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European Commission - Statement

Statement by Commissioner Vestager on Commission proposal to make national competition authorities even more effective enforcers for the benefit of jobs and growth

Brussels, 22 March 2017

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At 7h58 this morning, there was a minute's silence at Zaventem airport. At 9h11 there was also a minute's silence at Maalbeek metro station, less than 500 metres away from where we are right now. Today it is one year since the terrorist attacks that shook Brussels last year. I would like to start by paying tribute to the 32 people who died in these senseless bombings, to their families and loved ones, to the many more who were injured as well as to the hundreds of other people who were affected by these horrible events.

We, European Institutions, Member States, European citizens, will continue taking a stand against terrorism, whether it's one metro station or a country hundreds of kilometers away. And to those that wish to divide us, we will answer with more unity, more cohesion, more strength.

It is only by working together and cooperating that Europeans have been able to achieve what would have been a pipedream in the first half of the twentieth century: peace and safety. And three days from now we will be celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the moment that kick-started these achievements – the signing of the Treaty of Rome.

The Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community and started us down the road to a Single Market for goods, labour and services. My role as Commissioner for Competition is to make sure that this Single Market is working efficiently and that European citizens have better quality goods and services at lower prices. We do this by going after cartels or other anticompetitive behaviour by companies. But the Commission is not alone in this responsibility of enforcing competition rules.

Today, instead of talking about us, about how the European Commission enforces competition rules, I want to speak to you about the national competition authorities, about their enforcement of those rules and I want to inform you about a new legislative proposal.

The national competition authorities deal with the vast majority of competition cases in Europe. The Commission shares the job of enforcing EU antitrust rules with them and from 2004 till 2014, more than eight in ten decisions applying EU antitrust rules were taken by national competition authorities.

So it's vital that national competition authorities have all the powers they need to do their job as effectively as possible.

For the last two years, we've been discussing whether that is already the case. And the message that's come back is that national competition authorities do need more complete powers, in order to give consumers the best possible protection from anticompetitive behaviours. That's the message not just from the authorities themselves, but from business and consumer groups as well. We heard this message loud and clear from the public consultation we launched in November 2015. 

So today, the Commission has adopted a proposal for a new Directive, which would make sure that all national competition authorities have at their disposal the powers they need to effectively enforce European competition law at home. The objective is a genuine common competition enforcement area in the Single Market, promoting the overall goals of competitive markets that deliver jobs and growth. This proposal is not about creating new competition laws – it is about improving the enforcement of the existing rules by Member States in partnership with the Commission. It is about the establishment of minimum guarantees and standards to empower national authorities to reach their full potential. 

Every national authority is different, of course. They each have their own traditions and backgrounds – and the proposed Directive respects those differences. But these authorities face similar challenges. And that's what today's proposal aims to address.

Let me give you just a few examples.

I'll start with the issue of investigating a cartel. Once a competition authority has suspicions about a cartel, it can carry out a dawn raid to collect evidence. This is one of the most powerful tools to investigate companies that may have broken the rules. But not every authority has the power to search laptops or mobile phones – and these days, that's where you find a lot of important evidence. 

The rules we propose will make sure national competition authorities can collect the evidence they need – whether it's in physical or digital form. 

Second, if companies have broken the law, most national authorities have the power to fine them. But for those fines to be an effective way to make companies think twice about breaking the law, they need to be of a certain amount – and authorities need to be able to make companies actually pay them.

The rules we propose aim to ensure the imposition of fines that really deter law-breaking. And they will also make sure that companies cannot escape the payment of fines by restructuring and also that fines can be enforced against companies in other EU countries.

Third, leniency programmes are one of our best tools to find out about cartels. By allowing companies to escape a fine if they're the first to tell us about a cartel, these programmes encourage cartel members to come forward and tell on their fellow cartelists.

But leniency programmes work differently in different countries. That can mean that companies are less willing to use them. Cartels may operate across-borders and companies thinking about telling authorities about a cartel need to know that they will benefit from leniency, whichever competition authority deals with the case.  Today's proposal seeks to address this issue and help to coordinate leniency programmes across national competition authorities. This would encourage and incentivise companies to come forward with evidence of illegal cartels. 

Finally, to make good use of these powers, national authorities need resources and independent decision making. They need to be able to employ enough qualified people to go through all the evidence they get. And they need to know that they can take decisions without being pressured by outside influences. 

Therefore, today's proposal seeks to ensure that national competition authorities have legal guarantees of independence, as well as appropriate funding and staffing to do their job properly.

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. All competition authorities must use their authority appropriately, fully respecting companies' rights of defence. Companies have the right to know the case against them, and to have a chance to respond. Today's proposal therefore emphasises the fact that competition authorities must respect these rights, in line with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

National competition authorities already play a vital role in protecting European consumers. Today's proposal should empower these authorities to realise their full potential, so that we can continue working hand in hand to help Europeans get all the benefits of competition – not just low prices and innovative products, but a competitive single market that creates the jobs we need.

Thank you for your attention. 


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