EduBourseActualitésAntitrust: Commission introduces settlement procedure for cartels – frequently asked questions

Antitrust: Commission introduces settlement procedure for cartels – frequently asked questions

Pierre Perrin-Monlouis Dernière mise à jour: 20 octobre 2021

Why does the Commission introduce a settlement procedure?

Where the parties to a cartel case agree with the Commission findings, the Commission wants to be able to use an instrument to speed up the adoption of a Decision.

This should free resources to deal with other cases, increasing the detection rate and overall efficiency of the Commission’s antitrust enforcement. This is also expected to have a positive impact on general deterrence.

When parties are convinced of the strength of the Commission’s case in view of the evidence gathered during the investigation and of their internal audit, they may be ready to acknowledge their participation to an infringement and accept their liability for it, in order to shorten the procedure and obtain a reduction of the fine. A settlement procedure therefore provides scope for reducing the length of the administrative procedure given the acceptance by parties of the Commission’s case.

Does the settlement procedure imply negotiations?

No. The procedure will not give companies the ability to negotiate with the Commission as to the existence of an infringement of Community law or the appropriate sanction. It can, however, reward the cooperation of companies by speeding the proceedings in cartel cases and reducing the fine.

The Commission will not bargain about evidence or its objections, however, parties will also be heard effectively in the framework of the settlement procedure and parties will therefore have the opportunity to influence the Commission’s objections through argument.

Why is the settlement procedure limited to cartel cases?

In the anti-cartel field, the practical ability of the Commission to enforce the EC Treaty’s rules on restrictive business practices (Article 81) hinges on the extent and probative value of the evidence gathered during the investigation. Experience shows that litigation mainly relates to circumstances having a bearing on the amount of the fine and liability of parent companies for actions undertaken by their subsidiaries.

Moreover, amongst antitrust cases, cartel investigations are comparatively more frequent and often entail a heavier procedure in view, among other things, of the multiplicity of parties and languages involved and the jurisdictional issues they raise (e.g. discovery).

Will the settlements procedure apply to all cartel cases?

Not every cartel case will be suitable for settlement. The Commission will have a broad margin of discretion to determine which cartel cases are suitable. Account will be taken of the likelihood that the Commission and all parties concerned will reach the same conclusions on the scope of the objections and the prospect of achieving procedural efficiencies. This issue is addressed in point 5 of the Notice.

On the other hand, companies are not obliged to enter settlement discussions or to ultimately settle and the Commission may only apply the settlement procedure upon parties’ explicit request.

What are the main differences between the current Commission’s leniency programme and the settlements procedure?

The Commission leniency programme is an investigation tool (see IP/06/1705). It aims at discovering cartel cases and collecting evidence to discharge the Commission’s burden of proof. The “Leniency Notice” rewards companies who voluntarily disclose to the Commission the existence of a cartel and bring evidence to prove the infringement. The reduction of the fine varies widely depending on the timing and significant added value of the information and evidence provided.

In contrast, settlement aims at simplifying and expediting the procedure leading to the adoption of a formal decision, thereby allowing for procedural savings and the internal redeployment of enforcement resources. The “Settlements Notice” rewards concrete contributions to procedural efficiency. All parties settling in the same case will receive equivalent reductions of the fine (10%), because their contribution to procedural savings will be equivalent.

Will the settlement reduction have a negative impact on the leniency programme?

Even with a settlement procedure, the incentive for companies to ask for leniency will remain unchanged.

First of all, the expected reduction of fine under the leniency programme is considerably more significant than the 10% settlements reduction. Secondly, leniency will not be available once settlement discussions start, which will be after the purely investigative phase.

To the extent that companies have an interest to get the maximum reduction of fine, they will therefore have a strong interest to favour leniency. However, as the reductions of fine are cumulative, companies will always have an incentive to ask for both.

What are the main differences between “commitment” decisions and procedures on the one hand and “settlement” decisions and procedures on the other?

Commitment decisions are adopted on the basis of Article 9 of Regulation (EC) Nº 1/2003. They do not establish an infringement or impose a fine, but bring a suspect behaviour to an end by imposing on companies the commitments offered to meet the Commission concerns. Commitment decisions render the commitments legally binding and conclude that there are no longer grounds for action by the Commission. Therefore, they do not constitute precedents to establish recidivism for subsequent infringements. Commitment decisions are not appropriate in cartel cases.

