In three separate decisions, the European Commission has fined four maritime car carriers €395 million in breach of EU antitrust rules.
All companies acknowledged their involvement in the cartels and agreed to settle the cases.
Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy said:”The Commission has sanctioned several companies for colluding in the maritime transport of cars and the supply of car parts.The three separate decisions taken today show that we will not tolerate anticompetitive behaviouraffecting European consumers and industries. By raising component prices or transport costs for cars, the cartels ultimately hurt European consumers and adversely impacted the competitiveness of the European automotive sector, which employs around 12 million people in the EU.”
Maritime car carriers
The European Commission found that the Chilean maritime carrier CSAV, the Japanese carriers “K” Line, MOL and NYK, and the Norwegian/Swedish carrier WWL-EUKOR participated in a cartel concerning the intercontinental maritime transport of vehicles, and imposed a total fine of €395 million.
For almost 6 years, from October 2006 to September 2012, the five carriers formed a cartel in the market for deep sea transport of new cars, trucks and other large vehicles such as combine harvesters and tractors, on various routes between Europe and other continents.
The Commission’s investigation revealed that to coordinate anticompetitive behaviour, the carriers’ sales managers met at each other’s offices, in bars, restaurants or other social gatherings and were in contact over the phone on a regular basis. In particular, they coordinated prices, allocated customers and exchanged commercially sensitive information about elements of the price, such as charges and surcharges added to prices to offset currency or oil prices fluctuations.
The carriers agreed to maintain the status quo in the market and to respect each other’s traditional business on certain routes or with certain customers, by quoting artificially high prices or not quoting at all in tenders issued by vehicle manufacturers.
The cartel affected both European car importers and final customers, as imported vehicles were sold within the European Economic Area (EEA), and European vehicle manufacturers, as their vehicles were exported outside the EEA. In 2016, some 3.4 million motor vehicles were imported from non-EU countries, while the EU exported more than 6.3 million vehicles to non-EU countries in 2016. Almost half of these vehicles were transported by the carriers that have been fined today.
The Commission’s investigation started with an immunity application submitted by MOL. During its investigation, the Commission cooperated with several competition authorities around the world, including in Australia, Canada, Japan and the US.
The fines were calculated on the basis of the Commission’s 2006 Guidelines on fines (see also MEMO).
In determining the fines, the Commission took into account the sales value on the intercontinental routes to and from the EEA achieved by the cartel participants for the transport services, the serious nature of the infringement, its geographic scope and its duration. The Commission also applied a 20% fine reduction for CSAV, to take into account its lesser involvement in the infringement.
Under the Commission’s 2006 Leniency Notice:
MOL received full immunity for revealing the existence of the cartel, thereby avoiding a fine of ca. €203 million.
CSAV, “K” Line, NYK and WWL-EUKOR benefited from reductions of their fines for their cooperation with the Commission. The reductions reflect the timing of their cooperation and the extent to which the evidence they provided helped the Commission to prove the existence of the cartel.
In addition, under the Commission’s 2008 Settlement Notice, the Commission applied a reduction of 10% to the fines imposed on the companies in view of their acknowledgement of the participation in the cartel and of their liability in this respect.
The settlement procedure
Today’s decisions are the 26th, 27th and 28th settlement decisions since the introduction of the settlement procedure for cartels in June 2008 (see press release and MEMO). Under a settlement, undertakings that have participated to a cartel acknowledge their participation in the infringement and their liability for it. The settlement procedure is based on the Antitrust Regulation 1/2003and allows the Commission to apply a simplified procedure and thereby reduce the length of the investigation. This is good for consumers and for taxpayers as it reduces costs; good for antitrust enforcement as it frees up resources to tackle other suspected cases; and good for the companies themselves that benefit from quicker decisions and a 10% reduction in fines.
Action for damages
Any person or company affected by anti-competitive behaviour as described in this case may bring the matter before the courts of the Member States and seek damages. The case law of the Court and Council Regulation 1/2003 both confirm that in cases before national courts, a Commission decision constitutes binding proof that the behaviour took place and was illegal. Even though the Commission has fined the cartel participants concerned, damages may be awarded without being reduced on account of the Commission fine.
The Antitrust Damages Directive, which Member States had to transpose into their legal systems by 27 December 2016, makes it easier for victims of anti-competitive practices to obtain damages. More information on antitrust damages actions, including a practical guide on how to quantify antitrust harm, is available here.
The Commission has set up by a tool to make it easier for individuals to alert it about anti-competitive behaviour while maintaining their anonymity. The new tool protects whistleblowers’ anonymity through a specifically-designed encrypted messaging system that allows two-way communications.