Author: Luis Blanquez
As a US company doing business internationally, you might wonder what are the legal rules and procedures currently in place in the European Union to file an antitrust complaint.
First, you should understand that The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) is based on the existence of a single market with free movement of goods and services throughout the European Union. The antitrust rules included in the TFEU, such as those against anti-competitive agreements, abuses of dominant position, certain problematic mergers and state aid, are essential to achieve that free movement.
Second, an important distinction from US antitrust law is that EU antitrust law is mainly enforced by public authorities: by the European Commission at EU level, and by national competition authorities (NCAs) at national level.
Third, EU antitrust law is also enforced—to a lesser extent—through ordinary litigation before the appropriate national courts of each Member State.
Last but not least, we shouldn’t forget that each Member State within the EU has also its own domestic antitrust rules, often mirroring EU rules, but sometimes with important procedural and substantive differences.
How the different antitrust laws are applied in the EU between NCAs, the European Commission and national courts, deserves an independent post on its own. For now, however, just keep in mind that as a plaintiff, you could also file an antitrust complaint in the EU before a national court.
In the meantime, if you want to know more about this issue, please see: (i) Council Regulation (EC) No 1/2003 on the implementation of the rules on competition, (ii) Commission Notice on the co-operation between the Commission and the courts of the EU Member States in the application of Articles 81 and 82 EC (See more information here), and (iii) Notice on Cooperation within the network of competition authorities in the European Competition Network (See more information here).
Let’s return to our discussion on the application of EU antitrust rules by the European Commission. In the European Union, the Directorate General for Competition of the European Commission (“the Commission”), together with NCAs, directly enforces EU competition rules, Articles 101-109 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The two most important articles, for the purpose of this post, are articles 101 and 102 TFEU.
Article 101 of the Treaty prohibits agreements between two or more independent market operators that restrict competition. It covers: (i) horizontal agreements between actual or potential competitors operating at the same level of the supply chain; (ii) and vertical agreements, between firms operating at different levels, such as an agreement between a manufacturer and its distributor.
Article 102 of the Treaty prohibits dominant firms from abusing that position, for example, by charging unfair prices, by limiting production, or by refusing to innovate to the prejudice of consumers.
HOW DOES AN ANTITRUST CASE START IN THE EU?
- The investigation
For Article 101 TFEU cases, the Commission and NCAs have important investigative powers under Regulation 1/2003.
The initiation of a Commission investigation might be the result of: (i) the Commission (or an NCA) launching an inquiry of its own initiative; (ii) a third party with information who approaches the Commission, such as a competitor or customer, (iii) a party to a cartel (or anti-competitive agreement) acting as a whistleblower under the existing leniency program, or (iv) when an NCA refers a case with a cross border element to the Commission through the ECN network.
Under Article 102, a case can originate either upon receipt of a complaint or through the opening of an investigation at the commission’s initiative.