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Archive for May 10th, 2021

Why Article 102 TFEU is about equally efficient rivals: legal certainty, causality and competition on the merits

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As I mentioned last week, some of the most basic tenets of the post-modernisation consensus are being questioned (as much as the post-modernisation consensus itself). The idea that the vast majority of practices should only be prohibited following a case-by-case analysis of their likely effects is one of them.

More to the point, it has also become relatively frequent to challenge the idea that Article 102 TFEU is concerned with competitors that are as efficient as the dominant firm (at least so as a matter of principle).

This principle tends to be associated with the modernisation of the EU competition law system and the ‘more economics-based approach’. However, it has long been part of the case law. An explicit reference to equally efficient rivals can be traced back to the seminal AKZO ruling of 1991, where the Court explained that below-cost pricing is potentially exclusionary insofar as it is capable of foreclosing firms that are as efficient as the dominant player. In subsequent cases, the principle has been confirmed by the Court, perhaps more emphatically in Post Danmark I and Intel.

Two conclusions can be drawn from the case law. First, the idea that Article 102 TFEU is only concerned about the exclusion of equally efficient rivals is broader than the ‘as efficient competitor test’. The latter (‘AEC test’) is merely a manifestation of the broader principle. Accordingly, whether or not the AEC test is applied, Article 102 TFEU will still be concerned with the exclusion of equally efficient rivals. Similarly, the inquiry (is the practice likely to exclude equally efficient rivals?) is the same, irrespective of the instrument used.

Second, the principle is relevant across all parameters of competition. Because the AEC test and the broader principle tend to be conflated, there is a tendency to think that the latter applies only to price-based competition. However, the case law is unequivocal in this regard. In Post Danmark I, the Court made it clear that principle made it clear that Article 102 TFEU is not concerned with the exclusion of less efficient rivals in terms of, inter alia, ‘price, choice, quality or innovation’.

As we undergo times of change, it makes sense to look back and explain the logic of the case law. The hearing in Qualcomm (which took place last week) and the (UK) Royal Mail ruling have brought the discussion to the fore again. The analysis seems useful for two reasons. First, it is important to distinguish between the (narrow) AEC test and the broader principle, as the conflation of the two is relatively frequent. Second, it is an aspect of the case law that wonderfully exemplifies the extent to which law and economics go hand in hand.

The essence of the case law can be summarised as follows:

Competition on the merits: Article 102 TFEU seeks to ensure that firms remain willing and able to compete on the merits. The exclusion of firms that are less efficient is the very manifestation of the process that EU competition law is intended to preserve: it is the logical and expected outcome of a system based on undistorted competition. Protecting inefficient firms would alter the competitive process as much as a subsidy intended to keep a firm artificially afloat.

EU competition law protects a process, it does not engineer market structures: In the same vein, the point of Article 102 TFEU (and EU competition law) is not to design markets in accordance with a preconceived vision. Similarly, it is not for a competition authority to decide how many players should compete on the market (and for how long or with which assets). The protection of the competitive process as enshrined in the Treaty is far more modest in its ambitions: instead of determining outcomes and engineering market structures, Article 102 TFEU is there to ensure that rivals that have the ability to do so can thrive in spite of the presence of a dominant firm.

Causality: It is clear from the case law (think in particular of Post Danmark II), that any actual or potential effects must be attributable to the behaviour of the dominant firm. In other words, the Court makes it necessary for an authority or claimant to establish a causal link between the latter and the former. Where a firm is less efficient than the dominant player, any actual or potential effects cannot be attributed to the dominant firm, but to the fact that it is less attractive in terms of quality, price or any other parameter of competition. In other words, the causal chain would break in such a scenario.

Legal certainty: The case law suggests a final rationale. A dominant firm should be in a position to anticipate when it is in breach of Article 102 TFEU. For instance, a dominant firm knows its costs. Accordingly, it is aware of when it is pricing below cost (and thus where an equally efficient rival would be selling at a loss). Similarly, it can evaluate whether a rebate scheme is capable and/or likely to exclude a competitor that is at least as efficient as itself. On the other hand, a dominant player cannot be expected to be aware of the cost structure of a less efficient rival and, by the same token, it would not be able to tell in advance whether or not it is in breach of the law.

While some aspects of the case law are yet to be addressed, the principle has consistently been confirmed over the years. As we rethink EU competition law, the fundamental question we should be asking is whether there are compelling reasons to depart from it, and interpret Article 102 TFEU along different lines. I very much look forward to your comments on this point.

Written by Pablo Ibanez Colomo

10 May 2021 at 10:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized