viernes, 28 de agosto de 2009


La Comisión Europea ha sometido a consulta pública la reforma del Reglamento de exención de acuerdos verticales y las correspondientes Directrices. Se trata de una reforma de escaso calado en cuanto no hay cambios fundamentales en cuál debe ser la actitud de las autoridades de competencia frente a los acuerdos entre un fabricante y un distribuidor relativos a la distribución de productos. En comparación con la de 1999 esta es una simple actualización, no un cambio conceptual. Y los restos de la concepción de los años sesenta siguen, por tanto, vivos y con buena salud. Unos pocos comentarios generales:
  • The Notice Draft does not make any reference to the partitioning of the European market as a consequence of resale price maintenance clauses (RPM) which is an effect of the softening of the linkage between competition law and market integration in the EU. Therefore, the Commission should rethink its position on seeing RPM clauses as prohibited per se with the effect of voiding the contract. Nevertheless, it is to welcome the “new approach” contained in the Draft Notice (47) which leaves a space for some RPM clauses to be considered as legitimate. In our view this is clearly insufficient since the manufacturer has the burden of proving the efficiencies of the RPM clause. And that is ridiculous. Why should a manufacturer who lacks market power want to include an RPM clause were it not for efficiency reasons? The problem with the "new" approach is that it creates uncertainty without gains, since manufacturers can not be confident that its RPM clause will be deemed to be valid and, therefore, lawyers will refrain from including them in the distribution contracts. All the efficiencies that those clauses could generate will be lost. And this is a clear cost of the regulation.
  • Moreover, if the Commission accepts that vertical restrictions included in contracts where the parties do not have a significant presence in the market can not have effects on the market outcomes, (“(11) In addition, the Commission considers that, subject to cumulative effect and hardcore restrictions, vertical agreements between small and medium-sized undertakings as defined in the Annex to Commission Recommendation 2003/361/EC9 are rarely capable of appreciably affecting trade between Member States or of appreciably restricting competition within the meaning of Article 81(1),”) and therefore generally fall outside the scope of Article 81(1)” I can not see how a contract “rarely capable of appreciably affecting trade” can include a term – the hardcore restriction – that could be “capable of appreciably affecting trade”. The Commission is punishing a behaviour – and limiting freedom of contract – not because of its (real or potential) damaging effects on competition but on shaky reasons and outdated prejudices about what is right and wrong in commercial practices.
  • The distinction between unilateral and concerted practices regarding vertical restrictions is theoretically and practically unsound (“(25)The Block Exemption Regulation applies to agreements and concerted practices. The Block Exemption Regulation does not apply to unilateral conduct of the undertakings concerned. Such unilateral conduct can fall within the scope of Article 82 of the EC Treaty which prohibits abuses of a dominant position. For there to be an agreement within the meaning of Article 81 it is sufficient that the parties have expressed their joint intention to conduct themselves on the market in a specific way”). From the point of view of the effects of the behaviour in the markets it does not matter whether the practice is a result of an “agreement” between the producer and the distributor or a unilateral initiative of the former. The distinction is artificial and gives raise to a conceptual “orgy” (“the Commission will have to show that the unilateral policy of one party receives the acquiescence of the other party”) regarding whether an agreement existed or not (Volkswagen, Adalat cases). Competition Law is there to control market power (whatever the way a firm or a group of firms obtain this power), not to control agreements between firms per se. Even Commissioner Kroes seems to agree. In a speech on exclusionary behaviour, she said:
    "In the enforcement of Article 82, the Commission should in my view also be prepared to examine claims put forward by a dominant firm that its conduct is justified on grounds comparable to those indicated in Article 81(3) of the EC Treaty. Admittedly, Article 82 does not expressly foresee the possibility of exempting abusive behaviour from Article 82 because of efficiencies. However, I would find it difficult to explain an effects-based approach under Article 82 without looking into efficiencies. Likewise, I would find it difficult to explain why we consider efficiencies under Article 81 and the EC Merger Regulation but not under Article 82. At the most basic level, the same conduct (such as exclusivity agreements entered into by a dominant undertaking) can be analysed under both Articles 81 and 82. It would be strange if we concluded that such conduct is not anti-competitive under Article 81 but infringes Article 82, with the only explanation for that divergence being that we cannot work out how to take the pro-competitive aspects into account under Article 82". It is clear that a firm who lacks market power can not be treated in the same way as a dominant firm when it comes to request a justification for its conduct in the market, being this conduct a unilateral conduct or an agreement with another firm.
  • The distinction upon which arts. 4 and 5 of the Regulation are based lacks solid theoretical grounds. Why should a contract that includes an RPM clause be completely void (non exempt) and a contract that contains a non compete clause be still valid if the clause is severable? The only reasonable answer to this question is that RPM clauses are much more important in the economy of the agreement than a non-compete clause (par 66 and 67 Draft Notice). But this should be left to the national legislation. The non-exemption of the clause (leaving indeterminate the consequences for the rest of the agreement including the severability issue) as a consequence should be the same for any hardcore restriction.
  • The equal assessment and treatment of non compete clauses “the duration of which is indefinite or exceeds five years is incorrect. A non-compete obligation which is tacitly renewable beyond a period of five years is to be deemed to have been concluded for an indefinite duration. If the distributor can terminate the contract (as it is provided in the Law of contracts for contracts of indefinite duration), no foreclosure can occur since the new entrant (i.e., the competitor of the producer) can induce the distributor to terminate its contract with the incumbent at any time. Therefore, from the competitive effects point of view it is not the same a 10 years duration agreement including a non-compete clause and an indefinite agreement tacitly renewable that can be unilaterally terminated. The reasons adduced in par (62) of the draft notice are only applicable to definite agreements.

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