EC reaps profits of cartel-busting

From the IBA's Second International Corporate Counsel Conference in Barcelona

Olivier Guersent, head of the coordination and general policy unit of DG Competition, sparked controversy at the second International Corporate Counsel Conference last week by describing anti-cartel enforcement as a prosperous activity for the European Commission (EC) and considering it a profit centre.

The conference in Barcelona last week provided DG Competition with a platform to discuss the impact of the modernisation of the antitrust implementation rules and changes to the merger control system, and to review significant 2002 decisions.

In 2002 the total number of new cases was 934, of which 32 comprised antitrust cases, 335 merger cases and 417 state aid cases. In 2001, however, there were 1,036 new cases, comprising 284 antitrust cases, 335 merger cases and 417 state aid cases (excluding complaints).

Guersent said that in 2002 the EC adopted nine decisions in relation to anti-cartel enforcement and imposed record fines totalling e1bn (£682.3m). “The priority given to the fight against cartels and the treatment of cartel cases in 2001 kept its base and even intensified in 2002,” he said. “After 2001, 2002 was a record year in terms of cartel decisions.”

Philip Lowe, director-general of DG Competition, described in detail how Regulation 1/2003, which was adopted by the council on 16 December 2002 to modernise the antitrust implementation rules, will affect the focus of DG Competition in the forthcoming years. “The central element of the new system is that it eliminates the present notification and exemption system and introduces the direct application of Article 81 as a whole,” he said. “It will allow the [European] Commission to focus its enforcement activities on the most serious infringements, like cartels and abusive behaviour by dominant firms, instead of working down a pile of notifications.”

Lowe then talked about the radical change in the cooperation between the EC and the national competition authorities. He said: “Each authority is fully competent to apply Articles 81 and 82 of the EC Treaty, but the new regulation doesn't allocate tasks between the EC and national competition authorities in the application of EC competition law. Last year we started working with our colleagues so as to design and implement a network capable of ensuring full cooperation and exchange of information.”

Lowe went on to explain his take on the proposed reforms to the EC merger control proceedings. He said that DG Competition firmly opposes any erosion of the tight timetable for assessing potential mergers and that it proposes to introduce flexibility into the timeframe.