Settlement decisions are only foreseen in cartel cases. They are adopted pursuant to Articles 7 and 23 of Regulation (EC) Nº 1/2003, which are the standard legal basis for Commission Decisions acting against violations of Articles 81 and 82 EC. Therefore, settlement decisions establish the existence of an infringement, describing and proving all the relevant parameters thereof, require the termination of the infringement and impose a fine. They constitute a precedent valid to establish recidivism for subsequent similar infringements and preclude the adoption of another decision for the same facts and pursuant to the same legal basis by the Commission or any EU National Competition Authority.

When can a company request the initiation of settlement discussions? When do settlement discussions start?

Any company which becomes aware of the existence of an investigation (e.g. a leniency applicant, the addressee of a measure of investigation in general or the addressee of a decision of inspection in particular) may already at that stage indicate to the Commission its interest in exploring settlements.

Settlement discussions start only once the Commission has gathered and analysed evidence and is prepared to raise objections. Should the Commission consider a case suitable for settlement, it will initiate proceedings once the investigation (leniency, inspections) takes it to the stage of drafting a statement of objections. It will then explore the interest in settlement discussions of all parties’ to the proceedings by letter setting a final time-limit to express their interest in writing.

Why does the Commission require parties to the procedure belonging to the same group of undertakings to appoint a joint representative?

This is necessary to have fruitful and efficient discussions with each of the undertakings concerned. In this regard, joint representation will not prejudge the finding of joint and several liability amongst parties of the same undertaking or group.

When and how will settlements discussions take place?

Upon parties’ written request, the Commission may decide to open discussions rounds to be held between the initiation of proceedings and the adoption of the statement of objections.

Settlement discussions will tackle in a timely manner the alleged facts, their classification, the gravity and the duration of the infringement and on the liability for the individual involvement in the cartel on the basis of the evidence in the file supporting the envisaged objections. This includes discussing the potential maximum fine net of any other reduction. Accessible versions of other documents (than evidence) listed in the case file may be disclosed upon reasoned request when it is justified to enable a company to ascertain its position on a given time period or issue, and where this disclosure does not jeopardise the overall efficiency sought with the settlement procedure. This issue is addressed in Articles 15 to 17 of the Notice.

If the parties are convinced of the case the Commission may set a time-limit for them to introduce a formal request (“settlement submission”) to settle the case. The settlement submission would be formulated according to a specified template and drafted along with the results of the settlement discussions. The conditional settlements submission will contain in particular the acknowledgement of their participation to the infringement, their commitment to follow the settlement procedure and an estimate of the potential fine, in anticipation of the formal objections.

What are the main conditions to obtain a settlement decision for a company?

According to article 20 of the Notice, the parties who want to settle a case with the Commission have to declare their interest in settlement discussions, appoint a representative per undertaking and submit a settlement submission in the terms discussed with the Commission and containing:

an acknowledgement of the parties’ liability for the infringement
an indication of the maximum amount of the fines the parties foresee to be imposed by the Commission
the parties’ confirmation that they have been informed of the Commission’s objections in a satisfactory manner and that they have been given the opportunity to be heard
the parties’ confirmation that they will request neither access to the file nor a formal oral hearing
the parties’ agreement to receive the statement of objections and the final decision of the Commission in a given language of the European Community.
By introducing a settlement submission, the parties commit to follow the settlement procedure subject to the condition that the Commission Decision ultimately reflects the contents of the settlement submission and it does not impose a fine higher that the maximum fine indicated in it.

How are settlement submissions protected against discovery orders from other jurisdictions? Can the parties introduce settlement submissions orally?

In cases where all parties settle, settlement submissions will not be rendered accessible, because no access to the file will be provided once the “settled” statement of objections is issued. In hybrid cases, the parties who do not settle will only get access to other parties’ settlement submissions at Commission premises, and they are not allowed to make any mechanical copy thereof. The information obtained from the settlement submission may solely be used for their defence in procedures where Community competition rules are at issue. Other parties such as complainants will not be granted access to settlement submissions.

Settlement submissions can be introduced both in writing and orally.

These provisions, together with other more detailed ones in paragraphs 35 to 40 of the Notice, provide settlement submissions with the same level of protection as submissions introduced under the Leniency Notice.

Can the parties to the proceedings disclose to any other third party the content of bilateral settlement discussions?

