International Commercial Law Blog

Under EU law on freedom of establishment and freedom to provide services, economic operators cannot be required to have a share capital of EUR 10 million in order to be entitled to collect local taxes

Italian legislation on the reorganisation of local taxationauthorises the provinces and municipalities to organise their own revenues, including taxes, by means of regulations. Local authorities may choose to award the tasks of assessment and collection of taxes and all local revenues to third party operators. In that case, those activities are awarded by means of concessions which comply with EU legislation on the tendering of the management of local public services.

The concession holders first collect the tax revenue covered by the contracts and then, after retaining a “collection charge”, pay the amounts in question over to the public authorities at the end of each quarter. The profit of the concession holders is also generated by financial market transactions carried out using the funds which they hold.

Italian legislationalso provides that private companies seeking to carry out those activities must be entered in a register of private undertakings authorised to perform activities relating to the assessment and collection of taxes. They must have a fully paid-up share capital of EUR 10 million, whereas companies in which a majority of the share capital is in public ownership are not subject to that condition. The award of those services to operators which fail to satisfy that financial requirement is null and void. Such operators may not be awarded new contracts, and may not participate in tendering procedures initiated for that purpose, unless they increase their share capital accordingly.

The Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale per la Lombardia (Regional Administrative Court, Lombardy) is required to rule in several sets of proceedings between private companies and regional municipalities in Lombardy. Those private undertakings submitted tenders for the award of concessions but were excluded from the procedure because they did not have a fully paid-up share capital of EUR 10 million.

The Italian court has referred questions to the Court of Justice concerning the compatibility of the Italian legislation with European Union law and, in particular, with the rules on freedom to provide services and freedom of establishment.

In its Judgment in Joined Cases C-357/10 to C-359/10 Duomo Gpa Srl and Others v Comune di Baranzate and Others, the Court’s reply is that the Italian legislation amounts to a restriction on freedom of establishment and freedom to provide services inasmuch as it contains a condition relating to minimum share capital and forces private operators wishing to pursue those activities to incorporate and to have a fully paid-up share capital of EUR 10 million.

Consequently, such a provision impedes or renders less attractive the freedom of establishment and the freedom to provide services.

The Court then goes on to examine whether such a restriction may be justified by overriding reasons in the public interest.

The only ground of justification raised before the Court is the need to protect public authorities against possible non-performance by the concession holder, in the light of the high overall value of the contracts which have been awarded to it. In practice, the concession holders, by first collecting the tax revenue, hold and deal with millions of euros which they are required to pay over to the public authorities.

The Court does not rule out the possibility that such an objective may constitute an overriding reason in the public interest – and not a reason that is purely economic in nature. However, it notes that a restriction of the fundamental freedoms may be justified only if the relevant measure is appropriate for ensuring the attainment of the legitimate objective pursued and does not go beyond what is necessary to attain that objective.

According to the referring court, however, other provisions are capable of providing adequate protection for public authorities; proof, on the part of the operator concerned, of its technical and financial capacity, creditworthiness and solvency, or, in addition, the application of minimum thresholds for share capital that vary depending on the value of the contracts actually awarded to the concession holder.

Consequently, the Court finds that, as the Italian provision goes beyond the objective of protecting the public authorities against non-performance by concession holders, it contains disproportionate, and therefore unjustified, restrictions of the fundamental freedoms.

On those grounds, the Court ruled that Articles 43 EC and 49 EC must be interpreted as precluding a provision, such as that at issue, under which economic operators, except companies in which all or a majority of the share capital is in public ownership, are required, if necessary, to increase their fully paid up capital to a minimum of EUR 10 Million in order to be entitled to pursue the activities of assessment, verification and collection of taxes and other local authority revenue; and the award of those services to operators who fail to satisfy the minimum requirement of share capital is to be null and void, and it is prohibited to obtain new contracts or participate in tender procedures for the operation of those services until the abovementioned requirement to adjust share capital has been met.

