I INTRODUCTION

The entry into force of Book IV of the Code of Economic Law2 on 6 September 2013 introduced some fundamental changes to Belgian competition law.

One of the main innovations was the simplification of the structure of the Belgian Competition Authority (BCA). The Competition Authority's former tripartite structure was changed into a single administrative body that investigates and decides upon competition law infringements. Within this newly created administrative body, a distinction was made between the College of Competition Prosecutors (headed by the Prosecutor-General), which holds the BCA's investigative powers, and the Competition College, which holds the Competition Authority's decision-making powers.3 The Competition College consists of two assessors (appointed in alphabetical order from the relevant (native Dutch or French-speaking) list of 20 nominated assessors) and the President of the BCA, who presides over the Competition College.4 In merger control cases, the Competition College will decide whether to authorise a concentration in regular proceedings, whereas the Prosecutor will, in the first instance, decide whether to authorise mergers filed under the simplified merger procedure.

A pre-merger notification and approval for all concentrations above the legally established thresholds is required. Concentrations must be notified to the Competition Authority where the undertakings concerned, taken together, have a total turnover in Belgium of more than €100 million, and where at least two of the undertakings concerned each have a turnover of at least €40 million in Belgium.5

In addition to Book IV of the Code of Economic Law, there are a large number of royal decrees regulating various aspects of merger control in Belgium.6 The Belgian merger control rules and case law are substantially influenced by European merger control rules and case law. The Belgian courts and Competition Authority have repeatedly stated that Belgian competition law should be interpreted in light of the European courts' jurisprudence and the decisions and guidelines of the European Commission, to which reference is often made.

Finally, on 25 April 2019, a legislative proposal was adopted to amend Belgian competition law. The two most notable changes concern the introduction of a stop-the-clock mechanism7 as well as a calculation of fines based on the worldwide annual turnover of the infringing party. The amendments came into effect on 3 June 2019.

II YEAR IN REVIEW

In 2005 the notification thresholds were substantially increased, and in 2006 a simplified procedure was formally introduced into Belgian competition law. These changes resulted in a significant decrease in the number of notifications and a substantial increase in the number of mergers filed under the simplified procedure. In 2008 and 2009, the number of concentrations further declined as a consequence of the financial and economic crisis. From 2010, the number of notifications increased again. In 2018, 36 final decisions were issued. Out of these final decisions, 28 were issued under the simplified procedure and eight under the non-simplified procedure. None of the notified concentrations required a Phase II investigation in 2018.

Concentrations Number of notifications Number of final decisions Number of non-simplified procedures
2003 59 61 29
2004 54 54 13
2005 17 15 7
2006 17 15 7
2007 20 20 1
2008 13 15 4
2009 7 7 2
2010 19 16 3
2011 20 20 3
2012 17 17 4
2013 25 23 2
2014 16 18 2
2015 30 29 5
2016 26 26 5
2017 30 29 10
2018 36 36 9

Given that the decisions in simplified procedures are generally only a page long and only include the parties' names, the markets in which they operate and the Prosecutor's confirmation that the conditions for the simplified procedure were fulfilled, these decisions do not provide any guidance on procedural issues or substantive matters. Therefore, only the decisions taken in regular procedures or the Court of Appeal's judgments are discussed here.

On 11 January 2018, the BCA approved the acquisition by D'Ieteren SA of exclusive control of the operating companies of Rietje's Group (Rietje).8 D'Ieteren imports and distributes vehicles of various brands of the Volkswagen group in Belgium, and imports and distributes spare parts and accessories. D'Ieteren is also active in body shop services as well as repair and replacement of vehicle windows. The target companies were the Rietje garages in Kapellen (in the Antwerp area) and Zwijndrecht, which sell new vehicles and provide maintenance, repair services and body shop services for the vehicles of the following brands: Audi, Volkswagen, Volkswagen CV and Skoda, as well as another garage in Kapellen, a multi-brand car body repairer.

The Prosecutor identified three relevant markets for the transaction's competitive assessment: (1) the market for the retail sale of motor vehicles; (2) the market for the sale of spare parts for motor vehicles; and (3) the market for the after-sales service only for Audi and Volkswagen brands for certain catchment areas. The markets in points (1) and (2) are upstream markets of the after-sales service markets in point (3).

For these markets, the Prosecutor argued that although after the transaction the combined market shares of the parties would not exceed 25 per cent, the market could be affected given the vertical integration of the parties and their market shares in the downstream market for after-sales services. The Prosecutor found that there was enough inter-brand and intra-brand competition in those markets because customers would still have access to competitors' after-sales services, including independent service providers and garages approved by D'Ieteren but not controlled by it. In view of the market position of those alternative independent providers, the Competition College therefore decided that the concentration did not cause a significant restriction of competition.

On 31 January 2018, the BCA conditionally authorised the acquisition of Kant's Group (Kant) garages by Volvo Group Belgium (Volvo).9 Kant is an independent distributor of Volvo vehicles. Volvo wished to acquire Kant's garages for Volvo trucks and buses in Belgium (Antwerp, Beerse, Olen and Sint-Niklaas), and Volvo and Renault trucks and buses in the Netherlands (Hulst). The acquisition also comprised the commercial activities of Volvo Penta engines (boat engines, industrial engines and power engines (Antwerp)). Volvo's reason for acquiring Kant lay in the strategic location of Kant's business premises. One of the important points of discussion was whether a system market exists – i.e., one single market for the combination of the primary product (the trucks) and the secondary products (spare parts and repair and maintenance services), or whether the market for trucks, the market for the provision of maintenance and repair services for trucks and the market for spare parts constitute separate markets. To assess this point, the Prosecutor considered whether buyers take into account the trucks' total cost of ownership at the moment they buy their truck. As opposed to the view of the notifying party, the Prosecutor concluded that there is no such system market, but that there are only separate markets for the sale of trucks, maintenance and repair, and sale of spare parts. Having said so, the Prosecutor assessed the proposed concentration with regard to the markets for the maintenance and repair of Volvo trucks. It concluded that the acquisition of the Kant garages by Volvo would lead to the reduction of intra-brand competition between the existing authorised Volvo repairers, especially in Mechelen, which could lead to increases in prices and quality reduction. This could significantly impede competition in that market because customers would not have enough alternatives if prices increased or quality was reduced as a result of the concentration. The Prosecutor requested the opening of a Phase II investigation. The notifying party offered commitments that were mainly concerned with limiting Kant's competitive power and increasing competitive forces by helping new entrants enter the market. First, Volvo offered to stop all car maintenance and repair services for Volvo trucks in Kant's garage in Sint-Niklaas. Second, it committed to recognising an additional authorised repairer in the Mechelen catchment area in order for clients to maintain enough options in the area where the concentration effect was the highest (and in bordering areas). The College considered that these commitments allowed the notified concentration to be cleared in the first stage proceedings, because they restored sufficient competitiveness in the market. It is notable that in this case the BCA did not appoint a monitoring trustee to review the offered commitments.

On 6 March 2018, the Competition College authorised joint control over the Belgian group Mediafin by Roularta Media Group (Roularta) and Groupe Rossel & Cie NV.10 The concentration was part of a transaction in which Roularta was selling its shares in Medialaan NV (50 per cent) to De Persgroep NV, and De Persgroep NV was selling its shares in Mediafin (50 per cent) to Roularta. Therefore, Roularta and Rossel would jointly hold Mediafin after the transaction. Roularta is active in the supply of magazines, free papers and door-to-door papers, radio, television, printing and online services. Mediafin is a company active in the media sector. It publishes business papers such as De Tijd and L'Echo, as well as specialised magazines. As a result of the concentration, Roularta wishes to further expand its digital activities and wants to broaden its portfolio of top media brands. The Prosecutor assessed the concentration for two types of markets: the consumer markets and the advertising markets. For the consumer markets, it concluded that there were no horizontal or vertical markets concerned, nor a risk of conglomerate effects post-transaction. For the advertising market, the prosecutor assessed in particular the Belgian market for advertising spaces for commercial advertising in Dutch and French language magazines. After analysing possible uncoordinated vertical effects and coordinated effects, the Prosecutor argued that there would still be enough competition in these markets after the transaction. First, because the transaction would not modify the market as such. Second, because the merged entities would not have incentives to restrict competition, and third, because the parties are essentially active on different markets. The College followed the Prosecutor's analysis that the concentration would not risk causing a significant restriction of competition in the concerned markets and authorised the concentration.

On 26 April, the BCA decided to partially lift the conditions imposed on Kinepolis.11 This is the most recent decision in the Kinepolis saga that started in 1997, when the former Belgian Competition Council cleared a merger to establish the Kinepolis group, conditional on several commitments. The commitments were imposed for renewable 10-year periods. One of the commitments included the obligation for Kinepolis to obtain prior approval from the BCA for any form of growth, through acquisitions or organic growth. In 2010, after several years of legal battle, the Court of Appeal partially lifted this condition. On 31 March 2017, it filed a request with the BCA to remove the remaining commitments. On 31 May 2017, the BCA decided to lift the restriction on organic growth after a two-year transition period. The other commitment (growing through acquisitions without prior approval of the BCA; agreeing on exclusive or priority rights to distribute films or programming agreements with independent cinema owners) were left in place. This decision was appealed by competing cinema operators and annulled by the Brussels Court of Appeal mainly for insufficient reasoning by the BCA of its decision on 28 February 2018. Also the new decision of the BCA of 26 April 2018 was again appealed and annulled by the Court of Appeal on procedural grounds on 21 November 2018. On 28 January 2019, Kinepolis again requested the BCA to lift the remaining conditions. In its latest decision of 25 March 2019, the BCA decided, after an ab initio examination of Kinepolis' request to partially lift the commitment preventing Kinepolis to grow organically through the establishment of new cinema complexes without the prior approval of the BCA. The competition college lifted this obligation of a prior notification to the BCA for new cinema complexes with a maximum of seven movie theatre halls and 1,125 seats. The BCA also prevented Kinepolis from establishing any new cinema complexes within a range of 10km of its existing cinema complexes or from expanding such new cinema complexes above the thresholds mentioned above, without the prior approval of the BCA. The legal saga will continue, as Kinepolis and two competing cinema operators already appealed this latest decision of the BCA to the Brussels' Court of Appeal.

In its decision of 22 May 2018, the BCA approved the merger of Telenet Group BVBA (Telenet) and Telelinq and its subsidiaries Nextel NV, Nextel Telecom Solutions NV and Telelinq Distribution & Finance NV (Nextel).12 Telenet is a Belgian cable operator active in the provision of fixed internet, fixed telephone services and cable television in some parts of Belgium, and in the provision of mobile services throughout Belgium. Telelinq offers global network and telecommunications solutions to SMEs, large companies, care facilities, non-profit organisations and administrations in Belgium (called 'integrator' services). Through this operation, Telenet sought to develop one-stop-shop solutions for business customers who are in need of a single point of contact for both telephony and network services. Given the limited post-transaction market shares of the parties on both the horizontal and vertical relevant markets, the Prosecutor did not raise concerns about possible uncoordinated horizontal or vertical effects, nor for coordinated effects. However, the Prosecutor identified three markets in which there could be a risk of conglomerate effects: (1) the Belgian retail market for IT services; (2) the Belgian retail market for private exchanges (PBX) and related services; and (3) the Belgian retail market for security solutions. It argued that in those markets there was a risk that the merged entity would bundle fixed internet access services with its separate or bundled global solutions (e.g., IT services, business connectivity services, PBX and related services, and security solutions); for example, by making the conditions for a bundled service more interesting than the conditions for each of the services taken separately (volume discounts or better service). However, given the parties' limited shares in those markets both before and after the transaction, the Competition College confirmed the Prosecutor's view that the concentration did not cause a significant restriction of competition because of conglomerate effects, and authorised the concentration.

