstances relevant to its effects (by effect)?)


Instead of trying to draw lessons with a top-down approach, I propose to analyse what has been said in the conference in a different way: bottom-up.

Let’s focus then on what we know and on what that tells us:

What we know

If we look beyond case-specific often conflicting discussions on the notion of restriction and we pay attention to what the Court has actually clarified over the years, we believe it is fair to say that we actually know a great deal about the sort of conduct that amounts to a restriction of competition.

It is true that the case law is uneven, and that some issues are yet to be clarified, so let’s focus only in those areas where there really is a significant consensus.

  • First, and most important of all, the case law is very useful to understand what a restriction of competition is not.

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Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

4 February 2016 at 4:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized