Vision

Competition Flashback Q3 2021

This is the Competition Flashback by bureau Brandeis, featuring a selection of some of the key competition law developments of the past quarter (see the original version here).

If you would like to receive the next Competition Flashback by e-mail you can subscribe to our mailing list here.


Overview Q3 2021

  • Altice’s appeal against gunjumping fine dismissed by General Court
  • Commission launches two investigations into Google and Apple after preliminary report Internet of Things
  • ACM makes (long-awaited) turn and fines vertical price fixing agreements
  • Genuine or non-genuine agency? New interlocutory judgment in Prijsvrij/Corendon is not yet conclusive
  • ACM gives second green light for merger of Sanoma and Iddink
  • Prestressing steel cartel and elevators cartel: far-reaching duty to allege cartel damage and causality
  • Truck cartel damages: broad interpretation jurisdiction of national courts based on Erfolgsort
  • Automobile manufacturers fined € 975 million by European Commission for illegal technological discussions
  • Aircargo damage: flexible approach to the question of applicable law
  • Fine of € 19.5 million imposed on pharmaceutical company for charging excessive prices
  • ACM allowed to extend scope of investigation with accidentally obtained evidence

 


Altice’s appeal against gunjumping fine dismissed by General Court

General Court, judgement of 22 September 2021

In 2018, French telecom company Altice was fined twice € 62.25 million (a total of € 124.5 million) by the European Commission for its premature acquisition of PT Portugal. According to the Commission, Altice already had – and actually exercised – decisive influence over the day-to-day operations of PT Portugal before it obtained the necessary approval from the Commission. For example, it had the power to influence the (structure of the) senior management as well as the pricing policy of PT Portugal. You can read more about the case and the Commission decision in our blog on gunjumping.

Altice appealed the fine decision to no avail. On 22 September 2021, the General Court ruled in favour of the Commission. It held that the Commission had sufficiently established that Altice had effective control over PT Portugal and, moreover, that it actually exercised its control. The fine for the breach of the notification requirement, however, was reduced by 10% by the General Court, because Altice had notified the concentration to the Commission.


Commission launches two investigations into Google and Apple after preliminary report Internet of Things

European Commission, press releases of 22 and 20 September 2021

The European Commission has already launched two investigations relating to the Internet of Things investigations since the publication of its preliminary sector-wide report on June 9, 2021. The investigations concern Google and Apple. You can read more about the preliminary inquiry sector-wide report of the Commission in our blog on the Internet of Things.

The investigation into Google relates to the use of Google Assistant, the tech giant’s voice assistant. Google allegedly (ab)uses its Android operating system to exclude competing voice assistants. The Commission suspects that manufacturers of smart TVs and cars, for example, are being forced to (pre-)install Google Assistant as a standard service. This will give Google easy access to the user data of consumers of those products, which it can then use for its other services. The Commission is furthermore curious to know whether Google requires manufacturers to exclusively use Google Assistant, whether multiple voice assistants from different providers can be used simultaneously, and whether manufacturers receive a portion of the advertising revenue generated on the device from Google.

With respect to Apple, the Commission’s investigation focuses on how Apple’s iPhones and iPads interact with wearable devices (“wearables”). These include smartwatches, fitness bands and wireless headphones. The Commission is concerned that there may have been technical and/or contractual restrictions placed by Apple regarding the interoperability of iPhones/iPads with such wearables. This would entail that it is more difficult for wearables of other manufacturers to compete with Apple’s wearables, such as Apple Watch or AirPods. The Commission has now asked manufacturers of wearables whether Apple raises obstacles with regard to accessing features on iPhones and iPads, such as reading and replying to messages via the wearable or location services thereof. Both investigations are still ongoing.


ACM makes (long-awaited) turn and fines vertical price fixing agreements

ACM, decision of 14 September 2021

On 14 September 2021, the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (“ACM“) imposed a fine of over € 39 million on Samsung for influencing the online selling prices of its television sets. In its decision, the ACM finds that Samsung infringed the cartel prohibition by exercising undue pressure on seven of its retailers in the period between 2013 and 2018.

Samsung monitored the online retail prices of its television sets through so-called spider software and analysed their price movements. If it was alerted (through complaints of competing retailers) on a retail price lower than its desired market price, it contacted the retailer and urged it to increase its prices. Although Samsung only maintains ‘price recommendations’ and the agreements between Samsung and retailers stipulate that they are free to determine their own retail prices, the ACM concluded that these ‘recommendations’ in practice lead to illegal price-fixing.

The ACM held that Samsung’s monitoring, internal coordination and external communication are aimed at controlling and minimising price deviations. By frequently and individually contacting retailers about retail prices and informing them of the price intentions of their competitors, the ACM speaks of a systematic practice of price coordination between Samsung and its retailers. As retailers are consequently discouraged from lowering their prices and consumers are confronted with a higher price, the ACM held that Samsung’s behaviour had the object of restricting competition.

It is the first time in twenty years that the ACM has showed interest in vertical price agreements. In doing so, it appears to abandon its effects-based approach to vertical restraints and to align with the strict approach of the European Commission and other national competition authorities. In 2018, the Commission imposed four fines of in total € 111 million on Asus, Denon & Marantz and Philips for monitoring and pushing retailers’ prices. German authorities also maintain a strict approach. The Bundeskartellamt has for example been very active in fining resale price maintenance practices in recent years, and in 2018 the German Bundesgerichtshof confirmed that Asics may not prohibit its retailers from participating in price comparison websites.

For more insights into competition law in vertical relationships read our blog.


Genuine or non-genuine agents agency? New interlocutory judgment in Prijsvrij/Corendon is not yet conclusive

Amsterdam Court of Appeal, (interlocutory) judgment of 31 August 2021

A long-running dispute is ongoing between Prijsvrij and Corendon regarding the termination of an agency agreement by Corendon. In a recently published interlocutory judgment (in Dutch) of 3 December 2019, the Amsterdam Court of Appeal formulated a number of evidentiary assignments. Subsequently, on 31 August 2021, the Court of Appeal issued a new interlocutory judgment (also in Dutch) in the context of those evidentiary assignments.

The case between Prijsvrij and Corendon is of essential importance for sectors where resellers are frequently used, such as the travel sector. The main question is under which circumstances these agents can be qualified as ‘genuine’ agents within the meaning of competition law. This requires that the agent bears no or minimal commercial risks, so that the principal and its agent form a single economic unit. Only in that case is the cartel prohibition, including the prohibition on resale price maintenance, not applicable. In the case of genuine agency the principal may compel its agents to apply certain prices.

In the past, Prijsvrij was active as a reseller of Corendon’s package holidays until Corendon terminated its agreement with Prijsvrij in 2013. The Court of Appeal considered it (provisionally) proven that the reason for the termination could be found in the discounts offered by Prijsvrij to consumers. Such termination can be an instrument to achieve resale price maintenance and is therefore prohibited, unless Prijsvrij was a genuine agent of Corendon. In the interlocutory judgment the Court of Appeal gave Corendon the evidentiary assignment to prove that Prijsvrij qualified as an genuine agent.

In the context of these principal points of contention, Prijsvrij and Corendon have submitted documentary evidence and Corendon has called a number of witnesses. In doing so, a discussion has arisen as to whether the Court may include all of this evidence in its assessment of the evidence.

In its recent interlocutory judgment of 31 August 2021, the Amsterdam Court of Appeal decided to include all evidence submitted earlier and to reopen the examination of witnesses. Thereafter, the Court of Appeal will rule and is expected to provide clarity on the application of the doctrine of genuine agency.

*Bas Braeken and Jade Versteeg represent Prijsvrij in these proceedings.


ACM gives second green light for merger of Sanoma and Iddink

ACM, decision of 26 August 2021

Sanoma may take over Iddink according to a recent second decision of the ACM on the matter. Sanoma is a publisher of both traditional and digital educational materials through its subsidiary Malmberg. Iddink is a distributer of educational materials and owns Magister – a student information system (“SIS”) and electronic learning environment (“ELO”).

The licence application for the concentration of Sanoma and Iddink was submitted to the ACM in January 2019. After the ACM had conditionally approved this merger mid-2019, rival publisher Noordhoff filed an appeal against this decision with the Rotterdam District Court. In its ruling (in Dutch) of 4 March 2021 the District Court annulled the contested decision of the ACM due to a failure to sufficiently state reasons. The Court held that the ACM should have conducted more research into the possible need of schools for ‘bundling’ the digital teaching materials and the electronic learning environment. If there were such a need, the concentration between Sanoma and Iddink could lead to market foreclosure.

In its recent decision, dated 26 August 2021, the ACM again approved the concentration under the same conditions as before. The ACM provided additional reasoning as to why it is not plausible that the concentration would lead to market foreclosure through anticompetitive bundling. The ACM argued that there are different procurement procedures for teaching materials and the ELO/SIS, with different timeframes.

Consequently, schools do not have the need to purchase teaching materials and an ELO/SIS at the same time. In addition, the ACM maintains that prices are of little importance for a school’s selection of educational materials. Schools are primarily focused on quality, which limits the possibility for Sanoma/Iddink to apply a bundling strategy. The ACM also considers it implausible that there is an incentive for Sanoma/Iddink to bundle products.

In a press release (in Dutch) of 27 August 2021, the ACM announced that it will appeal the ruling of the Rotterdam District Court since it believes that its original decision did not contain a lack of reasoning.


Prestressing steel cartel and elevators cartel: far-reaching duty to allege cartel damage and causality

‘s-Hertogenbosch Court of appeal, judgement of 27 July 2021 | Rotterdam District Court, judgement of 23 June 2021

Recently, two judgments were published that are relevant for the duty of an injured party (‘plaintiff’) to allege damages and causality in cartel damage cases. In cartel damages proceedings the plaintiff must allege and prove that his or her damages were caused by the cartel in order to be awarded compensation. An important aspect in that regard concerns the data that is necessary to further substantiate such claims.

On 27 July 2021, the Court of Appeal of ‘s-Hertogenbosch ruled (in Dutch) that Deutsche Bahn, who is the plaintiff in this case, must bring forward sufficient factual evidence to make it plausible that it suffered damage as a result of the prestressing steel cartel. Such factual evidence concerns information that specifies which cartel products were purchased, when, from whom and at what price. The submission of a few examples is considered insufficient by the Court of Appeal.

When providing concrete evidence a plaintiff must prove the identity of the cartel participants and provide insight into its transactions with them (on the basis of contracts, invoices, packing slips, administrative data, annual documents, etc.). Although the substantiation of a claim should normally take place in the early stages of proceedings, the Court of Appeal gave Deutsche Bahn the opportunity to provide the required evidence at a later stage.

In a judgment (in Dutch) of 23 June 2021 (published on 12 July 2021) the Rotterdam District Court provided other relevant guidance regarding the duty to furnish facts in relation to damages and causality. In the elevators cartel damage case, the District Court assessed whether Stichting De Glazen Lift (a claim foundation representing housing associations) had fulfilled its obligation in that regard.

The District Court ruled that in the event of concrete indications that an agreement was concluded between a housing association and one (or more) cartel participant(s) during the infringement period it is plausible that damages were suffered and caused by the cartel.

The District Court then examined for each housing association whether the foundation submitted sufficient documents to make the damage plausible. For each individual (underlying) claimant, it must be shown that the party claiming damages contracted with or paid a cartel participant during the infringement period.

Lastly, the District Court ruled that, in view of rental price regulation, it is unlikely that the housing associations could have passed on their damages to their tenants by raising rent. Therefore, it is plausible that the installation of a elevators and escalators is at the expense of the housing associations. The District Court concluded that all the housing associations sufficiently alleged damages and causality and referred the proceedings for the determination of damages.


Truck cartel damages: broad interpretation jurisdiction of national courts based on Erfolgsort

CJEU, judgment of 15 July 2021

On 15 July 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) ruled in RH v Volvo on how national courts should interpret article 7(2) of the Brussels I-bis Regulation, after preliminary questions were asked by a Spanish national court. The CJEU ruled on an interpretation for jurisdiction based on the place where the damage occurs, also referred to as ‘Erfolgsort’. The CJEU held that article 7(2) does not only relate to international jurisdiction (which Member State has jurisdiction), but also to territorial jurisdiction (which court within a Member State has jurisdiction).

Firstly, the CJEU holds that, in the case of damage resulting from a cartel that concerned the whole of the European Economic Area (“EEA”), the place where the damage occurred is considered to be within that entire market. This includes Spain, so the Spanish national courts have international jurisdiction.

Subsequently, the CJEU addresses the question on territorial jurisdiction. It observes that it is clear from the wording of article 7(2) that this provision directly and immediately aims to regulate both international and territorial jurisdiction. Nevertheless, Member States are free to designate a specific court to deal with certain specific types of disputes. In the absence of such national centralisation of competence/jurisdiction, territorial jurisdiction must comply with the principles of proximity, foreseeability and the proper administration of justice.

According to the CJEU, the court of the place where the goods of the cartel participants were purchased – possibly indirectly – has primary territorial jurisdiction. If the plaintiff has purchased goods in several jurisdictions, the seat of the plaintiff should determine the territorial jurisdiction. This reasoning is in line with the aforementioned principles, inter alia because cartel participants are deemed to be aware of the fact that the customers are located in the (entire) market affected by the anti-competitive conduct.


Automobile manufacturers to be fined € 975 million by Commission for illegal technological discussions

European Commission, decision of 8 July 2021

In a recent decision the European Commission has determined that DaimlerBMW and the Volkswagen group (VolkswagenAudi and Porsche) violated competition law by jointly agreeing on technological development in the field of emissions cleaning. Daimler avoided a fine of € 727 million because it reported the conduct to the Commission.

The infringement is notable because this is the first time that a cartel decision has targeted agreements and contacts that took place as part of technological discussions related to innovation, rather than classic price or customer allocation agreements. For this reason, the fines were reduced by 20%.

Although the investigation started as a full-fledged cartel investigation, it was concluded with a voluntary settlement procedure. In addition, Daimler applied for leniency. BMW submitted a comprehensive statement after which the Commission dropped some of its allegations against the German car manufacturer.


Air cargo damages: flexible approach to the question of applicable law

Amsterdam Court of Appeal, (interlocutory) judgement of 6 July 2021

In its judgment (in Dutch) of 6 July 2021, the Amsterdam Court of Appeal ruled on the question of applicable law in the Air cargo damages proceedings. Many plaintiffs suffered damages as a result of paying excessive fees for the shipments of air cargo. Their claims are bundled in foundations Equilib and SCC.

As a preliminary matter, the Court of Appeal rules that it can rely on the facts determined by the European Commission in the cartel decision, even though that decision is still under appeal before the European Courts.

The Court of Appeal then ruled on the question of whether article 4 of the Dutch Tort Conflict of Law Act (“WCOD”) offers the relevant legal framework to answer the question of applicable law. The Court of Appeal finds that, in principle, for each separate claim of each individual plaintiff the damage resulting from a specific flight, the applicable law is that of the State in which the airport of departure is located.

The Court of Appeal subsequently observed that this outcome leads to a strong fragmentation of applicable laws. Strict application of article 4 WCOD would lead to dozens of different applicable legal systems. To avoid this fragmentation, the Court of Appeal first rules that the separate claims of each plaintiff should be considered as one single claim, in analogy with the concept of a single continuous infringement as applied by the Commission in its cartel decisions. Second, the Court of Appeal considers that not only the airport of departure is relevant for determining the applicable law, but also the airport of arrival. Article 4 WCOD does not limit its scope to the place in which competition is directly affected by the anticompetitive behaviour, but also the place that is indirectly affected (e.g. in case of umbrella damages).

The international nature of airline services results in the distortion of competition in multiple places, as is also confirmed by the Commission in its decision. As a result, the Court of Appeal considers that the claim of a plaintiff is governed by several national jurisdictions. The WCOD does not provide for a solution in such instances, however. To fill this legislative gap, the Court of Appeal relies on broadly shared EU principles, such as legal certainty and effectiveness. It notes that the EU legislator has addressed this issue in article 6(3) sub b of Regulation (EC) No 864/2007 (‘Rome II’), in which claimants may choose the applicable law, albeit under strict conditions.

Given that Equilib and SCC requested that Dutch law is applicable, the Court of Appeal concludes that the follow-on damages claims of the foundations are governed by Dutch law. This applies to all claims relating to flights falling within the scope of the cartel decision (flights departing and/or arriving in the EEA and Switzerland).