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A clause in a selective distribution contract banning the distributors from selling the products online amounts to a restriction on competition by object

Article 101 TFEU prohibits agreements which have as their object or effect the restriction of competition. Article 101(3) TFEU provides, subject to certain conditions, for agreements which improve the distribution of products or contribute to promoting economic progress to be granted an individual exemption. In addition, various regulations provide that certain categories of agreements may qualify for a block exemption. One of those regulations, the Vertical Agreement Block Exemption Regulation, provides such an exemption for distribution agreements which meet certain conditions. However, that regulation contains a list of agreements which may not benefit from a block exemption.

Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmétique (“PFDC”) is one of the companies in the Pierre Fabre group. It manufactures and markets cosmetics and personal care products and has several subsidiaries, including, inter alia, the Klorane, Ducray, Galénic and Avène laboratories, whose cosmetic and personal care products are sold, under those brands, mainly through pharmacists, on both the French and the European markets.

The products in question are not classified as medicines and are, therefore, not covered by the pharmacists’ monopoly laid down by French law. However, distribution contracts for those products in respect of the Klorane, Ducray, Galénic and Avène brands stipulate that sales must be made exclusively in a physical space and in the presence of a qualified pharmacist, thereby restricting in practice all forms of internet selling.

In October 2008, following an investigation, the Autorité de la concurrence (French Competition Authority) decided that, owing to the de facto ban on all internet sales, PFDC’s distribution agreements amounted to anti-competitive agreements contrary to both French law and European Union competition law. The Competition Authority found that the ban on internet selling necessarily had as its object the restriction of competition and could not benefit from a block exemption. The Authority also decided that the agreements could not benefit from an individual exemption either.
PFDC challenged that decision before the Cour d’appel de Paris (France), which has asked the Court of Justice whether a general and absolute ban on internet selling amounts to a restriction of competition “by object”, whether such an agreement may benefit from a block exemption and whether, where the block exemption is inapplicable, the agreement may benefit from an individual exemption under Article 101(3) TFEU.

In its Judgment in Case C-439/09 Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmétique SAS v Président de l’Autorité de la Concurrence and Others, the European Court of Justice recalls that in order to assess whether a contractual clause involves a restriction of competition “by object”, regard must be had to the content of the clause, the objectives it seeks to attain and the economic and legal context of which it forms a part.

As regards agreements constituting a selective distribution system, the Court has already stated that such agreements necessarily affect competition in the common market. Such agreements are to be considered, in the absence of objective justification, as “restrictions by object”. However, a selective distribution system is compatible with European Union law to the extent that resellers are chosen on the basis of objective criteria of a qualitative nature, laid down uniformly for all potential resellers and not applied in a discriminatory fashion, that the characteristics of the product in question necessitate such a distribution network in order to preserve the product’s quality and ensure its proper use, and, finally, that the criteria laid down do not go beyond what is necessary.

After recalling that it is for the referring court to examine whether a contractual clause which de facto prohibits all forms of internet selling can be justified by a legitimate aim, the Court provides the referring court for that purpose with guidance on the interpretation of European Union law to enable it to reach a decision.

Thus, the Court points out that, in the light of the freedoms of movement, it has not accepted – as it has already stated in the context of the sale of non-prescription medicines and contact lenses – arguments relating to the need to provide individual advice to the customer and to ensure his protection against the incorrect use of products, put forward to justify a ban on internet sales. Similarly, the Court rules that the need to maintain the prestigious image of PFDC’s products is not a legitimate aim for restricting competition.

As to whether a selective distribution contract may benefit from a block exemption, the Court recalls that the exemption does not apply to vertical agreements which have as their object the restriction of active or passive sales to end users by members of a selective distribution system operating at the retail level of trade. A contractual clause which de facto prohibits the internet as a method of marketing at the very least has as its object the restriction of passive sales to end users wishing to purchase online and located outside the physical trading area of the relevant member of the selective distribution system. Consequently, the block exemption does not apply to that contract.

