In 2017, the European Union (EU) General Court annulled two merger decisions of the European Commission. In March, the Court overturned the Commission's 2013 decision to block the proposed €5 billion acquisition by United Parcel Services (UPS) of Dutch delivery group TNT Express NV (TNT). The Court annulled this decision on the basis that the Commission had failed to communicate a final version of its econometric analysis—which had been used in support of its objections—to UPS, breaching UPS's rights of defence.
When prohibition decisions are annulled, there is no guarantee that winning the court battle will save the deal
Then in October, the Court annulled a decision by the Commission to clear the €10 billion acquisition of Dutch cable operator Ziggo by Liberty Global of the US. That decision, taken in 2014, was appealed by a competitor and annulled because it did not sufficiently explain why some of the negative vertical effects raised by this competitor during the administrative procedure could be excluded. As a result, the parties had to re-notify the transaction and the Commission to re-examine it under market conditions applicable at the time of re-notification.
Such annulments are rare. EU Courts had previously annulled only eight Commission decisions under the Merger Regulation over a span of 25 years. Annulments of clearances are even rarer, with only four precedents: Kali und Salz/MdK/ Treuhand; RAG/Saarbergwerke/ Preussag; SEB/Moulinex; and Sony/ BMG. Both recent cases, however, illustrate the challenges of judicial review of merger decisions.
Annulment of prohibition decisions
When prohibition decisions are annulled, there is no guarantee that winning the court battle will be sufficient to save the deal, nor does it automatically mean that the Commission was wrong to prohibit a transaction.
The prohibition by the Commission of the 2001 merger between French industrial groups Schneider and Legrand (Schneider/Legrand), in which the Commission was faulted for a breach of the rights of defence, was annulled. But after the annulment, the Commission confirmed its suspicion that the transaction would raise competition issues. As a result, Schneider decided to sell Legrand (which had already been acquired by means of a public exchange offer).
A rare annulment saw Liberty Global and Ziggo re-notify a merger transaction to the European Commission
Sometimes, there is actually nothing to be fixed. For example, UPS's recent victory will not allow it to win its prize:
Its main rival, FedEx, acquired TNT in the meantime. What is left is the possibility to seek damages. At the time of writing, UPS had filed an action before the General Court seeking US$2.1 billion in damages. However, such damages are notoriously difficult to obtain and generally of a very limited amount. In Schneider/Legrand, the Court of Justice merely granted damages of €50,000 for expenses incurred by Schneider in relation to the re-examination of the merger.
There are cases that have had a positive outcome for the parties involved. For example, Sweden's Tetra Laval eventually obtained clearance for its €1.6 billion acquisition of French packaging equipment maker Sidel following the annulment of the Commission's initial prohibition. In that case, the Commission decision was annulled by the Court for failure to meet the burden of proof. On its second attempt, the Commission found that the standard set out by the Court for prohibiting a merger because of risks of tacit collusion was not met. It then cleared the merger.
When a clearance decision is successfully appealed by a third party, the acquirer faces a risk of seeing the corporate integration being called into question years after its implementation. The parties must submit a new notification and the Commission has to take a fresh decision in light of current market conditions. This process, known as 're-adoption', can be lengthy and potentially cause the Commission to impose new remedies, or even to prohibit the transaction.
Sometimes there is nothing to be fixed. For example, UPS's recent victory will not allow it to win its prize
This can give rise to considerable complexity. After the European Commission's decision cleared the proposed merger between Sony and Bertelsmann in 2004, a third party successfully challenged the ruling before the General Court. The Commission then cleared the transaction again. In parallel, the merging parties successfully appealed the General Court's judgment before the Court of Justice. But in the meantime, the same third party who had challenged the first decision also appealed the second clearance decision. Sony eventually acquired sole control of the joint venture, leading to the closing of the pending appeals as they had become devoid of purpose.
It is essential that EU courts decide on Commission merger decisions as quickly as possible. The parties should therefore apply for an expedited procedure when appealing a prohibition decision. This will allow a priority treatment and a shorter written phase, usually with only one round of written submissions, and a shorter deadline for the defendant to file its submission.
In four previous cases of annulments of Commission decisions, the General Court granted the expedited procedure when the parties requested it and ruled within a period of between nine and 19 months. The request was, however, refused in the UPS/TNT case when the General Court's review turned out to be particularly lengthy (four years), which was surprising given that the proceedings ultimately led to a short judgment, annulling the decision on a procedural ground.
In the Liberty Global/Ziggo case, neither the third party appealing the decision nor the Commission requested an expedited procedure. Because of the Court's rules of procedure, the one that really had an interest in such expedited treatment— namely Liberty Global—had no right to request it, even if it had intervened in the case (which it had not). And an intervention by Liberty Global in the case would have likely slowed down proceedings even more. As regards possible mitigating strategies, if the parties to a transaction cleared by the Commission suspect that a third party might appeal that decision, they can try to safeguard their interests by, first, trying to accelerate the publication of the Commission decision. They can do this by submitting confidentiality requests on the decision as soon as possible in order not to delay the publication of the non-confidential version (the clock for third parties to appeal the decision starts ticking when the non-confidential version is published). Likewise, during the court proceedings, they will be asked to submit a confidentiality request, and may accelerate proceedings by not making unduly broad confidentiality requests. Finally, if they believe that there is a material risk of full or partial annulment of the clearance decision, they could take ring-fencing measures in order to facilitate the unscrambling of the eggs, should they eventually have to divest part of the target business.
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