By its judgment of 28 January 2016 (C-514/14 P, Editions Odile Jacob SAS v Commission), the European Court of Justice (Court) upheld the General Court of the European Union’s (GCEU) ruling with respect to each of the grounds raised by Editions Odile Jacob (Odile Jacob) thereby dismissing Odile Jacob’s appeal.
The case concerned the sale, in 2002, of Vivendi Universal’s subsidiary Vivendi Universal Publishing (VUP) to the Lagardère Group (Lagardère).
The European Commission (Commission) authorized the concentration in 2004, subject to undertakings by Lagardère. Specifically, Lagardère undertook to divest a significant amount of VUP assets. Lagardère thus approached several undertakings potentially interested in purchasing those assets. Odile Jacob was one of the undertakings that expressed an interest in the acquisition of the divested assets. However, Lagardère accepted the purchase offer made by Wendel Investissement (Wendel) whom the Commission approved as a suitable purchaser. Odile Jacob challenged the Commission’s decision authorizing the concentration and the decision approving Wendel as a suitable purchaser. In 2010, the GCEU confirmed the decision authorizing the concentration but annulled the decision approving Wendel as a suitable purchaser on the ground that it had been adopted on the basis of a report drawn up by a trustee that was not deemed independent. This judgment was upheld by the Court in 2012.
Following the GCEU’s judgment, Lagardère made a further request to the Commission for the approval of Wendel by proposing a new trustee who was subsequently approved by the Commission, in 2011, with effect from 2004. Odile Jacob brought another action for annulment of this approval decision which was dismissed by the GCEU by judgment of 5 September 2014 (T-471/11).
In its judgment of 28 January 2016, the Court upheld the September 2014 judgment of the GCEU.
First, the Court considered that the GCEU correctly ruled that, in order to give full effect to the judgments of 2010, the Commission was only required to approve a new trustee responsible for drawing up a new report evaluating Wendel’s candidature and to assess this candidature on the basis of this new report. In this respect, the Court found that the Commission neither had to revoke the decision authorizing the concentration nor to repeat the whole procedure from the date on which Lagardère appointed the first trustee.
Second, the Court ruled that the GCEU had not erred in law by declaring that the 2011 Commission decision, which approved again Wendel as an acquirer of VUP’s assets, could be retroactive. Indeed, the Court found that the Commission could adopt retroactive decisions where this is required by the intended aim and where the principle of protection of the legitimate expectations of the parties is properly observed. Here, the Court confirmed that these conditions had been met in the case: the new retroactive approval decision was intended inter alia to fill the legal vacuum created by the annulment of the first approval decision. In that regard, the Court found that Odile Jacob failed to demonstrate that there were no grounds that could justify such retroactive effect.
Finally, the Court rejected Odile Jacob’s argument that the Commission failed to observe the condition that Wendel had to be independent of Lagardère. Indeed, the Court agreed with the GCEU that the presence of the same person in either the managerial or supervisory boards of both companies was not such as to establish a relationship of dependency between Wendel and Lagardère. In addition, the Court found that the Commission had been able to supervise the asset sale procedure on the basis of the regular progress reports that the trustee was required to submit.