However, such a contract may benefit, on an individual basis, from the exception provided for in Article 101(3) TFEU, if the referring court finds that the conditions laid down in that provision are met.

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Commission adopts revised competition rules on horizontal co-operation agreements

The European Commission has revised its rules for the assessment of co-operation agreements between competitors, so called horizontal co-operation agreements. As it is often vital for companies to work together to achieve synergies, there exist a vast number of horizontal co-operation agreements in many industries.

“Horizontal co-operation agreements” are agreements concluded between competitors (as opposed to vertical agreements which are between companies at different levels in the supply chain), for example with a view to co-operate on research and development, production, purchasing, commercialisation, standardisation, or exchange of information. Horizontal co-operation can be pro-competitive and lead to substantial economic benefits, allowing companies to respond to increasing competitive pressures and a changing market place driven by globalisation. However, where the parties have market power, horizontal co-operation can also lead to serious competition problems.

The texts update and further clarify the application of competition rules in this area so that companies can better assess whether their co-operation agreements are in line with those rules. Modifications concern mainly the areas of standardisation, information exchange, and research and development (R&D).

Today the Commission has adopted a revised set of Guidelines and two Regulations which describe how competitors can co-operate without infringing EU competition rules. The “Horizontal Guidelines” provide a framework for the analysis of the most common forms of horizontal co-operation such as agreements in the areas of R&D, production, purchasing, commercialisation, standardisation, standard terms, and information exchange.

The two Regulations exempt from the competition rules certain R&D, specialisation and production agreements that are unlikely to raise competition concerns. Two key features of the reform are a new chapter on information exchange in the Horizontal Guidelines and a substantial revision of the chapter on standardisation agreements.

The Guidelines promote a standard-setting system that is open and transparent and thereby increases the transparency of licensing costs for intellectual property rights used in standards. The revised standardisation chapter sets out the criteria under which the Commission will not take issue with a standard-setting agreement (“safe harbour”). Moreover, the chapter gives detailed guidance on standardisation agreements that do not fulfil the safe harbour criteria, to allow companies to assess whether they are in line with EU competition law.

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European Commission adopts revised competition rules for distribution of goods and services

The European Commission has adopted a Regulation (see Commission Regulation (EU) No 330/2010 of 20 April 2010 on the application of Article 101(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to categories of vertical agreements and concerted practices) block exempting agreements between manufacturers and distributors for the sale of products and services.

The Regulation and accompanying Guidelines take into account the development, in the last 10 years, of the Internet as a force for online sales and for cross-border commerce, something that the Commission wants to promote as it increases consumer choice and price competition.

The basic principle remains that companies are free to decide how their products are distributed, provided their agreements do not contain price-fixing or other hardcore restrictions, and both manufacturer and distributor do not have more than a 30% market share. Approved distributors are free to sell on the Internet without limitation on quantities, customers’ location and restrictions on prices.

The new rules introduce the same 30% market share threshold for distributors and retailers to take into account the fact that some buyers may also have market power with potentially negative effects on competition. This change is beneficial for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME’s), whether manufacturers or retailers, which could otherwise be excluded from the distribution market.

This does not mean agreements between companies with higher market shares are illegal. Only that they must assess whether their agreements contain restrictive clauses and, whether they would be justified.

The new rules also specifically, address the question of online sales. Once authorised, distributors shall be free to sell on their websites as they do in their traditional shops and physical points of sale. For selective distribution, this means that manufacturers cannot limit the quantities sold over the Internet or charge higher prices for products to be sold online. The Guidelines further clarify the concepts of “active” and “passive” sales for exclusive distribution. Terminating transactions or re-routing consumers after they have entered their credit card details showing a foreign address will not be accepted.

With the new rules in force, dealers will now have a clear basis and incentives to develop online activities to reach, and be reached, by customers throughout the EU and fully take advantage of the internal market.

The new rules will come into force on 1 June 2010 and will be valid until 2022, with a one-year transitional phase.

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