Fine of € 19.5 million imposed on pharmaceutical company for charging excessive prices

ACM, decision of 1 July 2021

In a decision of 1 July 2021 the ACM imposed a fine of € 19.5 million on the Italian pharmaceutical company Leadiant, manufacturer of chenodeoxycholic acid (“CDCA”). The ACM ruled that Leadiant had abused its dominant position by charging an excessive price for the medicine. It is the first decision imposing a fine that concerns medicine prices after the ACM announced that it will conduct more investigations into medicines in 2018.

Leadiant acquired the right to produce CDCA from another pharmaceutical company and has been selling it on the Dutch market since 2008. In 2008, the price for a package of CDCA in the Netherlands was € 46. After that, Leadiant increased the price of CDCA, which it sold under changing brand names, several times until it finally reached a maximum of € 14,000 per package in June 2017.

The ACM ruled that Leadiant abused its dominance in the period from June 2017 to December 2019. According to the ACM Leadiant had a special responsibility in the context of its dominant position to abstain from charging excessive prices. The ACM accuses Leadiant of failing to fulfil its responsibilities in this respect and that the (excessively high) prices charged were out of proportion to its costs.


ACM allowed to extend scope of investigation with accidentally obtained evidence

District Court of The Hague, judgement of 3 June 2021 (published on 12 July 2021)

On 3 June 2021, the District Court of The Hague rendered an anonymised judgment in instituted by a number of undertakings whose premises had been raided by the ACM. The investigation of the ACM initially focused on possible prohibited purchasing price agreements. However, during the Dawn Raid the ACM also found indications of possible agreements on the selling price. Based on this information the ACM expanded the scope of its investigation. You can read more about Dawn Raids in this blog.

An important question was whether the ACM had not merely cursorily examined this information and whether the ACM was allowed to use the information for the purpose of extending the scope of its investigation. The Court ruled that the ACM, on the basis of the Deutsche Bahn judgment of the CJEU, is allowed to take a cursory look at evidence (in the present case: chat messages and e-mail conversations) in order to assess whether something falls within or outside the scope of the investigation. The ACM does not have to limit itself to viewing the most recent message while keeping the scope of the investigation in mind. In view of the interwovenness between the new evidence and the original scope of the investigation, the Court did not find it remarkable that the ACM stumbled upon the evidence by chance.

In addition, the Court was asked whether the ACM is allowed to select relevant chats by entering the names of persons in the chat program when inspecting mobile phones. The Court ruled that the search on names of persons is proportionate and thus permitted.

 


For all your questions regarding (EU) competition law, bureau Brandeis would be happy to assist you. You can reach us via the links below.

Bas BraekenJade VersteegLara ElzasTimo Hieselaar, Demi van den Berg and Berend Verweij

Vision

Competition Flashback Q2 2021

This is the first Competition Flashback by bureau Brandeis, featuring a selection of some of the key competition law developments of the past quarter (see the original version here).

If you would like to receive the next Competition Flashback by e-mail you can subscribe to our mailing list here.


Overview Q2 2021

  • Notarial deed paper cartel; fine reduced from €2 million to €10,000
  • CJEU Recyclex: antitrust immunity only in the case of an extended infringement
  • Fine of €40 million for Dutch railway company NS struck down by Court
  • Private equity firm can recover cartel fine for incorrect information during due diligence
  • State Aid to KLM and Condor called into question as a result of inadequate reasoning
  • New ACM merger decision Sanoma/Iddink on the way after appeal by Noordhoff
  • Preliminary findings in the truck cartel damages case: claimants may go ahead
  • European Commission takes on Apple after Spotify complaint

 


ACM publishes notarial deed paper cartel four years later; fine reduced from €2 million to €10,000

ACM, press release of 1 July 2021 | Rotterdam District Court, judgment of 11 May 2021

Almost four years after the first fine decision, a long-running cartel case has been made public with the publication of a news release and a number of decisions by the Dutch Competition Authority (“ACM”). At the same time, the Rotterdam District Court also published two judgments in this cartel case (Rotterdam District Court judgments of 6 December 2018 and 11 May 2021, as published on 30 June and 1 July 2021).

At the centre of this case were (alleged) price and market sharing agreements on the market for notarial deed paper. This case revolved around agreements between one producer (of which the subsidiary that implemented the cartel agreements was separated from the parent company during the infringement period) and two distributors. All three parties supplied notary’s offices with notarial deed paper.

For the agreements concerning these sales the ACM imposed a fine of almost €2.8 million on the producer in a decision dated 17 February 2017 (whereby the parent company was held jointly and severally liable for the entire sum and the subsidiary for €2.06 million). One natural person, the de facto manager of the producer, was (initially) fined €200,000 (reduced to €80,000 after an objection). One distributor was fined €3,000 and the third distributor received full immunity from fines under the 2006 Notice on immunity from fines and reduction of fines in cartel cases (“Leniency Notice“).

Initially, the interim relief judge of the Rotterdam District Court suspended the decision of the ACM to publish the fine decision (judgment not yet published). The interim relief judge considered that the contentious agreements were vertical in nature and not horizontal. The Rotterdam District Court saw this differently and ruled that Article 2 (4) (a) of the Block Exemption for Vertical Agreements is not applicable. Based on this provision, agreements between competing companies (i.e. agreements of a horizontal nature) can also fall under the Block Exemption if there is a “non-reciprocal vertical agreement”, whereby the supplier is both a manufacturer and a distributor and the buyer is only a distributor. According to the Court, however, the agreements are (purely) horizontal in nature.

The Court also considered that in the case of object restrictions, no analysis of the counterfactual is required. The counterfactual refers to the market situation as it would have been without the alleged agreements. The producer had argued that without the distribution agreements it had entered into there would have been no competition at all. Indeed, until recently, the market for notarial deed paper was strictly regulated on the basis of rules of the Royal Dutch Association of Civil-law Notaries.

The District Court did not follow this line of reasoning. The Court, however, did rule that the ACM had set the gravity factor too high and lowered it from 2.75 to 1, and set the fine for the producer at €1 million and for the de facto manager at €60,000. A previously published judgment by the Trade and Industry Appeals Tribunal (“CBb“) shows that the producer’s fine was eventually reduced to €10,000. The difficult financial situation in which the company found itself as a result of the Covid 19 crisis was partly the basis for this reduction.


CJEU Recyclex: (partial) immunity from cartel infringement only if the scope of the infringement is extended

Court of Justice, judgment of 3 June 2021

On 3 June 2021, the Court of Justice (“CJEU”) delivered a judgment on the interpretation and application of the conditions set out in the third paragraph of point 26 of the Leniency Notice.

Recyclex had relied on the third paragraph of point 26 of the Leniency Notice when it provided the European Commission (“Commission“) with information about a particular meeting within the Car battery recycling cartel in which it participated. Recyclex submits that the Commission would have been unable to provide sufficient evidence of this particular meeting and therefore claims to be entitled to partial immunity. In this respect, according to Recyclex, it is irrelevant that the Commission was already aware of the fact that the meeting had taken place.

The CJEU does not share this view and holds that undertakings concerned can claim partial immunity only if they provide the Commission with evidence which “complement or supplement those of which the Commission is already aware and which alter the material or temporal scope of the infringement, as found by the Commission.

Therefore, in order to successfully claim (partial) immunity on the basis of the third paragraph of point 26 of the Leniency Notice a cartel participant must provide the Commission with information on new facts which alter the original scope of the infringement.


Fine for Dutch railway company NS struck down by Court because dominance was not proven

CBb, judgment of 1 June 2021

In its judgment of 1 June, the CBb struck down a fine of more than €40 million that the ACM had imposed on Dutch railway company NS. The ACM had adopted this fine in a decision of 22 May 2017 alleging that NS had abused its dominant economic position.

According to the ACM, NS used its economic dominance on the main rail network (“HRN“) of the Netherlands to hinder its competitors Arriva and Veolia in the province Limburg. Specifically, in 2016 NS had submitted what the ACM considered to be a loss-making bid in the tender for a 15-year public transport concession in Limburg.

