EU should ease corporate collaboration fears, German expert says

Europe’s antitrust authorities could ease companies’ concerns about the potential fallout from working together by giving them unofficial guidance, according to one of Germany’s top competition experts.

Firms in the region are putting off shared projects due to concerns over retroactive regulatory push-back, according to Achim Wambach, a member of a commission created by the German government to review antitrust policy. Wambach sees a potential fix in allowing businesses to ask for an informal green light from authorities and an indication of whether they’re likely to risk cartel fines.

“Companies say it’s often difficult for them to cooperate,” for example on data sharing in areas like autonomous driving, Wambach said in an interview.

In Germany, issuing non-binding guidance is common practice and although this “doesn’t protect companies from a veto,” they can “expect not to receive a fine from the Federal Cartel Office,” Wambach said.

“The question is whether this is also possible at an EU level,” he added. “These advisory letters would potentially be possible but the EU Commission has not yet made use of them in any cases.”

Working together too closely can come at a heavy cost if businesses swap commercially sensitive information on bids, prices or customers. Volkswagen AG’s Scania unit was one of several truckmakers hit with huge EU fines. The carmaker and rivals Daimler AG and BMW AG risk penalties over suspected collusion to delay emissions technology that appear to have grown out of research working groups.

Policy makers from Germany to France have been challenging the bloc’s antitrust rules after several high-profile deals were blocked by the European Commission, including a proposed merger of the rail operations of Siemens AG and Alstom SA. Some officials argue that the current legislation leaves the continent’s economy and companies vulnerable to competition from aggressive U.S. and Chinese rivals, where cartel fines are rarely as high as in Europe.

Big Mergers

Wambach, who heads Germany’s ZEW economic research institute as well as the government’s Monopolies Commission, was chosen last year to form part of a group dubbed “commission competition law 4.0”. The body plans to publish a report in two weeks suggesting amendments to German and EU legislation, which may form the basis of Germany’s approach on how to overhaul antitrust rules.

Together with France and Poland, Germany has been pushing plans to facilitate big EU mergers, arguing that the European Commission should introduce “more flexibility” and “take into account competition at a global level.”

EU officials have sought to address German and French industry concerns over research cooperation, saying regulators could approve state subsidies for a large battery project if plans meet the bloc’s rules.