Almunia: EU Antitrust damages directive “most significant”

St. Gallen International Competition Law Forum Remarks Highlight Civil Competition-Law Enforcement & Cartel Victims’ Access to Evidence as Top-of-Agenda for Outgoing Commissioner

Joaquin ALMUNIA, Vice President of the European Commission responsible for Competition policy & enforcement, made the following (excerpted) remarks at the 2014 International Competition Law Forum held in St. Gallen.

From a practitioner’s perspective, the Commissioner’s emphasis on cartel victims’ access to evidence, his subtle reminder that the Directive merely sets a “minimum standard“, and the parallel observation that the upcoming collective redress Recommendation will be applicable across all policy (and legal) fields are important highlights of the prepared remarks.

I will start with the Directive on antitrust damages actions, which I regard as one of the most significant developments in the competition-policy domain in the current mandate.

Infringements of EU competition law are not only bad for the competitiveness of our economy. They also harm companies and consumers directly.

We recognise that every individual consumer and business has the right to be compensated for this damage. However, given the legal systems of EU countries, only a few victims obtain compensation in practice.

The time has come to translate our principles into actual practice.

Last year the Commission tabled a proposal to remove existing obstacles in national rules and make it easier for victims to obtain compensation across the EU through private enforcement.

The European Parliament and the Council have seized the opportunity and reached a political agreement with remarkable speed.

The Parliament voted the final text by an overwhelming majority, and the formal approval by the Council is expected before or shortly after the summer.

This outcome is a major success for a number of reasons.

First, from the perspective of victims, the Directive will make it easier for them to get hold of the evidence they need to prove the damage, because national courts will be empowered to order disclosure of relevant evidence.

The Directive also allows victims to rely on decisions taken by national competition authorities when these find an infringement.

Moreover, it introduces clear rules on several aspects of competition litigation, thus reducing the existing uncertainties, which have a cost for all parties.

From the perspective of the internal market, the Directive sets a minimum standard in all Member States, which means more legal certainty and a more level playing field throughout the EU.

Finally, from the perspective of competition authorities, the Directive fine-tunes the interaction between their work and the compensation claims by private parties. This is thanks to rules that preserve the incentives of companies to cooperate in antitrust investigations.

In parallel to the Directive, the Commission has also adopted a Recommendation inviting Member States to introduce collective redress mechanisms at national level by mid-2015.

The Recommendation includes basic principles that would ensure fair, timely and affordable procedures across the EU. The Recommendation is not limited to competition law but covers all policy fields.

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EU Parliament votes in favour of private antitrust damages initiative

The European Parliament gave its green light to the Commission private-damages Directive today:

Brussels, 17 April 2014

Antitrust: Commission welcomes Parliament vote to facilitate damages claims by victims of antitrust violations

The European Parliament has approved a proposal for a Directive which will help citizens and companies claim damages if they are victims of infringements of the EU antitrust rules, such as cartels and abuses of dominant market positions. The Directive is based on a proposal by the Commission of June 2013 (see IP/13/525 and MEMO/13/531), and aims to remove a number of practical difficulties which victims frequently face when they try to obtain compensation for the harm they have suffered. In particular, it will give victims easier access to evidence they need to prove the damage and more time to make their claims. At the same time it ensures that the effectiveness of the tools used by competition authorities to enforce antitrust rules, in particular leniency and settlement programmes, is preserved. The proposal is now sent to the EU Council of Ministers for final approval. See also MEMO/14/310.

Commission VicePresident in charge of competition policy Joaquín Almunia said, “The vote by the European Parliament is great news for European citizens and businesses harmed by antitrust violations. The Directive will help to make the right to full compensation a reality in the EU, by removing the practical obstacles that victims face today. When the Directive is adopted and implemented, obtaining redress will become easier for them, especially after a competition authority has found and sanctioned an infringement.”

The EU Court of Justice has recognised the right for victims of antitrust infringements to be compensated for the harm suffered. However, due to national procedural obstacles and legal uncertainty, only few victims actually obtain compensation. Moreover, national rules are widely diverging across Europe and, as a result, the chances of victims to obtain compensation greatly depend on which Member State they happen to live in. The Directive aims to remove these obstacles. Main improvements include:

  • National courts can order companies to disclose evidence when victims claim compensation. The courts will ensure that such disclosure orders are proportionate and that confidential information is duly protected.
  • A final decision of a national competition authority finding an infringement will automatically constitute proof before courts of the same Member State in which the infringement occurred.
  • Victims will have at least 1 year to claim damages once an infringement decision by a competition authority has become final.
  • If an infringement has caused price increases and these have been “passed on” along the distribution chain, those who suffered the harm in the end will be the ones entitled to claim compensation.
  • Consensual settlements between victims and infringing companies will be made easier by clarifying their interplay with court actions. This will allow a faster and less costly resolution of disputes.

Private damages actions before courts and public enforcement of antitrust rules by competition authorities (whether the Commission or national authorities) are complementary tools. Through the Directive they will reinforce each other, on the one hand to achievefull compensation for victims (including lost profits and interest) and, on the other, to enhance the key role of competition authorities in investigating and sanctioning infringements, thus achieving deterrence. In particular, cooperation between companies and competition authorities under so-called “leniency” programmes plays a key role in the detection and sanctioning of infringements of competition rules. Without such cooperation, many infringements would never be discovered in the first place, and in many cases, it is therefore the successful enforcement of competition rules by a public authority that will enable victims to subsequently seek and obtain compensation. As a result, the Directive contains a number of safeguards to ensure that facilitating damages actions does not diminish the incentives for companies to cooperate with competition authorities (see MEMO/14/310).

Next Steps

Today’s plenary vote in first reading was the European Parliament’s final step in the procedure. Approval by the Council will complete the legislative procedure. Once the Directive has been officially adopted, Member States will have two years to implement the provisions in their legal systems.

The full text of the Directive is available here:

http://ec.europa.eu/competition/antitrust/actionsdamages/documents.html

Background

In June 2013, the Commission submitted its proposal to the European Parliament and the Council (see IP/13/525 and MEMO/13/531). After both co-legislators discussed the proposal and suggested amendments, informal meetings between the three institutions (so-called trilogues) were launched in February to achieve a compromise text. Representatives of Member States’ governments agreed to the final compromise text at the end of March.