The Rotterdam District Court ruled in its judgment of 27 June 2019 that the ACM had not convincingly proven that NS actually had a dominant economic position. In addition, according to the District Court, the link between NS’ position on the HRN and the concession in Limburg was uncertain after 2024 (the concession for the HRN expires in 2024).

The CBb largely confirmed the ruling of the Rotterdam District Court. The ACM did not prove that NS has a position of economic dominance. According to the CBb, there is (potential) competition as the barriers for entering the HRN market is not too high. The fine of more than €40 million that the ACM had imposed on NS has therefore been permanently struck down.


Private equity can recover cartel fine in case of incorrect information during due diligence

Rotterdam District Court, judgment of 26 May 2021

Between November 2004 and July 2011 private equity firm Bencis held 92% of the shares in flour producer Meneba (now acquired by Dossche Mills). During this period Meneba was fined by the ACM for its participation in the flour cartel. This decision was confirmed by the ACM after administrative objection, by the Rotterdam District Court on appeal and by the CBb on further appeal.

Almost four years after the first decision and under the influence of European developments, the ACM (also) imposed a cartel fine of over €1,2 million on Bencis because of Meneba’s participation in the flour cartel. The basis of Bencis’ liability was that it had decisive influence on Meneba due to their close economic, organisational and legal ties. Therefore, according to the ACM, the infringement could also be attributed to Bencis.

Bencis is later seeking to recover this fine from Meneba in a case heard by the Rotterdam District Court. To this end, Bencis primarily argued that only Meneba factually participated in the cartel agreements. In its judgement of 26 may the Rotterdam District Court did not uphold Bencis’ claim. It considered that there is no room for recourse on the basis of a joint obligation (Article 6:10 Dutch Civil Code (“BW”)) since Bencis and Meneba were not fined jointly and severally. It also considered that there is no room for a claim based on tort (Article 6:162 BW). The tort claim failed on the basis of the relativity requirement, since the right to compensation for cartel violations does not extend to the protection of other cartel participants (see Courage/Crehan).

However, the judgement of the Rotterdam District Court is unlikely to be the end of this matter. At the hearing, Bencis argued that Meneba, within the context of a due diligence investigation prior to the acquisition of the shares by Bencis, had allegedly stated that no infringements, including infringements of competition law, had taken place. If Bencis succeeds in proving this with documents, this could, according to the Court, constitute an unlawful act by Meneba towards Bencis.


State aid to KLM and Condor called into question as a result of inadequate reasoning

General Court, judgments of 19 May 2021 and 9 June 2021

On 19 May 2021, the General Court in Luxembourg held that the Commission wrongly approved the €3.4 billion state aid granted to KLM on the basis of Article 107(3)(b) TFEU. This article provides for the possibility to grant aid to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a Member State, such as caused by the COVID-19 crisis. In its decision, the Commission did not provide sufficient reasoning by failing to adequately take into account the fact that KLM and Air France, both part of the same group, have been the recipient of two aid measures.

In its decision the Commission states that the Dutch authorities ‘confirmed’ that the financing granted to KLM would not be used by Air France. However, in the General Court’s view, the Commission failed to provide sufficient reasons as to how this would be guaranteed. In that regard, the relationship between KLM and Air France within the group – and the aid granted to them – was not sufficiently taken into account. Although the decision has been annulled, the aid granted does not have to be recovered immediately. KLM may keep the aid at least until the Commission has adopted a new decision.

The decision in which the Commission approved the German aid to airline Condor was also annulled by the General Court on the ground that it contained insufficient reasoning. The aid, based on Article 107(2)(b) TFEU, was intended to compensate Condor for the damage caused directly by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the German authorities included approx. €17 million in additional costs in the aid for Condor, because the latter was under an insolvency procedure following the liquidation of its parent company (Thomas Cook). This procedure started well before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, though. The Commission did not explain how (the costs surrounding) the failed sale of Condor in the insolvency procedure were related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this case, too, the aid granted will not be recovered immediately. In order to avoid direct damage to the German economy, Condor is allowed to keep the amount until the Commission has taken a new decision.


New ACM merger decision in Sanoma/Iddink coming after successful appeal by Noordhoff

ACM, announcement of 17 May 2021

On 28 August 2019, the ACM decided that Sanoma Learning (publisher of Malmberg schoolbooks) may acquire Iddink Group, distributor of educational material, conditional upon commitments. Iddink Group owns Magister, an electronic learning management system that many secondary schools in the Netherlands use. The commitments ensure that competitors have equal access to Magister and data from Magister after the merger. In addition, the merging parties must guarantee that no commercially sensitive information from competing publishers will be shared with Malmberg via Iddink.

Noordhoff, a competitor of Malmberg, did not agree with the ACM and appealed the decision. In its ruling of 4 March 2021, the Rotterdam District Court annulled the ACM’s decision.

According to the Court, the ACM had not sufficiently substantiated that post-merger Sanoma/Iddink has no possibility to foreclose competitors by means of bundling and that therefore no conglomerate effects existed. The ACM has announced that it will take a new decision and has also appealed against the District Court’s ruling.


Interim position truck cartel damages case: green light for the time being

Amsterdam District Court, judgment of 12 May 2021

On 12 May 2021, the Amsterdam District Court rendered an interlocutory judgment in the damages claim proceedings instituted by, among others, CDC against participants in the Truck Cartel. This judgment is limited to (i) an assessment of the scope of the Commission’s penalty decision, and (ii) the truck manufacturers’ defence that the exchange of information did not have a price-increasing effect and that the infringement therefore did not result in any damage.

With regard to the first point, the Court finds that it is bound by (the operative part of) the Commission’s decision regarding (the temporal and geographical scope of) the infringing behaviour as well as the persons liable for it. However, this does not exclude plaintiffs from providing further factual interpretation of the infringing behaviour.

With regard to the second point, the Court considered that the truck manufacturers must demonstrate that it is generally impossible that the infringement could have resulted in damage. Based on the expert reports, the Court finds that this has not been established. It is therefore up to the plaintiffs – for the remainder of the proceedings – to make it plausible that they have possibly suffered damage as a result of the unlawful actions of the truck manufacturers. This is needed to meet the threshold for referral to the damages assessment procedure.


Commission takes on Apple after Spotify complaint – national authorities follow

European Commission, press release of 30 April 2021

In March 2019 Spotify lodged a complaint with the Commission accusing Apple of distorting competition on the market for music streaming services offered through the App Store. Spotify claims that Apple is abusing its full control over the iOS mobile operating system and the App Store to impose unfair terms on competitors, such as Spotify, and to favour its own music streaming service Apple Music.

On 16 June 2020, the Commission launched an investigation into Apple’s policies on the App Store. In its press release of 30 April 2021, the Commission stated that in the Statement of Objections it had reached the preliminary view that Apple was abusing its dominant position. The Commission accuses Apple of forcing competing music streaming services to use the App Store’s ‘in-app’ purchase mechanism and charging a 30% commission in return.

In addition, the Commission’s objections relate to so-called ‘anti-steering provisions’ that restrict app developers in their ability to inform customers of alternative purchasing options. National authorities such as the ACM and the British CMA have also started investigations into these practices by Apple.

 


For all your questions regarding (EU) competition law, bureau Brandeis would be happy to assist you. You can reach us via the links below.

Bas BraekenJade VersteegLara ElzasTimo Hieselaar en Berend Verweij

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An overview of Big Tech cases leading up to the Digital Markets Act (DMA)

The rise of Tech Giants such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft (“Big Tech”) and their integration into people’s lives has been interesting on many levels. Particularly in the context of fair and contestable digital markets, it raises many questions. The most pressing of these is whether ex-post enforcement of EU competition law is effective enough to keep up with rapidly evolving (digital) markets and Big Tech companies.

To expand its enforcement toolkit, the European Commission (“Commission”) published a proposal for a Digital Markets Act (“DMA”) in December 2020. Its overall objective is to complement antitrust intervention in digital markets with ex-ante regulation in the form of a set of obligations that platforms identified as “gatekeepers” should abide by.

This blog covers recent developments in the fight against Big Tech, followed by a more detailed analysis of the DMA and its implications for gatekeepers.

Ex-post enforcement of Big Tech companies

The fight against anti-competitive behaviour by Big Tech companies has kept both the Commission and national competition authorities (“NCAs”) quite busy over the last years.

