In 2008, the Belgian Competition Authority (BCA) further demonstrated its determination to tackle cartels, as evidenced by a number of fines imposed and several dawn raids carried out throughout the year. On the mergers side, some interesting decisions were adopted, despite the relatively limited number of new cases. In particular, the Tecteo/Walloon Cable saga illustrated the potential complexity of merger procedures. Also, competition law is increasingly becoming an integral part of economic policy in Belgium, as illustrated by a number of initiatives by the Minister of Economic Affairs.
On 25 January 2008, the Competition Council (Council) imposed its first fine since the new Belgian Competition Act entered into force in October 2006. The Flemish bakers trade association VEBIC was fined € 29,000 for creating a detailed cost scheme and a bread price index, through which its members were encouraged to increase their prices. A few months later, in April 2008, the Council imposed fines of € 500,000 in total on Bayer, Ferro/Solutia and Lonza for their involvement in price fixing, the allocation of customers and markets, and the exchange of commercially sensitive information in relation to the Belgian market for Butyl Benzyl Phthalate. This was not only the highest Belgian fine ever for cartel behaviour, but also the first fine imposed further to whistleblowing on the basis of the Belgian leniency programme. Further, the Belgian Federation of Professional Driving Schools was fined € 6,990 for infringement of the cartel prohibition by having discouraged its members from actively competing on prices and by distributing cost price studies that resulted in price harmonisation. The Council’s attention to anti-competitive behaviour in the context of trade associations was also demonstrated by the condemnation of the Association of Interior Architects and its investigation into the publication by the veterinarians trade association Intérêts Vétérinaires of guidance tariffs.
The number of merger notifications dropped to 13 in 2008 (down from 20 in 2007). Following an unprecedented procedural battle before the courts, the Council cleared the Tecteo Brutélé/Walloon Cable merger subject to commitments. Also in the telecoms sector, Belgacom’s acquisition of Scarlet resulted in a conditional Phase II clearance.
On the policy side, the Minister of Economic Affairs has urged the BCA to initiate a number of investigations, for example in relation to the building sector and Electrabel’s price increase. The Minister also promoted the establishment in May 2008 of a so-called “price observatorium”. This observatorium, tasked with monitoring price evolution in Belgium, was created within the Institute for National Accounts and is intended to be an effective tool to quickly activate the BCA if required.
In light of the on-going debate on consumers’ buying power and the current period of economic downturn, which has often, in the past, been at the origin of cartel behaviour, cartel enforcement can be expected to continue to be at the centre of the BCA’s activities in 2009. The Auditor General has announced that approximately eight statement of objections in cartel cases are expected in 2009. Finally, new guidelines on the calculation of fines will probably be issued in 2009.
Click here for an overview of Belgian Competition Law Reports covering key developments in 2008 .