On 29 June 2018, the BCA approved the acquisition of the residential care centres and service flats of Senior Assist NV (SA) by Senior Living Group NV (SLG).13 SLG's and SA's main activity is the provision of residential care services for the elderly through the operation of residential care centres and service flats. To expand its offering in Wallonia, SLG sought to acquire shares in legal entities active in the services of care centres and service flats held by SA. The Prosecutor defined two types of relevant markets: (1) the local markets for the operation of care centres; and (2) the local markets for the operation of service flats. The Prosecutor then identified the markets in which the parties would have a combined market share above 25 per cent after the transaction. It analysed the concentration of those markets before and after the transaction to determine if competition would be significantly impeded regardless of market shares higher than 25 per cent. In that regard, the Prosecutor took the market shares of existing competitors into consideration to demonstrate that even if SLG/SA would have high market shares after the transaction, there would still be enough alternatives for consumers (enough competitors; both public and commercial). In particular, it argued that in the markets in which SLG/AS is the entity with the highest market shares, competition would not be significantly impeded if there were multiple competitors and if the second-ranked competitor has a market share of at least half of SLG/AS's market share. Finally, the Prosecutor ruled out the risk for uncoordinated effects related to price increases and quality reduction, because (1) the price regulations imposed by law and the obligation to request a price increase severely restrict the free price setting by the operator; and (2) approval standards stand in the way of a significant decrease in quality. The Competition College left the geographical market definition open (instead of defining local markets as the Prosecutor did) and reached the conclusion that the merger did not significantly impede competition in the relevant markets.

On 29 June 2018, the Competition College gave approval to Roularta to acquire a portfolio of titles from Sanoma Media Belgium NV and Sanoma Regional Belgium NV (Sanoma).14 Roularta operates on the market for newspapers, magazines, free papers, radio, television, printing and online services (i.e., e-commerce), while Sanoma focuses on two main media activities. With this operation, Roularta sought to acquire the sole control over a series of Sanoma's brands. After the implementation of the notified concentration, Sanoma will only have a limited activity left on the Belgian market. The Prosecutor identified three relevant markets, divided into a French side and a Dutch side: (1) the Belgian market for the publication of Dutch and French magazines, (2) the Belgian market for the sale of advertising space in Dutch and French magazines and (3) the Belgian market for heatset-offset printing techniques. On the first two markets, Roularta would become the market leader with market shares between 20 per cent and 60 per cent. On the latter market, Roularta and Sanoma are vertically integrated, which is why it is a relevant market. Despite the high market shares, the Prosecutor concluded that there was no risk of uncoordinated or coordinated effects in those markets in light of the special dynamic attached to the markets in question. For example, the readers' market and the advertising market are part of a two-sided market in which content is sold to readers, and advertising space is sold to advertisers. Since the number of readers influences the demand for advertising space (if there were fewer readers, fewer advertisers would be interested in buying advertising space), there is little risk of price increases in one of those markets because the effect on the other market would be negative. The Prosecutor also took into account the counterfactual. Given the declining income from advertising and the number of magazines sold, it was claimed by the parties that the transfer was the only option to ensure the continuity of the magazines. Following the Prosecutor's proposal, the College authorised the concentration because it did not cause a significant restriction of the competition in the concerned market.

On 10 July 2018, the BCA authorised the takeover by Intergamma Holding BV (Intergamma) of 20 VNG Bouwmarkten stores operated by CRH in Belgium.15 Intergamma is a franchise organisation for distributors of products for the renovation and furnishing of houses by consumers and small contractors (do-it-yourself (DIY) products) and operates the 'Gamma' franchise formula. The 20 shops it sought to acquire already operated under the Gamma franchise formula, but at that time were independent franchisees. The transaction was part of a larger transaction, which the ACM had already approved in the Netherlands. The Prosecutor analysed the operation for two relevant markets: (1) the retail markets and (2) the supply markets for DIY products. A point of contention was the definition of the relevant geographic retail market. The Prosecutor found that the answer to that question depended on whether the franchisee's market shares should or should not be attributed to the franchisor. The answer to the latter question depends on the extent to which the franchisees are free to determine their own commercial policy and if franchisees effectively compete with each other based on parameters other than their location. If the franchisee's market shares were to be attributed to the franchisor, then the market would be national. If not, then the market would be local. The Competition College decided that in this case the question could be left open, as there would be no concerned market in either scenario. If the market was defined as national, the parties' shares on it would not exceed 25 per cent after the transaction; while if the market was defined as local, then there would be seven markets in which the shares would exceed 25 per cent but, as none of them would overlap horizontally, those markets would not be concerned markets either. Finally, the Prosecutor ruled out horizontal and vertical uncoordinated effects because the structure of both the retail and supply market would remain the same after the transaction. The College therefore decided that there was no significant restriction of competition and approved the transaction.