Although the Commission was initially relatively passive towards Big Tech, its Google Android decision from 2018 seems to have been an important starting point for (EU) competition law enforcement towards Big Tech. In this case, the Commission concluded that Google had abused its dominant position by tying the Google Search app to the Android appstore. Not only did the Commission impose a massive fine on Google of €4.3 billion (the highest fine ever imposed), it also established guidelines for assessing dominance in the mobile ecosystem.

Margrethe Verstager, European Commissioner for Competition, indicated that it became her mission to counter the rise of increasingly powerful digital platforms. Subsequently, it did not take long for the Commission to launch two formal investigations into Amazon.

The first investigation concerned Amazon’s use of marketplace seller data. In the Commission’s assessment, by using such non-public data, Amazon is able to avoid the normal risks of retail competition and to leverage its dominance on the market. The second antitrust probe assesses Amazon’s practices regarding its “Buy Box” and “Prime” label, which enables it to favour its own retail offers and offers of marketplace sellers that use Amazon’s logistics and delivery services over the ones of third-party sellers. When digital platform providers play a dual role – in which they act both as platform provider for business users and as retailer in competition with business users – they are incentivised to engage in self-preferencing.

In June 2020, after Spotify filed a complaint, the Commission launched a formal antitrust investigation into Apple’s rules for app developers on the distribution of apps via the App Store. On 30 April 2021, the Commission published its preliminary finding that Apple was indeed abusing its dominant position by requiring app developers to use Apple’s own in-app purchase system.

The Commission also launched a parallel investigation into Apple Pay, Apple’s mobile payment app. The Commission has expressed concerns that Apple’s terms related to the integration of Apple Pay for purchases of goods and services may distort competition and reduce choice and innovation, because no other payment solution than Apple Pay can access the payment chip technology embedded on iOS mobile devices for payments.

Lastly, Epic Games, the creator of the global hit game Fortnite, has officially filed a complaint with the Commission earlier this year. Epic Games accuses Apple of foreclosing the market for app distribution as well as the market for iOS in-app payment processing, allowing Apple to charge a higher commission. Previously, Epic Games has initiated proceedings against Apple in the US, Australia and the UK.

Also on the national level digital platforms have been subject to numerous competition law investigations. The Bundeskartellamt (“BKartA”) has been very active in this regard. In 2015, for instance, the BKartA issued a decision in which it prohibited Booking.com from continuing to apply its ‘best price’ clauses (for further information on APPAs and MFNs and the BKartA’s decision see our previous blog “On APPAs, MFNs and a tenacious German competition authority”).

Another significant case brought forward by the BKartA, regarding Facebook, dates back to 2019. In this decision, the German competition authority concluded that Facebook abused its dominant position in the social networking market by excessively collecting and combining user data without the consent of its users.

In April 2021, the BKartA has received an antitrust complaint about Apple from nine associations representing German media, Internet and advertising industries. They claim that the iPhone maker is abusing its dominant position with its recently introduced App Tracking Transparency program. This feature on iOS requires apps to ask users for permission to collect their data. However, the complainants submit that Apple itself can still collect significant amounts of user data.

In addition, the Netherlands Authority for Consumers & Markets (“ACM”) has conducted an in-depth market study into the mobile app store market and its implications for competition. This study shows that the lack of realistic alternatives to Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store puts them in a position – at least in theory – to set unfair conditions. The ACM is now investigating specifically whether Apple is abusing its dominant position through its App Store by imposing certain conditions on app providers that do not compete with Apple’s apps.

Need for ex-ante intervention?

Competition authorities in the EU thus appear to be willing to act against distortions of competition caused by Big Tech. However, given the (legal and factual) complexity and length of investigations, it often takes a long time before a sanction can be imposed. By then, the (perceived) damage has often already been done. The question therefore arises whether these measures can restore competition in a timely and effective manner. In light of ‘prevention is better than curing’, the DMA was proposed in December 2020. With this Act, the Commission aims to prevent the manifestation of anti-competitive effects in the digital market.

Definition of “Gatekeepers”

The DMA is focused at gatekeeper platforms. A gatekeeper is a provider of a core platform service with a significant impact on the internal market, including, among others, online intermediation services (e.g. app stores, Amazon), online search services (e.g. Google), online social networking services (e.g. Facebook), video-sharing platform services (e.g. TikTok), number-independent interpersonal communication services (e.g. WhatsApp), operating systems (iOS, Android, Microsoft).

The DMA only applies to gatekeepers that meet the following thresholds:

  • An annual EEA turnover equal or above €6.5 billion in the last three financial years or an average market capitalisation that amounted to at least €65 billion in the last financial year.
  • To serve as an important gateway for business users to reach their respective end users the core platform service must have more than 45 million monthly active end users in the EU and more than 10 000 yearly active business users in the EU over the course of the last financial year.

A platform has to notify the Commission if it meets these thresholds and therefore potentially constitutes a gatekeeper (duty to notify). The Commission reserves the right to proactively designate a core platform provider as a gatekeeper when they meet the thresholds, even – or especially – in cases where it did not receive a formal notification.

Obligations for gatekeepers

Once a core platform provider qualifies as a gatekeeper (whether or not designated as such by the Commission), it has to comply with certain obligations as set out in Articles 5 and 6 of the DMA. Some of these obligations relate to (similar) conduct that has given rise to many Big Tech competition cases in recent years. The DMA also includes a provision that creates the power for the Commission to update the list of obligations as a result of market investigations (Article 10 DMA). This makes the DMA flexible in its application and suitable to account for the highly dynamic and innovation driven markets.

Some of the proposed obligations concern:

  • Third-party personal data: Gatekeepers must refrain from combining personal data sourced from their own services with personal data from other services offered by the gatekeeper or third-party services without the consent of the user pursuant to the GDPR (Art. 5(a) DMA). The Bundeskartellamt reached the same conclusion in 2019 in its case against Facebook.
  • MFN/parity clauses: Gatekeepers must allow business users to offer the same products or services to end users through third-party online platforms under different terms and conditions than those of the gatekeeper’s platform (Section 5(b) DMA). The cases of Amazon e-books and Booking.com involved this type of conduct.
  • Anti-steering prohibition: Gatekeepers must allow business users to promote their products in apps purchased through the platform’s core service, such as Apple’s App Store (Article 5(c) DMA). Business users will thus be able to conclude contracts with their end-users outside the core platform. This will, for example, allow Epic Games to offer and sell their in-app products through their own channel, rather than exclusively through Apple’s in-app purchase system.
  • Opening of the operating systems to third-parties: Gatekeepers must allow third-party apps and app stores within the operating system of the device (i.e. iOS and Android). Such practices also lie at the heart of the Commission’s Apple App Store case. This obligation will have far-reaching implication for Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store. At the same time, the DMA acknowledges that the gatekeepers can take proportionate measures to ensure that third-party software applications do not endanger the integrity of the operating system provided by the gatekeeper.
  • Bundling prohibition: Gatekeepers are no longer allowed to bundle several of their core platform services, such as Google did with the pre-installation of Google Chrome on Android devices (Art. 5(f) DMA).
  • Non-public data: Gatekeepers have to refrain from using, in competition with business users, any data not publicly available, which is generated through activities by those business users (Art. 6(a) DMA). Such practices are currently under investigation with regard to the Amazon Marketplace.
  • Self-preferencing: Gatekeepers will have to refrain from treating their own services or products more favourably than those of third parties (Art. 6(d) DMA). The ongoing investigation of Amazon’s “’Buy Box” option is an example of this.

If gatekeepers fail to comply with these obligations, the Commission may impose fines of up to 10% of the gatekeeper’s worldwide annual turnover. It may also impose periodic penalty payments of 5% of the gatekeeper’s average daily turnover. Finally, the Commission has the power to take structural and behavioural measures when, following a market investigation, it finds that a gatekeeper is systematically violating its obligations under the DMA. An example of a structural remedy is the mandatory divestiture of (part of) a business.

Powers for national competition authorities

In principle, the enforcement of the DMA will lie with the Commission. However, the presidents of the NCAs in the EU have stated in their view that they should be given a complementary enforcement role under the DMA. They argue that their knowledge and expertise will make the DMA’s enforcement more effective and faster. Whether the NCAs will eventually be assigned a role in the enforcement of the DMA is unclear at this time.

