On 8 February 2017, the EC announced fines of EUR68 million on three companies which participated in a purchasing cartel. EU Competition Commissioner Vestager, in remarks on the fines, said this type of cartel, although “unusual,” is treated just as seriously as a standard cartel which impacts downstream customers.

The four companies involved were recycling companies which had, from 2009 to 2012, colluded to reduce the purchase price paid to scrap dealers and collectors for used car batteries in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands. (One of these companies was not fined because it revealed the cartel to the EC under the EC’s leniency programme.) According to the EC, automotive batteries are the most recycled consumer product in the EU.

The companies exchanged information and agreed on target prices, maximum prices and volumes to buy from suppliers. They also tried to limit the bargaining power of suppliers by exchanging information on the prices these suppliers offered or on final prices to which they had agreed with them.

The methods adopted were those seen in many standard cartels. The majority of the anti-competitive contacts took place on a bilateral basis, mainly through telephone calls, emails or text messages exchanged between senior managers. The companies sometimes made an effort to keep the nature of their contacts secret by using code language, including references to the weather.

The companies involved are all large and sophisticated and presumably had competition law compliance programmes in place. The case therefore shows that all companies need to focus relentlessly on implementing compliance procedures. Internal audits, which typically form part of this implementation, are particularly useful since they can catch anti-competitive practices and, as appropriate, allow the subsequent use of leniency programmes.