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.
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.