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The European Commission on 17 November 2021 published its Communication A competition policy fit for new challenges. This policy document and the annexed timeline set out the priorities and initiatives of DG Competition for the coming years. The review covers mergers, antitrust as well as state aid control. It aims to ensure competition policy tools and enforcement remains fit for purpose to ensure a strong and resilient internal market.

The ETUC has been calling for a reform of the EU legal framework on competition to promote more inclusive and sustainable competition policies. The Commission Communication takes as its starting point the principle of a ‘highly competitive social market economy’ as enshrined in the Treaties. Against this background, the ETUC underlines the need to put not only environmental but also social concerns at the heart of this review.

The current approach to EU competition policy and enforcement has not delivered for everyone, as evidenced by ever increasing concentrations of economic power, capital, innovation and ownership. This has resulted in increased social inequalities, stemming from labour market concentrations and monopsony power, undermined collective bargaining and a lack of workers’ involvement. To more effectively address market concentrations and monopolistic tendencies, the ETUC believes the Commission should promote more inclusive definitions of consumer interests and relevant markets.

In terms of state aid control, the Commission will e.g. update the State Aid Block Exemption Regulation in light of the Green Deal, and issue Guidelines on Climate, Environmental Protection and Energy Aid. The ETUC recalls the importance of green and social conditionalities and inclusive governance structures to avoid subsidies of undertakings in conflict with sustainability principles.

When it comes to merger control, the Commission will e.g. review the Market Definition Notice. It is also issuing new guidance on the application of the Merger Regulation as regards potentially problematic acquisitions of companies below notification thresholds. The ETUC emphasises the need for more behavioural remedies and considers that also structural remedies such as breaking up an abusive digital gatekeeper must be a real possibility. In the light of global competition, not only should social and environmental considerations play a more prominent role in merger control, but EU competition policy must also be compatible with strong and sustainable European companies.

As regards antitrust control, the Commission will e.g. update the Vertical and Horizontal Block Exemptions and Guidelines with a view to enhance legal certainty around sustainability agreements between competitors. The ETUC believes greater account should be taken of non-monetary values and non-price efficiencies to the benefit of not only consumers, but also workers and citizens, such as initiatives for green and socially just transitions, skills development, and respect for human rights.

As a separate initiative, the Commission will also issue Guidelines on the access to collective bargaining for the self-employed. The ETUC is calling on the Commission to promote a restrictive and human right compliant interpretation of Article 101 TFEU, clarifying that collective bargaining agreements are fully excluded from the scope of competition law, regardless of whether they protect employees, self-employed or other non-standard workers.
More information:
ETUC Press Realease ‘EU competition reform needed to stop increasing inequality’
ETUC Resolution for a More Sustainable and Inclusive Competition Policy
Commission Press Release on Competition Policy Review