On 12 December 2018, the BCA authorised electricity and gas distribution system operator (DSO) Iveg to absorb DSOs Imea and Integan to become a new entity named Fluvius Antwerpen.16 Iveg is a DSO responsible for the management of electricity, natural gas, sewage and heat networks in 17 municipalities. Imea is responsible for the management of electricity, natural gas and heat networks in six municipalities, while Integan is the network operator for cable communication in 14 municipalities. Each municipality chooses a DSO to operate its electricity and gas networks, and those DSOs rely upon an operating company named Fluvius to manage the networks on a day-to-day basis. After the transaction, the newly created Fluvius Antwerpen would be managing all electricity and gas networks, which means that DSOs will only compete based on their respective investment and dividend policies. The sector for electricity and gas networks is strongly regulated by the VREG (the Flemish regulator for energy and gas) regarding price determination and quality standards. When defining the relevant market, the Prosecutor took into consideration competition for the market; the Prosecutor thus assessed the concentration regarding the local markets for the entry on the regulated market for the management of electricity and gas networks in a number of municipalities falling within the current scope of Iveg and IMEA, as well as all neighbouring municipalities. The College decided that these markets were affected, as the municipalities have a limited opportunity to choose a DSO, but the available choice is nevertheless very limited by the current and expected regulations. The College noted that first, the important VREG (the Flemish regulator for energy and gas) benchmarking regarding prices and quality reduces the parameters upon which DSOs can compete. Second, the limited competition that could result from differences in investment and dividend policy is limited by the fact that the municipalities are also the shareholders of the DSO that they designate. Given all of these reasons, the College has decided that DSOs do not compete sufficiently with each other for selection by a municipality to be able to speak of a restriction of competition created by the merger that would prevent approval.

III THE MERGER CONTROL REGIME

As mentioned in Section I, concentrations must be notified in Belgium if the undertakings concerned, taken together, have a total turnover of more than €100 million in Belgium,17 and if at least two of the undertakings concerned each have a turnover of at least €40 million in Belgium, unless the concentration has a 'Community dimension'18 and thus must be notified to the European Commission. The relevant turnover is the consolidated sales turnover in Belgium during the preceding financial year. On the seller's side only the Belgian turnover generated by the target company (or companies) (or sold business) should be taken into account.19 The parties must obtain approval for the proposed concentration before it can be implemented.20

In 2006, the 'significant impediment to effective competition' test was introduced in Belgian competition law as the substantive test for clearance, aligning it with the EU Merger Regulation. A particular feature of the Belgian merger control system is that if the post-merger joint market share of the parties in any relevant horizontal or vertical market does not exceed 25 per cent, then the transaction must be approved by the Competition College.21

The first step in the notification procedure usually consists of pre-notification contacts with the Competition Authority, in particular with the Prosecutor. The Code of Economic Law does not oblige the parties to make pre-notification contacts, but it is highly recommended22 and has become standard practice. It is also not uncommon that the Authority asks the parties' consent to start its investigation and send out requests for information to third parties already during the pre-notification stage. In principle, a formal notification may only be submitted after the informal approval of the Prosecutor-General has been obtained in the context of such pre-notification contacts. These contacts can take place via telephone or e-mail, or in face-to-face meetings. The discussions usually take place based on a draft notification. These contacts have several purposes, including:

  1. the parties and the Prosecutor can discuss a number of essential points (such as whether the concentration must be notified, whether the simplified procedure could be used and what information must be provided);
  2. reducing the risk of the Prosecutor finding the notification to be incomplete (which has a significant impact on the notification's timing);
  3. the Prosecutor can, at the parties' request, exempt the notifying parties from providing certain information,23 which can make the notification less onerous; and
  4. they allow the parties to understand the Prosecutor's point of view on, for example, the market definition, and to more accurately estimate whether Phase I clearance is likely to be granted.

