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Greece: Hellenic Competition Commission
Vice chairman of the Hellenic Competition Commission
Notwithstanding the economic crisis still affecting Greece, the Competition Commission (HCC) sought to strengthen and further diversify its enhanced enforcement record and advocacy role.
During the course of 2013, collusive practices, notably in the context of trade associations, as well as abuse of dominance cases, continued to be at the centre of the Commission’s attention. The HCC focused on sectors such as transmission of natural gas, basic consumer goods, building materials and provision of services by driving schools and foreign language schools. The HCC’s diversified record also included an obstruction of dawn raids decision, while the Authority also issued statement of objections, notably concerning abuse of dominance, in a number of high-profile cases. As an aside, considerable fines were imposed, notwithstanding the constraints due to the severe economic downturn.
The HCC’s track record on the application of 102 TFEU on abuse of dominance is higher than the EU average and is likely to remain so in the medium-long run, the focus being on rebates, the allocation of shelf space and other exclusivity arrangements. The Authority has also continued to adopt a relatively high number of infringement decisions regarding collusive practices committed by professional associations. This is a particularity as compared to most other EU member states, but it comes as a direct result of the disproportionate number of self-employed professionals and of the intra-profession protectionist culture still widespread in services markets. We shall continue to pursue these types of cases as a way of promoting a genuine competition culture and encouraging self-regulation that respects competition rules.
The HCC continued to review complex mergers, raising more competition concerns and prompting a more intense competition analysis (and ensuing remedial action). In the past two years alone, the HCC reviewed more than 12 parallel or consecutive mergers as a result of the ongoing restructuring of the banking sector. This proved to be a fine balancing act between the need to ensure financial stability and the need to safeguard adequate competitive conditions in the future. The Authority imposed tailored remedies where appropriate and sought to ensure that the participation of the Hellenic Financial Stability Fund in the systemic banks did not become a vehicle of coordination. Overall, the HCC successfully faced the wave of merger notifications regarding the banking sector, thus contributing to the smooth and timely restructuring of the sector.
In the past few years, the HCC has taken steps to strengthen its capabilities to conduct targeted sector inquiries. In 2013, it continued work on two sector inquiries and initiated one new sector inquiry focused on super markets. In October 2013, it released its findings on the fruits and vegetables inquiry, which examined the formation and variation of prices, costs and profit margins in the different stages of the supply chain, as well as the degree and speed of price transmission mechanisms, while also making recommendations for legislative change.
The advocacy role of the Authority has expanded considerably in recent years as a result of the ongoing financial crisis and the sustained role of the HCC in promoting structural reforms in the context of Greece’s economic adjustment programme. Advocacy work amounted to 15 per cent of total output in 2013, maintaining record levels. In the past two years alone, the HCC reviewed laws and regulations affecting more than 55 regulated professional activities, while also targeting other regulatory-driven rigidities of the food supply chain (including the reform of the product and market regulation code and the removal of restrictions concerning the selling of infant formulas solely in pharmacies). In 2013, the HCC issued three new formal opinions aimed at identifying and removing regulatory obstacles as regards the access and exercise of a number of professions, and one additional opinion concerning regulatory restrictions in the cement market.
2013 also saw the successful completion of the most intense advocacy project in recent years, Greece’s OECD Competition Assessment Project, as coordinated by the OECD and supported by the HCC (under the auspices of the Ministry of Development and Competitiveness). Over 10 months, a core project team comprising competition experts from the OECD and the HCC undertook an assessment of the costs and benefits of regulations potentially restricting competition in four designated sectors of the Greek economy (ie, retail trade, food processing, building materials and tourism), with the assistance of delegated staff from the respective line ministries involved. The project identified 555 problematic regulations and made more than 320 recommendations on legal provisions that should be amended or repealed. We take pride in our cooperation with the OECD on this project, which attests to the HCC’s capabilities and commitment in further strengthening its advocacy role.
Finally, on the institutional front, the Commission focused its efforts during the second semester of 2013 on the adoption of the EU Directive on damages actions for infringements of competition law, in view of the upcoming Greek presidency of the EU Council. These efforts yielded successful results in the first semester of 2014.
The HCC also adapted its procedures to the requirements of the Revised Competition Act (Law 3959/2011) through the adoption of new Rules of Procedure to the aim of facilitating the overall efficiency, transparency and effectiveness of competition processes.
In the context of the ongoing economic crisis, the HCC has a crucial role to play in safeguarding the conditions of effective competition and in fostering a genuine ‘competition culture’ in Greece. The realignment of its strategic planning along the following four pillars underlines its resolve in solidifying that precise role:
- 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;
- considerably expanding the Authority’s advocacy efforts in order to promote much needed structural reforms;
- placing renewed emphasis on market monitoring actions, notably by making more use of sector inquiries, while further increasing cooperation with other stakeholders; and
- making better use of internal management tools for prioritising the investigation of cases, with a view to increasing the systemic effect of HCC’s action.
Vice chairman of the Hellenic Competition Commission
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