Competition Law as a Swiss Army Knife (Move Fast and Break Things?)

Valentin Mircea —  30 December 2019 — Leave a comment

[TOTM: The following is the fourth in a series of posts by TOTM guests and authors on the politicization of antitrust. The entire series of posts is available here.]

This post is authored by Valentin Mircea, a Senior Partner at Mircea and Partners Law Firm, Bucharest, Romania.

The enforcement of competition rules in the European Union is at historic heights. Competition enforcers at the European Commission seem to think that they have reached a point of perfect equilibrium, or perfection in enforcement. “Everything we do is right,” they seem to say, because for decades no significant competition decision by the Commission has been annulled on substance. Meanwhile, the objectives of EU competition law multiply continuously, as DG Competition assumes more and more public policy objectives. Indeed, so wide is DG Competition’s remit that it has become a kind of government in itself, charged with many areas and facing several problems looking for a cure.

The consumer welfare standard is merely affirmed and rarely pursued in the enforcement of the EU competition rules, where even the abuse of dominance tends to be considered as a per se infringement, at least until the European Court of Justice had its say in Intel. It helps that this standard has been always of a secondary importance in the European Union, where the objective of market integration prevailed over time.

Now other issues are catching the eye of the European Commission and the easiest way to handle things such as the increasing power of the technology companies was to make use of the toolkit of the EU competition enforcement.  A technology giant such as Google has already been hit three times with significant fines; but beyond the transient glory of these decisions, nothing significant happened in the market, to other companies or to consumers. Or it did? I’m not sure and nobody seems to check or even care. But the impetus in investigating and applying fines on the technology companies is unshaken — and is likely to remain so at least until the European Court of Justice has its say in a new roster of cases, which will not happen very soon.

The EU competition rules look both over- and under-enforced. This seeming paradox is explained by the formalistic approach of the European Commission and its willingness to serve political purposes, often the result of lobbying from various industries.  In the European Union, competition enforcement increasingly resembles Swiss Army knife; it is good for quick fixes of various problems, while not solving entirely any of them. 

The pursuit of political goals is not necessarily bad in itself; it seems obvious that competition enforcers should listen to the worries of the societies in which they live. Once objectives such as welfare seem to have been attained, it is thus not entirely surprising that enforcement should move towards fixing other societal problems. Take the case of the antitrust laws in the United States, the enactment of which was not determined by an overwhelming concern for consumer welfare or economic efficiency but by powerful lobbies that convinced Congress to act as a referee for their long-lasting disputes with different industries.  In spite of this not-so-glorious origin, the resultant antitrust rules have generated many benefits throughout the world and are an essential part of the efforts to keep markets competitive and ensure a level-playing field. So, why worry that the European Commission – and, more recently, even certain national competition authorities (such as Germany) – have developed a tendency to use powerful competition rules to make order in other areas, where the public opinion, irrespective if it is or not aware of the real causes of concern, requires it?

But in fact, what is happening today is bad and is setting precedents never seen before.  The speed at which new fronts are being opened, where the enforcement of the EU competition rules is an essential part of the weaponry, gives rise to two main areas of concern.

First, EU competition enforcers are generally ill-equipped to address sensitive technical issues that even big experts in the field do not understand properly, such as the use of the Big Data (a vague concept itself, open to various interpretations).  While creating a different set of rules and a new toolkit for the digital economy does not seem to be warranted (debates are still raging on this subject), a dose of humility as to the right level of knowledge required for a proper understanding of the interactions and for proper enforcement, would be most welcome.  Venturing into territories where conventional economics does not apply to its full extent, such as the absence of a price, an essential element of competition, requires a prudent and diligent enforcer to hold back, advance cautiously, and act only where deemed necessary, in an appropriate and proportionate way. So doing is more likely to have an observably beneficial impact, in contrast to the illusory glory of simply confronting the tech giants.

Second, given the limited resources of the European Commission and the national competition authorities in the Member States, exaggerated attention to cases in the technology and digital economy sectors will result in less enforcement in the traditional economy, where cartels and other harmful behaviors still happen, with often more visible negative effects on consumers and the economy. It is no longer fashionable to tackle such cases, as they do not draw the same attention from the media and their outcomes are not likely to create the same fame to the EU competition enforcers.

More recently, in an interesting move, the new European Commission unified the competition and the digital economy portfolios under the astute supervision of commissioner Margrethe Vestager. Beyond the anomaly to put together ex-ante and ex-post powers, the move signals an even larger propensity towards using competition enforcement tools in order to investigate and try to rein in the power of the behemoths of the digital economy.  The change is a powerful political message that EU competition enforcement will be even more prone to cases and decisions motivated by the pursuit of various public policy goals.

I am not saying that the approach taken by the EU competition enforcers has no chance of generating benefits for European consumers. But I am worried that moving ahead with the same determination and with the same limited expertise of the case handlers as has so far been demonstrated, is unlikely to deliver such a beneficial outcome. Moreover, contrary to the stated intention of the policy, it is likely to chill further the prospects for EU technology ventures. 

Last but not least, courageous enforcement of EU competition rules is not a panacea for the unwanted effects on the evidentiary tier, which might put in danger the credibility of this enforcement, its most valuable feature. Indeed, EU competition enforcement may be at its heights but there is no certainty that it won’t fall from there — and falling could be as spectacular as the cases which made the European Commission get to this point. I thus advocate for DG Competition to be wise and humble, to take one step at a time, to acknowledge that markets are generally able to self-correct, and to remember that the history of the economy is little more than a cemetery of forgotten giants that were once assumed to be unshakeable and unstoppable.

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