Conclusion

Once in place, the DMA will embody the shift from ex-post enforcement to an ex-ante regulatory approach. In doing so, the Commission aims to improve competition in the Big Tech landscape. This could have a significant impact on the operations of gatekeepers within the EU.

However, the DMA is currently only a legislative proposal. Given the scope and expected impact of the DMA, it will be subject to much debate. Thus, it is still uncertain what the DMA will ultimately look like upon its enactment.

For further questions, you may contact Bas Braeken, Jade Versteeg, or Timo Hieselaar.

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Competition law and M&A: navigating through a minefield

The (European) supervision of concentrations is in full development. Most notably, the European Commission (“Commission”) has been cracking down on violations of the Merger Regulation in recent years.

If concentrations meet certain turnover thresholds, the companies involved have a notification obligation (Article 4 Merger Regulation). The companies involved may then not implement the concentration until the competent authority has approved the concentration. This is the standstill obligation (Article 7 Merger Regulation).

There is strict enforcement of violations of the notification and standstill obligation – so-called ‘gun-jumping’. It is therefore important to know what is and what is not permitted under competition law in the case of (the preparation of) a concentration. This blog provides an overview of recent legal developments and clarifies what merging parties can do prior to the approval of a transaction to avoid gun-jumping.

Unexpected decisive control?

If a company intends to acquire decisive control of another company, the acquiring party must notify this, provided that the turnover thresholds are met. However, it is not always clear when decisive control exists. For example, in 2012, Norwegian fish farmer Marine Harvest (now Mowi) acquired 48.5% of the shares in its competitor Morpol. This was notified to the Commission with a notice that the voting rights would not be exercised by Marine Harvest until approval was granted by the Commission. Prior to the notification, Marine Harvest made a public offer for the remaining shares in Morpol. This transaction was notified to the Commission, which subsequently found that the notification and standstill obligations had been violated because Marine Harvest had already acquired de facto decisive control in the acquisition of 48.5% of the shares in Morpol. The Commission reached this conclusion by checking the usual attendance of shareholders at previous shareholder meetings. On that basis, the Commission found that Marine Harvest, with 48.5%, constituted a majority among shareholders and could therefore exercise decisive control.

Marine Harvest was subsequently fined €10 million for violating the notification obligation and another €10 million for violating the standstill obligation. Although these appear to be two sides of the same coin, they are two distinguishable obligations for which the Commission can impose separate fines. Thus, there is no violation of the ne bis in idem principle. The Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) upheld the fines, ruling that in this case it did not matter that Marine Harvest had not exercised the voting rights because de facto sole decisive control had already been acquired prior to the public offer.

Decisive control or customary protection rights?

In February 2015, the telecom company Altice notified a proposed acquisition of PT Portugal, which received conditional approval from the Commission in April 2015. However, it later turned out that Altice could already exercise decisive influence before the acquisition was approved. In fact, the acquisition agreement already gave the telecom company veto rights over the appointment of senior management, pricing policy and several important contracts.

While the acquiring company may protect the value of the (shares in the) target company, it may not exercise decisive control beyond the ordinary course of business before the concentration approval is granted. Factors that are relevant in assessing whether there is a normal course of business are (i) the degree of involvement of the acquiring party in the day-to-day operation of the business, (ii) the nature of the measures in the agreement in favour of the acquiring company, and (iii) the monetary thresholds for exercising a veto with respect to the value of the target or purchase price. When these thresholds are very low, the exercise of decisive control is more likely to occur.

In this case, Altice already exercised decisive control prior to the notification through its involvement in PT Portugal’s negotiation strategy and choice of suppliers and certain TV channels. On that basis, in April 2018 the Commission imposed a fine of €124.5 million on Altice for gun-jumping, whereof €62.25 million for violating the notification obligation of Article 4 Merger Regulation and €62.25 million for violating the standstill obligation of Article 7 Merger Regulation.

On 8 November 2016, Altice was again fined €80 million for gun-jumping, this time by the French competition authority. In 2014, Altice notified the proposed acquisition of two telecom companies, SFR and OTL, by its subsidiary Numericable. The French competition authority had launched an investigation into gun-jumping, which revealed that Altice already had access to strategic information from and could exercise decisive influence over both companies before the concentration was approved. Altice had thus already acquired decisive control prior to any approval of the concentration, thereby engaging in gun-jumping.

Inseparable step for transaction does not necessarily lead to decisive control

An example of a situation where no decisive control was acquired by the purchasing company concerned the proposed concentration of KPMG Denmark and EY. The consultancy firms entered into a merger agreement on 18 November 2013. Since the Danish branch of KMPG still had a cooperation agreement with the KPMG group, this agreement was terminated on the very same day. The Danish competition authority approved the concentration at the end of May 2014, but stated (in December 2014) that unconditionally and irrevocably terminating the cooperation agreement with the KPMG Group before the concentration was approved could be regarded as an act in breach of the standstill obligation. The CJEU disagreed, concluding that the termination of the cooperation agreement does not lead to a change in decisive control of KPMG Denmark, even if this termination is inextricably linked to the concentration and may constitute a preparatory or side transaction of this concentration. According to the CJEU, transactions that do not lead to a change in decisive control do not fall within Article 7 Merger Regulation.

Transactions consisting of multiple steps

The Commission decision on Canon‘s acquisition of Toshiba Medical Systems Corporation (“TMSC”) shows that the notification and standstill obligation also applies to so-called ‘special purpose vehicles’. Canon intended to acquire TMSC by means of a ‘warehouse construction’. A special purpose vehicle was established which acquired 95% of the shares in TMSC for €800. Canon then acquired 5% of the shares for €5.28 billion and obtained a stock option on the remaining shares. The proposed acquisition was then notified to the Commission on 12 August 2016. After the Commission’s approval, the remaining 95% of the shares were acquired. The Commission launched an investigation into this construction in July 2017. It concluded that a transaction in which an interim buyer – the special purpose vehicle – acquires decisive control until the company will be sold to the ultimate seller, can be seen as the first step of the (final) transaction. After all, the preparatory step as such contributed to Canon’s acquisition of decisive control over TMSC, so that prior to this first step, notification was already required. As this was not done, the Commission imposed a fine of €28 million on Canon.

Another type of two-stage rocket was used by the French company Veolia. Veolia, active in the water, waste treatment and energy sectors, wanted to acquire decisive control of Suez through two steps. First, it obtained 29.9% of the shares in Suez from energy company ENGIE on 6 October 2020. The second step involved making a public offer for the remaining shares in Suez. Suez believed that these two steps should be considered as one transaction and that therefore Veolia should have notified the transaction before acquiring the shares. The Commission agreed that this was one transaction and that the two steps were interdependent; the public offer would never have happened without the previous acquisition of ENGIE shares. However, the Commission argued that both steps fell within the exception Article 7(2) Merger Regulation.

Article 7(2) Merger Regulation provides an exception to this standstill obligation for two types of transactions: a public bid and a series of share transactions where decisive control is acquired from multiple selling parties. However, the concentration must then be notified directly to the Commission and the acquirer may not exercise the voting rights. The Commission considered that the exception of Article 7(2) Merger Regulation regarding the public bid was also applicable to the first step of the concentration – the acquisition of 29.9% of the shares in Suez.

The Commission’s decision is in line with the General Court’s judgment in Marine Harvest. Indeed, the General Court concluded that it is possible for the acquisition of a minority stake, not yet acquiring decisive control of the target company, followed by a public takeover bid, to form part of one concentration falling within the scope of Article 7(2) Merger Regulation.

The difference between Marine Harvest and Veolia/Suez is that in the first situation, de facto decisive control was already obtained at the first step, namely through the acquisition of 48.5% of the shares in Morpol. This was not the case with Veolia with a 29.9% stake. Therefore, the standstill obligation is only violated if the first step already leads to an acquisition of decisive control. Although Suez has filed an appeal against the Commission’s decision, it does not appear to be going forward now that Veolia and Suez have reached a merger agreement on 12 April.

Lessons for the future

The aforementioned case law shows that the following points are important in the preparation of mergers:

  • De facto acquisition of decisive control also triggers a notification and standstill obligation.
  • This also applies to special purpose vehicles that acquire (temporary) decisive control.
  • Always notify preparatory steps to a concentration if they as such contribute to the change of decisive control.
  • Do not exercise decisive control prior to the approval of a concentration, insofar it is not necessary to protect the value of the target company.
  • Decisive control may not relate to the day-to-day operations.
  • In the case of a pre-closing veto right, the monetary threshold for exercising it must not be too low with respect to the transaction values.