For the notification itself, the parties must use the CONC C/C form.24 By completing this form, the parties provide a wide range of information on, among other things, the concentration, the parties, their economic activities, the relevant markets and the effects of the concentration on the relevant markets. The information provided must be correct and complete;25 otherwise the notification cannot have any effect.26 In general, the notification obligation falls on the party acquiring control through the concentration.27 In the case of a merger between two formerly independent companies, the obligation falls on both parties.28 The concentration must be notified after the agreement's conclusion and before its implementation. Nevertheless, the parties can notify a draft agreement if they declare that it will not significantly differ from the proposed agreement on all relevant points from a competition law perspective.29

The notification must be made in Dutch or in French.30 The documents attached to the notification must be filed in their original language. If that language is not Dutch, French or English, a translation into the notification language must be added.31 The notification, including its annexes, must be sent to the BCA for the attention of the Prosecutor-General in three copies, either by registered post or by courier with acknowledgment of receipt, using the address indicated on the BCA website. At the same time, an electronic copy of the notification and its annexes must be sent by email to the Secretariat of the BCA for the attention of the Prosecutor-General, using the email address indicated on the BCA website.32

As is the case in European merger control, the parties must suspend the implementation of the merger until it has been cleared.33 Failure to respect this standstill obligation can result in fines of up to 10 per cent of the notifying parties' annual turnover.34 While the Code of Economic Law of 2013 took into account only the Belgian turnover for the calculation of the fine, the new law provides that the maximum fines will now be capped at 10 per cent of the worldwide turnover of the infringing undertaking.35

In exceptional circumstances, the President can permit the parties to implement the merger before it has been approved, but such an exemption must, in principle, always be requested before the merger's implementation.36 If incorrect or incomplete information is provided in a notification or a request for information, the information is not provided on time, or the notifying parties hinder or prevent the investigation, the notifying parties can be sanctioned with fines of up to 1 per cent of their respective annual turnovers.37 The same fines may apply in case of failure to notify a merger.38

The Belgian Competition Act makes a distinction between the simplified merger procedure and the regular merger procedure.

i Simplified procedure

On 1 October 2006, the simplified merger procedure was introduced in Belgian competition law. Before that date, the simplified procedure was based on 'soft law'. It was only on 8 June 2007 that the General Assembly of the Council approved this procedure's detailed rules and thus replaced the previous 'soft law' rules.39

The simplified procedure is highly practical, and today the vast majority (up to 80 per cent) of notifications are made using this procedure.

The simplified procedure has two essential characteristics: first, the Prosecutor examines the merger and decides whether to authorise it (and not the Competition College); second, the simplified procedure is very short, as the Prosecutor has to make a final decision within 15 working days of having received the notification. The amount of information that must be filed is also substantially less than in the regular procedure.

The parties can choose the simplified procedure for the following categories of concentrations:40

  1. two or more undertakings acquire joint control over a joint venture on condition that the joint venture is not active or is only active to a small degree on the Belgian market, when the joint venture's turnover or the turnover of the brought-in activities in Belgium, or the turnover of both, is less than €40 million; and the total value of the transfer in assets to the joint venture in Belgium is less than €40 million;
  2. none of the parties to the concentration are active on the same product and geographical markets, or on a product market situated upstream or downstream of a product market on which one or more parties to the concentration is active;
  3. two or more of the parties to the concentration are active on the same product market and geographical market (horizontal relationship), on condition that their joint market share is less than 25 per cent; or one or more parties to the concentration are active on a product market upstream or downstream of a product market on which another party to the concentration exercises activities (vertical relationship), on condition that their individual or joint market shares amount to less than 25 per cent; and
  4. a party acquires sole control over an undertaking over which it already exercises joint control.41

As mentioned above, the Prosecutor has only 15 working days from the notification42 to decide whether the conditions for the simplified merger procedure apply and whether the concentration raises any objections43 or doubts as to its permissibility.44 If the Prosecutor fails to come to a decision before the deadline, the merger is deemed to have been approved.45 If the Prosecutor concludes that either the conditions for applying the simplified procedure are not fulfilled or the concentration raises objections, the use of the simplified procedure will be rejected and a full notification under the regular procedure must be made.46 Moreover, the timetable for the regular proceedings will only start running after the new filing is made, as the simplified notification will be deemed to have been incomplete from the start. If the Prosecutor accepts that the conditions for the simplified procedure apply and does not find any objections, the merger must be approved. In this respect, it is also useful to refer to a peculiarity of Belgian merger control that obliges the Authority to approve any merger where the parties' Belgian market share does not exceed 25 per cent, which will often be the case in simplified merger filings. The Prosecutor informs the parties of the decision by post, which is deemed by law to have the value of a decision of the Competition College for the application of Book IV of the Code of Economic Law.47

