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Brussels, 27 September 2011

Antitrust: Commission confirms unannounced inspections in the natural gas sector

In view of press questions, the European Commission can confirm that today, Commission officials undertook unannounced inspections at the premises of companies active in the supply, transmission and storage of natural gas in several Member States. The Commission has concerns that the companies concerned may have engaged in anticompetitive practices in breach of EU antitrust rules or that they are in possession of information relating to such practices.

The Commission is investigating potential anticompetitive practices in the supply of natural gas in Central and Eastern European Member States. The investigation focuses on the upstream supply level, where, unilaterally or through agreements, competition may be hampered or delayed. The Commission suspects exclusionary behaviour, such as market partitioning, obstacles to network access, barriers to supply diversification, as well as possible exploitative behaviour, such as excessive pricing. Any such behaviour could be in breach of EU antitrust rules that prohibit abuse of dominant positions and restrictive business practices (respectively Articles 102 and 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union – TFEU).

At the same time, the Commission is also investigating suspicions of anticompetitive behaviour to the detriment of upstream suppliers themselves.

As usual, the Commission officials were accompanied by their counterparts from the relevant national competition authorities.

Competition enforcement in the energy sector

The Commission is determined that consumers throughout the EU should enjoy the benefits of an integrated and competitive single European energy market that increases security of supply of energy at affordable prices. This means in particular ensuring the diversification of sources of supply and the free flow of gas once it has entered the EU. Whereas EU energy legislation serves to remove public barriers to an open energy market, competition rules serve to ensure that private players do not replace these barriers by anticompetitive conduct.

As a follow-up to its energy sector competition inquiry (see IP/07/26), the Commission successfully concluded a series of antitrust investigations between 2007 and 2010 against a number of gas incumbents in Western Europe (see IP/07/1487, IP/09/410, IP/09/1872, IP/10/494 and IP/10/1197). The current antitrust investigations concern not only incumbents but also upstream suppliers. The inspections took place at multiple sites in ten Member States, mainly in Central and Eastern Europe. In most countries, it was the Commission's first competition inspection in the energy sector and in some, the Commission's first ever competition inspection.

Background on inspections

Unannounced inspections are a preliminary step into suspected anticompetitive practices. The fact that the Commission carries out such inspections does not mean that the companies are guilty of anti-competitive behaviour, nor does it prejudge the outcome of the investigation itself. The Commission respects the rights of defence, in particular the right of companies to be heard in antitrust proceedings.

There is no legal deadline to complete inquiries into anticompetitive conduct. Their duration depends on a number of factors, including the complexity of each case, the extent to which the undertakings concerned co-operate with the Commission and the exercise of the rights of defence.

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