Clean Teams

In addition to the notification and standstill obligation for concentrations, the cartel prohibition also still applies in full. In particular, the exchange of competitively sensitive information plays a role in the preparation of mergers. In that context, it is advisable under certain circumstances to set up Clean Teams in order to limit the risk of violating the cartel prohibition. Clean Teams are particularly advisable in transactions between two competitors.

  • The exchange of information should not lead to the situation where the commercial market behaviour of parties could be influenced.
  • Assemble the Clean Team, if possible, from a closed group of individuals who are not (as of that moment) involved (anymore) in the day-to-day operations of the parties.
    • For example, independent consultants or specially appointed employees.
  • Treat information within the Clean Team as strictly confidential.
    • Establish (internal) protocols regarding what information is accessible and to whom.
  • Seek legal advice when in doubt.
  • Have individuals on the Clean Team sign a confidentiality agreement and monitor its compliance.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Commission has introduced a new policy expanding its supervisory role with respect to concentrations. In this regard, please read our blog on Article 22 Merger Regulation.

For all your questions regarding merger control, bureau Brandeis is happy to help. You can reach us through the links below.

Bas Braeken, Jade Versteeg and Timo Hieselaar

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Competitor and buyer can now arm themselves against ‘killer acquisitions’

What to do when a dominant competitor takes over a promising start-up

Until recently, competitors and customers were left empty-handed in the case of a so-called ‘killer acquisition’. These are takeovers where a large, established company takes over a smaller, innovative and start-up competitor with the aim or effect of stifling innovation and/or eliminating potential competition. The reason for this was that many of these acquisitions do not have to be notified to a competition authority because the turnover thresholds are not met. Killer acquisitions could therefore not be assessed by the national competition authority or the European Commission. This has now changed.

On 26 March 2021, the Commission published new guidance on the application of the referral mechanism of Article 22 of the European Merger Regulation (“EU Regulation”). In addition to concentrations which are subject to notification to the national authorities, Article 22 of the EU Regulation also allows concentrations which are not subject to notification to be referred to the Commission for assessment.

The Commission is particularly interested in referrals of concentrations where the turnover of the parties does not accurately reflect their current or future potential. In practice, this will especially concern mergers involving new competitors and innovative companies. This will occur, inter alia, in digital, pharmaceutical, biotechnology and certain industrial sectors. The new policy is expected to have less impact on acquisitions in more traditional markets.

Background

On 26 March 2021, the Commission announced a major reform of the EU regulation. One of these major changes is a new policy on the application of Article 22 of the EU Regulation.

Old and new policy Article 22 EU Regulation

Article 22 of the EU Regulation allows one or more national competition authorities to refer a concentration to the Commission for examination when it may significantly affect competition in the internal market. The article dates back to 1989 when many Member States did not yet have a national merger control regime and therefore still had the possibility to have potentially anti-competitive concentrations examined by the Commission. Article 22 is also called the ‘Dutch clause‘ because it was introduced at the request of the Netherlands, which did not have merger control at that time. The article explicitly refers to concentrations that do not require notification. However, after almost all Member States had introduced a merger control regime, the importance of Article 22 significantly declined. It was even the Commission’s policy to discourage referrals of non-notifiable concentrations on the grounds that the concentrations would generally not significantly affect competition in the internal market.

The Commission’s new policy constitutes a major shift in the application of Article 22 of the EU regulation. The Commission now encourages Member States to refer certain concentrations to the Commission, even in cases where the referring Member State does not have jurisdiction to assess the concentration under the turnover thresholds. The Commission is free to decide whether to accept a referral request.

The new policy did not just come out of thin air. There had been a desire for some time by competition authorities to be able to assess killer acquisitions. The discussion was sparked in 2014 by Facebook’s acquisition of Whatsapp. The acquisition was not subject to notification in many member states because of Whatsapp’s low turnover. However, the acquisition was ultimately assessed by the European Commission because the acquisition was notifiable in three member states and was therefore qualified for a referral under Article 4(5) of the EU Regulation. The Commission approved the merger. This case was one of the reasons for Germany and Austria to adopt new laws introducing an additional notification threshold based on the value of the transaction. The Dutch Consumer and Market Authority (“ACM”), the Luxembourg Conseil de la Conucurrence and the Belgian Competition Authority (“BMA”) wrote a Benelux memorandum on the supervision of competition in the digital sector. This memorandum argued for a change in the notification thresholds, for example by introducing an additional threshold based on market power and/or the value of the transaction.

Test case: Illumina-Grail

Shortly after the Commission’s communication on the reforms of the EU merger control regime, it became known that the acquisition of Grail by Illumina was a test case for the application of the Commission’s new policy. For the first time since 1999, an Article 22 request was made without any of the expanding Member States having jurisdiction to assess the merger.

Illumina is one of the largest players in the world in the field of gene sequencing. Grail is a young company developing a blood test to detect about 50 types of cancer at an early stage by DNA sequencing. The company has no turnover in the EU, which means that, in principle, the concentration does not need to be notified to the Commission or the national authorities of the EU Member States. However, the acquisition had to be notified to the US Federal Trade Commission and is under attack there.

In February, the Commission expressed concerns about the potentially anti-competitive effects of the proposed merger in the field of cancer tests and encouraged national competition authorities to file a referral request in line with the new policy. The French Autorité de la concurrence has responded to the call and the ACM, BMA, and Greece Competition Commission supported the request. The acquisition was not subject to notification in any of those Member States. The Commission has accepted the request and will assess the proposed acquisition.

The referral request has caused quite a stir. Illumina brought lawsuits against the request in the Netherlands and France, but lost both cases. The case will undoubtedly be contested before the Court of Justice of the European Union. The new policy leads to much legal uncertainty in mergers and acquisitions in which a dominant competitor takes over a promising start-up. It is therefore important to take this into account during the (contract)negotiations of the acquisition. For example, when drafting the suspensive conditions in the contract, one should take into account the possibility of a referral to the Commission, even if the competition authorities in the Member States concerned do not have the power to assess the concentration themselves. On the other hand, the new policy also provides more opportunities for third-party stakeholders, such as competitors and purchasers, to complain.

What to do in case of a killer acquisition

Is a dominant competitor or supplier of yours taking over a promising start-up? Then take the following actions.

  1. Consider whether the turnover of the start-up gives an accurate view of its current or future potential. It may be that a start-up has little or no turnover yet, but is of great importance to the competition in the market or will become so in the near future. This can, among others, occur in the following situations:
    • the target is an important innovator or conducts potentially important research
    • the target is an important (potential) competitor
    • the target has access to important assets (such as raw materials, infrastructure, data or intellectual property rights)
  1. Contact as soon as possible the ACM and/or other Member States where the dominant competitor is active. The competition authority has a period of 15 working days to refer a concentration to the European Commission after the transaction has been ‘made known to the Member State concerned’. The period only begins to run when sufficient information is provided tot he Member State to make a preliminary assessment as to whether the criteria of Article 22 of the EU Regulation are met. Member States seem to have a fairly wide discretion in determining when the deadline starts running.
  1. Explain why the concentration affects trade between Member States. This is, for instance, the case if the dominant competitor is active in several Member States and/or (potential) customers are located in different Member States.
  1. Explain also why there is a real risk that the concentration will significantly impede competition within the territory of the Member State(s) concerned. A real risk exists where, as a result of the acquisition:
    • an important (potential) competitor is eliminated;
    • there is a merger between two important innovative companies;
    • competitors have fewer incentives or opportunities to compete because, among other things, market entry or expansion becomes difficult or even impossible;
    • there is an incentive or possibility for a strong market position in one market to be leveraged into another market through tying, bundling or other exclusionary practices.
  1. Contact the Commission. The Commission may encourage Member States to refer the acquisition.

Bas Braeken, Lara Elzas and Jade Versteeg

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Competition law in vertical relationships: killjoy or life preserver?

