It was a dynamic year in 2016 for the Hellenic Competition Commission (HCC), as new competences and challenges emerged from the introduction of the settlement procedure.
The HCC (by its unanimous Decision No. 628/2016) established the terms and conditions of the settlement procedure in cartel cases, following the delegation provisions of articles 25a and 14 paragraph 2 of the Greek Competition Act. The new settlement procedure, which is essentially modelled after the EU equivalent procedure, aims at simplifying and speeding up the handling of pending cases. It would allow the Hellenic Competition Commission to achieve efficiencies through a streamlined administrative process, resulting in a relatively more expedited adoption of infringement decisions regarding article 1 of the Greek Competition Act and/or article 101 TFEU. In turn this would allow a better allocation of resources, in order to deal with more cases, thereby increasing the deterrent effect of the HCC's enforcement action while simultaneously increasing citizens' awareness of the effective and timely punishment of undertakings infringing competition law.
During 2016 the procedure was applied in two cases, one of which remains the biggest ever pursued by the HCC and concerns a bid-rigging cartel in the public works construction sector. The complexity of the case, the number of involved undertakings and the volume of the evidence to be examined, combined with the procedural requirements of a newly applied procedure, have demanded groundbreaking work on behalf of the case team. The Authority also issued its first infringement decision in the cosmetics sector following the settlement procedure for some of the parties involved.
In the context of its advocacy initiatives, and with a view to raising awareness of businesses and consumers in competition matters, the HCC has also issued a memo in the form of Q&As accompanying its decision on the settlement procedure. The memo contains useful information and clarifications on different aspects of the process.
The HCC continued to pursue the strategic objectives laid out since the inception of the ongoing economic crisis, in particular by:
- maintaining a consistent level of core enforcement action (antitrust investigations and merger control work) compared to previous years, taking into account the economic downturn and the inherent challenges in pursuing a diversified agenda;
- placing renewed emphasis on market-monitoring actions, notably by making more use of sector inquiries, while further increasing cooperation with other stakeholders;
- considerably expanding the Authority's advocacy efforts in order to promote competition assessment of laws and regulations; and
- making better use of internal management tools for prioritising the investigation of cases, with a view to increasing the systemic effect of its action.
During the past year a number of pending investigations were successfully completed with several statements of objections having been issued in high-profile cases. The outcome of this activity is expected to shape the year to come and the HCC's enforcement record. At the same time, the HCC enhanced its practice regarding commitment decisions.
The HCC also adopted infringement decisions in both article 101 and 102 TFEU cases and imposed considerable fines totalling approximately €11.6 million, notwithstanding the ongoing financial crisis.
As an aside, the Administrative Court of Appeals and the Supreme Administrative Court upheld all the HCC's decisions reviewed in the course of 2016, with a relatively few reductions in the amount of the fines imposed.
The HCC's diversified record of this year also included the imposition of procedural fines for submission of misleading data that impeded the Directorate General's investigation.
The successful conclusion of the third joint OECD-HCC competition assessment project fully demonstrates the Authority's dedication to creating a competitive environment, notwithstanding the constraints. The third joint OECD-HCC competition assessment project on the identification of potential regulatory obstacles to competition was completed, after reviewing legislation in five designated sectors of the Greek economy (e-commerce, construction, media, wholesale trade and selected subsectors of manufacturing such as chemicals, pharmaceuticals and media). Using the methodology provided in the competition assessment toolkit, the project team examined 1,288 sector-relevant pieces of legislation, identified 577 possible restrictions to competition and made 356 recommendations to correct them by less restrictive policies. Moreover, the HCC continued its advocacy efforts in the liberalization of professional services by issuing a new opinion for the profession of marine chemists.
Overall, it was a year full of new challenges, which attested to the HCC's increased capabilities to pursue complex investigations. The HCC endeavoured to pursue the strategic objectives laid out since the inception of the ongoing economic crisis to expand its consultative functions, as a result of the severe economic downturn and the sustained role of the HCC in promoting competition assessment of potentially distortive laws and regulations.
The HCC will insist on the need to pursue diversified advocacy initiatives to enhance its role and its enforcement record, in order to raise more awareness and promote a genuine competition culture.