The parties to the proceedings and their legal representatives are not allowed to disclose to any third party the content of their discussions with the Commission’s services or of the documents which they have had access to. A breach of this rule may constitute an aggravating circumstance to be taken into account in setting the fine.

What will happen if the statement of objections or the final decision does not reflect the contents of the conditional settlements submissions?

If the Commission does not reflect the contents of settlements submissions of the parties in a statement of objections or in a final decision, the acknowledgments provided by the relevant parties are deemed to have been withdrawn and they cannot be used against them. Moreover, the relevant parties would be able to challenge the Commission findings within the administrative proceedings and the ordinary procedure and all these steps would apply.

Are the companies’ rights of defence restricted under the settlements procedure compared to those under the ordinary procedure?

The rights to have access to the file or to request an oral hearing are exercised upon parties’ request also in the framework of the ordinary procedure and a party can choose self-incrimination as a line of defence in view of possible rewards also in the framework of the ordinary procedure. However, isolated parties’ choices do not result in procedural efficiencies. The settlement procedure simply provides incentives and organizes the procedural steps to promote similar procedural choices by the parties to the same proceedings in order to obtain procedural efficiencies.

Parties’ rights of defence under the settlement procedure remain the same as in the ordinary procedure. They are simply exercised in the framework of bilateral discussions both orally and by means of a submission, in anticipation of the formal notification of objections.

Parties choose between the settlement procedure and the ordinary procedure freely and in a fully informed manner.

By introducing a settlement phase, the Commission increases companies’ options to be informed earlier of potential objections and of the evidence supporting them. In addition, companies would be informed of the likely range of fines prior to the adoption of the final decision. On the basis of these facts and documents, the parties have the opportunity to express their views to the Commission, in line with the case-law of the Court of Justice as mentioned in particular in article 16 of the Commission’s notice. This enables companies to influence the contents of the statement of objections and, thereby, of the decision itself. Full access to file remains available after the SO for those who do not settle, as it is the case today, and the parties may decide at any moment to stop the settlements discussions or not to send a settlement submission. Finally, any settlement Decision is open to appeal.

May the parties call upon the Hearing Officer during the settlements procedure?
The parties may call upon the Hearing Officer at any time during the settlements procedure in relation to issues that might arise relating to due process. This constitutes an additional guarantee for the respect of the rights of defence, as is the case in the ordinary procedure.

How will the 10% reduction of fine be determined for settlement decisions?

Pursuant to article 32 of the Commission notice, the settlement reduction will be deducted from the fine that a company would normally have to pay according to the provisions of the current Commission’s guidelines on fines. If the fine calculated before the settlements reduction is capped to 10% of the worldwide turnover according to Article 23 of Regulation (EC) Nº 1/2003, the settlement reduction will be applied to the resulting amount.

When applicable, the reduction of fine given under the settlements procedure will be cumulative with the reduction of fine under the leniency program. The Commission will establish the amount of the settlement reductions after public consultation.

Is the settlement reduction the same for all parties settling?

The reduction of the fine rewarding companies for having settled a case with the Commission is equivalent for each party having settled (10%).

Is the Commission bound by the settlement agreement that was previously concluded between companies and the Commission’s services?

The respect of the principle of collegiality of Commission Decisions and the benefit of having Advisory Committee meetings mean that the College of Commissioners may legitimately depart from the parties’ submissions or the results of their discussions with the Commission’s services up until the final Decision. However, as the Notice specifies, the Commission may not adopt a decision departing from the “settled” objections without informing the parties concerned and adopting a new statement of objections subject to the ordinary rules of procedure and which cannot be based on acknowledgements provided by the parties in view of settlement. However, this should occur only exceptionally if the usefulness of the settlement instrument is to be preserved.

Does a settlement decision imply that a company who accepted to acknowledge its participation to an infringement of Community law will not make an appeal to the Court of first instance?

No. A company who is the subject of an antitrust decision after a settlement with the Commission can still appeal the Commission Decision to the Court of First Instance

Pierre Perrin-Monlouis
Pierre Perrin-Monlouis
Fondateur de Rente et Patrimoine (cabinet de gestion de patrimoine), Pierre Perrin-Monlouis est un analyste et trader pour compte propre. Il vous fait profiter de son expérience en trading grâce à ses analyses financières et décrypte pour vous les actualités des marchés. Son approche globale des marchés combine à la fois l'analyse technique et l'analyse fondamentale sur l'ensemble des marchés : crypto, forex, actions et matières premières.