In almost every supply chain, agreements are concluded between suppliers and buyers to make the cooperation more efficient. Although vertical agreements are in many cases exempted by the Vertical Block Exemption Regulation (“VBER”) from the cartel prohibition under Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (“TFEU”) and Article 6 of the Dutch Competition Act (“Mw”), not every restriction is permitted. After all, the VBER does not apply to a number of hardcore restrictions of competition, or where market shares exceed 30%. The distinction between permitted and prohibited restrictions is not always clear to companies. This is evident, for example, from a survey conducted by the Benelux Secretariat in which at least 89% of the companies questioned indicated that they had been confronted with prohibited territorial restrictions. This blog provides an overview of enforcement and case law from 2019 and 2020, and discusses the most recent developments.

Enforcement by ACM

In September 2020, the Authority for Consumers and Markets (“ACM”) announced that it had completed its investigation into drug manufacturer AbbVie. From the end of 2018, AbbVie offered significant discounts to hospitals for the rheumatology drug Humira. The patent on the active substance in Humira expired in October 2018, allowing other manufacturers to market a generic product. To prevent its market position from declining as a result thereof, Abbvie gave discounts to hospitals if they purchased Humira for all their patients. ACM considered that AbbVie thereby factually imposed an exclusive purchasing obligation on hospitals which limited competition for new products. AbbVie agreed not to include exclusive purchasing clauses in its agreements with hospitals anymore.

Case law on vertical agreements

In March 2019, the Court of Appeal of Arnhem-Leeuwarden ruled on the legality of an exit scheme of Avebe. The articles of association of Avebe, a cooperative of farmers, stipulated that if members wished to transfer the shares to Avebe upon termination of their membership, they had to pay an amount of €681 per share to the cooperative. Six arable farmers did not agree with this withdrawal arrangement. The Court of Appeal agreed with the lower court and ruled that although the exit scheme was a restriction of competition, the scheme did not divide the market or impose price restrictions or other hardcore restrictions and was therefore allowed.

At the end of 2019, the Amsterdam Court of Appeal ruled in an (as yet unpublished) interlocutory judgment in the case between Prijsvrij and Corendon that the termination of an agreement can be an instrument to achieve resale price maintenance. Customers could book trips of Corendon through Prijsvrij, which used discounts on its website on trips of Corendon. The tour operator did not want Prijsvrij to apply such discounts and eventually terminated the agency agreement. Prijsvrij held that this termination should be regarded as a form of prohibited resale price maintenance. The Court of Appeal agreed and considered it proven (for the moment) that the termination of the agreement with Prijsvrij was particularly caused by the discounts offered by Prijsvrij to consumers.*

On 12 June 2020, Advocate General Drijber concluded – with reference to the appeal in cassation against a judgment of the Court of Appeal of The Hague – that a settlement agreement regarding a patent did not violate competition law. Jet Set and Brielle Industrie Services (“BIS“) in this case, both active in the field of cleaning techniques for oil tanks, had reached a settlement which, according to BIS, included a non-compete and non-challenge clause. BIS considered this to be a licence agreement with hardcore restrictions within the meaning of the Technology Transfer Block Exemption Regulation (“TTBER“). However, Advocate General Drijber concluded that it was neither a licence agreement nor a non-compete clause. A prohibition to use Jet Set’s technology follows directly from the patent on that technology. There was therefore no need to review the TTBER or Article 6(3) Mw. Although a non-challenge clause does not generally fall under the TTBER, there was no such clause in this case either. BIS had in fact (successfully) contested the patent. The Supreme Court did not reach a substantive judgment.

A case that did involve vertical licensing agreements concerned a dispute between Dromenjager, the company behind the well-known Woezel & Pip children’s figures, and toy manufacturer International Bon Ton Toys (“IBTT“). IBTT produces and sells toys for which it is allowed to use the Woezel & Pip (figurative) trademark. The licence agreement included a provision requiring approval from Dromenjager for sales by the licensees to a certain number of retailers, including Kruidvat. IBTT wanted to sell its remaining stock of Woezel & Pip products to Kruidvat and complained that the required approval was contrary to competition law. The President of the court reached the provisional conclusion that the approval provision in the licence agreement is a hardcore restriction of competition law. The judgment in summary proceedings has been appealed.**

Vertical agreements also often play an important role in the pharmaceutical market. In its judgment of 8 June 2020, the district court of Midden-Nederland ruled that health insurer Zilveren Kruis was allowed to use a ‘discount policy’ to encourage hospitals to purchase medicines from a manufacturer that was cheaper for Zilveren Kruis. Together with other health insurers, Zilveren Kruis entered into an agreement with Janssen-Cilag, the producer of a medicine for leukaemia (named Imbruvica). On the basis of this agreement, Janssen-Cilag supplied Imbruvica to the hospitals, after which the health insurers received discounts (based on subsequent calculation). Zilveren Kruis applied a mark-up of 49% if hospitals purchased Imbruvica from suppliers other than Janssen-Cilag. Eureco-Pharma, a competitor of Janssen-Cilag, argued that Zilveren Kruis was channelling the Imbruvica offer to Janssen-Cilag through its discount policy. The judge, however, concluded that Zilveren Kruis’ policy is aimed at always paying the lowest price. A competitive company is able to pursue this aim. Moreover, Eureco-Pharma was able to conclude a similar agreement with Zilveren Kruis. Therefore, there was no prohibited vertical restraint.

Finally, at the end of 2020, the Amsterdam District Court ruled that Trek Benelux – supplier of fast, lightweight bicycles – had to continue an agreement with its distributor. Trek Benelux terminated the agreement when the distributor applied a discount on top of the recommended retail price. According to Trek Benelux, such discounts harmed its brand image. The agreement also included an obligation to deliver assembled bicycles to customers. The distributor argued that the recommended retail price is in fact a minimum price and that the obligation to deliver assembled bicycles limits its passive (online) sales. The judge in preliminary relief proceedings ruled in line with the VBER that forcing distributors to adhere to the recommended retail price constitutes a hardcore restriction of competition law. Moreover, no justification had been put forward by Trek Benelux. Therefore, the agreement had to be continued. Trek Benelux was, however, able to demonstrate that the obligation to deliver assembled bicycles was necessary to protect the quality of the bicycles, which requires accurate assembly and adjustment. This provision was not contrary to competition law.

Evaluation of the VBER

The current Regulation, which has been in force since 2010, expires on 31 May 2022. The European Commission (“Commission“) intends to amend the Regulation. In this context, the Commission conducted a review, the findings of which were published on 8 September 2020.

The review shows that the VBER, albeit still relevant, is no longer adequate for application to online sales. After all, the retail sector has changed tremendously in recent years, particularly as a result of digitalisation and the subsequent increase in e-commerce (e-tailing). Entirely new types of restrictions on online sales have been imposed on buyers the past few years, such as a ban on the use of Google AdWords by Guess or the (re)sale of products on online marketplaces by Coty. The Commission has also imposed fines on, amongst others, Asus, Philips and Pioneer for imposing resale price maintenance on their online retailers. The interpretation of the rules on online sales restrictions varies widely in Europe. The new VBER will have to provide clarification. According to the Commission, there is still too much uncertainty about the use and lawfulness of ‘across-platforms parity agreements‘ (APPAs) as well. For the background and recent developments regarding APPAs, please read our earlier blog.

In addition, the collection and use of data has become crucial to the business operations of (online) companies in recent years. In this context, the Commission has also launched an investigation into Amazon. The American company is said to use data of sellers on Amazon – which it obtained in its capacity as a platform – to benefit its sales channel on the same platform. For this ‘self-preferencing’, the Commission previously imposed a fine of more than €2.4 billion on Google, which put its own services above those of competitors in Google’s search results.

Conclusion

Vertical agreements can often benefit from the exemption from the cartel prohibition, but not every restriction can be imposed. Dutch and European case law over the past two years confirms this. It is therefore essential to know what may and may not be included in a vertical relationship. It is, in this regard, of great importance what the new VBER will entail, especially with regard to online sales. However, the clarifications that the Commission seems to have in mind will only apply after May 2022. In any case, both civil and administrative enforcement of competition law in respect of vertical relationships has increased dramatically in recent years. It is likely that this trend will continue in the coming years.

* Bas Braeken and Jade Versteeg assist Prijsvrij in these proceedings.

** Bas Braeken and Timo Hieselaar have (first) become involved on appeal as Dromenjager’s lawyers.

 

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