Even though the simplified procedure is formally included in Book IV of the Code of Economic Law, it still entails some uncertainty for the parties. First, there is uncertainty as to timing. As set out above, a ruling that the simplified procedure cannot be used means that the parties have to start regular proceedings from scratch. Even if the Prosecutor during the pre-notification contacts indicates that the concentration qualifies for the simplified procedure, nothing is certain, especially given the wide interpretation of the 'no objection' criteria, which can allow third parties to force the notifying parties into a regular notification by filing objections. This uncertainty is increased by the absence of any right to appeal against a Prosecutor's decision to revert to the regular procedure.

ii Regular procedure

The regular procedure is divided into two phases (Phase I and Phase II), which each consist of an instruction and a decision stage. Once a complete notification has been filed, the Prosecutor will open a Phase I procedure. At this point, a summary of the notification is published in the Belgian Official Gazette and on the Competition Authority's website. The Prosecutor gathers information and submits a reasoned decision proposal to the Competition College, who takes the final decision to either approve the merger (possibly subject to certain conditions) or to open a Phase II procedure.

Book IV of the Code of Economic Law contains fixed time frames for both the decision and the investigation. Once the concentration has been notified, the Prosecutor must submit a reasoned decision proposal to the Competition College within 25 working days of the day after the notification.48 A copy of this report will also be sent to the parties and a non-confidential version to the representatives of the employee organisations of the undertakings involved.49 If the file is incomplete, the time period only starts when the complete information is received. If commitments are presented, the time limit is extended by 10 working days.

No less than 10 working days after the communication of the Prosecutor's reasoned decision proposal, the Competition College organises a hearing during which the parties and any interested third parties are heard.50 From the moment the Prosecutor's decision proposal is submitted, the parties must be given full access to the file, except for confidential submissions from third parties. Third parties, on the other hand, only have a right of access to the file in limited circumstances. The Competition College must decide whether to approve the merger within 40 working days from the day after the notification.51 This deadline is extended by 15 working days in cases where commitments are proposed. Furthermore, the parties can request an extension of the deadline after the investigation has ended.52 This extension may be particularly relevant if the parties need more time to convince the Competition College of their case, offer commitments, etc., to avoid the opening of a Phase II investigation.

If the Competition College has serious doubts about approving the merger, it can order an additional investigation under the Phase II procedure. The parties have 20 working days after such a decision to propose commitments.53 The new Act provides that the Prosecutor can extend that deadline by another 20 days. Furthermore, the Prosecutor must submit its revised decision proposal within 30 working days of the decision.54 The parties may submit their written observations within 10 working days of the submission of the revised decision proposal. If the parties submit written observations, the Prosecutor may submit an additional decision proposal within five working days.55 A hearing must be held no less than 10 working days after the submission.56 The Competition College must decide whether to approve the merger within 60 working days of initiating the Phase II procedure.57 This deadline can be extended at the parties' request.

If the Competition College fails to make a Phase I or Phase II decision by the deadlines set out above, the merger is deemed to have been approved.

The Competition Act does not grant interested third parties the right to access the file, but only to be heard by the Competition College.58 However, the Supreme Court59 has somewhat limited this principle by ruling that, in exceptional circumstances, an interested third party can obtain access to the file to the extent that this access is limited to a non-confidential version and that such access is strictly necessary to allow the third party to set out its views on the merger. In practice, it seems that the Competition College is more inclined to refuse access than to grant it. However, in the Mediahuis decision, the Brussels Court of Appeal confirmed that the BCA is obliged to give access to the concentration file that was submitted to the Competition College during the appeal proceedings.60

Once a decision has been taken, notifications must be sent to the parties, the relevant Minister, anyone who might have an interest and anyone who has requested to be kept informed. The decisions are also published in the Belgian official gazette and on the Competition Authority's website.61 Before publication, the President of the Competition College will decide which, if any, passages in the decision are confidential,62 and will invite the parties to submit their views on this confidentiality.

