In 2017 an additional merger threshold was implemented to catch cases that fall below existing turnover thresholds but where the consideration for the transaction exceeds a specified amount and the target is active in the relevant country to a significant extent. While the first cases and legal discussions have shown that there is considerable uncertainty regarding the application of this legislation, new draft guidelines have been published on the application of the new, quite difficult piece of legislation.
At present, the Austrian merger control regime is based on a system of turnover thresholds. Following German legislation and anticipating possible new legislation by the European Union, the new Cartel Act introduces a consideration threshold for which, at least in Europe, there is no practical experience. Due to vague criteria in the law, it is expected that more transactions than envisioned by the legislature will be caught by the new regime or at least notified by careful parties and lawyers.
To date, the law contains no definition of 'implementation' in relation to mergers. There has been much debate in doctrine regarding whether implementation should be defined broadly as the mere possibility of influencing the target's behaviour, or more narrowly as the actual exercise of such influence. The Cartel Court's case law has followed the narrower definition. However, a recent Supreme Court decision has clarified the matter and reached a different conclusion.
Although implementation of the EU Cartel Damages Directive in Austria was somewhat delayed, the Council of Ministers recently approved the bill to amend the Cartel Act and the Competition Act. The law will significantly amend Austrian cartel law, primarily facilitating private enforcement of cartel damages for consumers and enterprises alike. While Austrian law has included some of these elements since 2013, the implementation of the directive goes far beyond those implemented.
After the Supreme Court imposed a record €30 million fine on grocery chain SPAR Österreichische Warenhandels-AG and its subsidiaries, a draft to amend the Cartel Act 2005 was circulated. In addition to implementing EU Directive 2014/104/EC, the draft amends existing limitation periods, reiterates the joint and several liability of cartel members and further promotes Austria's leniency programme regarding the fine procedure.
The Cartel Act contains antitrust regulations on cartels, merger control and abuses of dominant market positions. It sets out the rules on what constitutes a cartel, the definition of vertical restrictions, joint dominance and mergers and establishes the conditions for when pre-merger control applies.
Triggered by a complaint from radio station Kronehit, the Federal Competition Authority (FCA) looked into the media cooperation practices between radio broadcasters and concert and festival organisers. The investigation led to a set of FCA guidelines for media cooperation which will address the prevalent inequality between Austrian public broadcaster radio stations and private radio stations as media partners of concert and festival organisers.
The Supreme Court recently considered a case in which an acquiring entity failed to notify the Austrian Federal Cartel Authority (FCA) of a share increase in relation to a Hungarian entity. The case came to light following a subsequent share increase, of which it duly notified the FCA. The acquiring entity's actions were based on legal advice that later turned out to be erroneous.
The Higher Regional Court, acting as the Cartel Court, recently imposed a fine of approximately €17.5 million on 30 forwarding agencies for infringing European competition law by agreeing on tariffs regarding collective freight transport between 2002 and 2007. The Cartel Court's decision preceded significant discussions among competition law specialists and several other Austrian and EU decisions clarifying important questions of law.
Following criticisms of an apparent lack of information and transparency in Federal Competition Authority (FCA) settlement proceedings, the FCA has issued guidelines on its settlement policy, elaborating on its legal position and practice. While it is clear that settlements provide some legal certainty for undertakings, they must be treated with caution, as settlement decisions include a binding sentence of guilt.
The Supreme Court referred a question to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) regarding whether an error on the legality of actions based on advice from a specialist adviser or a decision by a national competition authority would be a viable defence against fines imposed on an undertaking for infringing Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The ECJ has now answered this question in the negative.
The long-discussed changes to the Austrian competition laws have finally become effective. These concern, among other things, the leniency programme implemented in Austria in 2006. The amended Competition Act now makes it possible for undertakings to qualify for full immunity from fines on a leniency request even after the Federal Competition Authority has gained knowledge of the reported infringement.
The Cartel Act has traditionally been seen as a 'paper tiger' that poses little threat. However, this view has changed significantly following amendments to the act. Recently, the former state-owned telecommunications provider was heavily fined for a tariff model that had previously been explicitly permitted.
The Supreme Court, acting as Higher Cartel Court, recently rendered its first decision on the preconditions for the Federal Cartel Authority to conduct house searches in Austria on behalf of other EU antitrust authorities. The decision allows for the execution of house searches in Austria even in cases that do not affect the Austrian market.
The Austrian Cartel Court must be notified of a merger if three separate turnover thresholds are met. Recently, the court has begun to establish a new rule whereby a merger need not be notified if it has no appreciable effect in Austria.
After a lengthy internal discussion process, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry for Economic Affairs recently presented a draft bill for changes to the competition law in Austria. While fundamental changes to this draft bill are unlikely to occur, it remains to be seen how these amendments - if enacted - will affect administration, jurisdiction and advocacy for competition law in Austria.
The Cartel Court has fined Europay Austria Zahlungsverkehrssysteme GmbH, which operates Maestro, the most widely used debit card system in Austria, a record €5 million for an alleged illegal cartel and abuse of a dominant market position. The fine is the highest set by the Cartel Court since the introduction of the fine system in 2002.
Two recent Supreme Court decisions have triggered significant debate in the competition field, both in Austria and at a European level. Both cases questioned whether a justified error in law could exclude the imposition of a fine for alleged anti-competitive behaviour. One case has been referred to the European Court of Justice, as the Supreme Court considered that EU law did not provide a clear answer.
The Higher Cartel Court recently ruled on the obligation of dominant undertakings to contract with other market participants, including competitors, under specific circumstances. It held that they must be very careful to avoid discriminating against other undertakings by refusing to contract with them. The decision provides interesting clarifications on the applicability of the 'essential facilities' doctrine in such cases.
The Cartel Act has traditionally been seen as a 'paper tiger' that poses little threat. However, following recent amendments to the act, this view has changed significantly. In a recent decision, the act was used by the Cartel Court to fine a company €1.5 million for illegally implementing a merger.