Appeals against decisions made by the Competition College can be made to the Brussels Court of Appeal and, subsequently, the Supreme Court. The appeal could be against the Competition College's decision to approve or refuse a merger or against default approvals when the Competition College failed to make a decision by a specified deadline.63 The appeal could be lodged by the parties, by interested third parties who have requested to be heard by the Competition College and by the Minister of Economic Affairs. The appeal must be lodged within 30 days of the notification of the decision.64

Before the Court of Appeal, the parties present their arguments in writing and at a hearing. The Minister of Economic Affairs can also submit written arguments to the Court of Appeal. Since the entry into force of Book IV of the Code of Economic Law, the BCA, represented by the President, can also intervene as a party in the proceedings and submit written arguments. At any time, the Court of Appeal can call the parties to the case before the Competition College when there is a risk that the appeal may affect their rights or obligations.65 In cases concerning the admissibility of concentrations, the Court of Appeal does not have full jurisdiction, but will only rule with the power of annulment.66

An appeal to the Court of Appeal does not suspend the Competition College's decision,67 and it continues to have full effect until the Court of Appeal issues its judgment. However, at the request of one of the parties, the Court of Appeal can order the suspension of the Competition College's decision. In practice, the suspension of a College decision usually is of limited interest to the parties, as they are bound by the suspension obligation of the merger until it is approved. However, in the Cable Wallon case, it turned out to be useful when the Court of Appeal overruled a tacit admissibility decision and reopened the investigation.68 On the other hand, a suspension might be useful to third parties who have appealed against a decision to ensure that the merger is not implemented.

IV OTHER STRATEGIC CONSIDERATIONS

As is the case in all merger control proceedings, time is of the essence. Under the Belgian merger control system, a third party could try to prolong merger procedures to the disadvantage of its competitors. A third party could, for instance, prevent the merging parties from enjoying the benefits of the simplified (and much faster) procedure by raising objections to the merger.

Regarding timing, it should be noted that the deadline imposed on the prosecutors to issue decisions in simplified merger filings has been shortened to 15 working days in 2013. This term of 15 working days is very short for the investigatory team. Therefore, it is important to start pre-notification talks, which can take months, well before the actual merger filing. On the other hand, as more and more issues are investigated and solved during the pre-notification period, decisions are often taken before the end of the legal deadline for the decision. In case of a simplified procedure, it is also advisable to start pre-notification contacts to obtain as much certainty as possible about the Prosecutor's preliminary view on whether the conditions for a simplified procedure have been fulfilled and on the extent of the information that should be provided to convince the BCA that the simplified procedure's conditions indeed apply.

V OUTLOOK and CONCLUSIONS

Since 2015, the number of notifications filed and the notification decisions issued has significantly increased when compared to previous years. In 2018, the number of concentrations filed under the regular merger control procedure remained as high as in 2017. Several recent decisions have given rise to fines for procedural infringements (for negligent obstruction, for 'gun-jumping', and for non-compliance with commitments given). It is clear that the BCA expects the parties to a concentration to act diligently and that it will fine undertakings that omit to notify, do not promptly reply to requests for information in merger proceedings or do not, whether or not intentionally, comply with commitments imposed.

From the decisions that have already been issued under the regular merger control procedure since the entry into force of Book IV of the Code of Economic Law, it can be seen that it is not uncommon for admissibility decisions to be linked to complying with certain commitments. In this context, it should be noted that, as is the case under European competition law, both behavioural and structural remedies can be accepted. Whereas the BCA seemed to be more inclined to impose behavioural remedies in the past, in recent decisions also structural remedies have been imposed (e.g., in the Delhaize/Ahold, the Kinepolis/Utopolis and the McKesson/Belmedis cases).

The Code of Economic Law provides that the BCA shall carry out an assessment of the two merger filing thresholds every three years, taking into account, inter alia, the economic impact and the administrative burden for undertakings. In 2018, the BCA stated that in view of the relatively high notification thresholds in Belgium, the BCA sees no reason to raise these thresholds. If a reduction were to be envisaged, the Authority advocated lowering the thresholds in certain specific sectors, with a local catchment area, as is for example the case in France. Also an information obligation for concentrations below the thresholds that are important for the Belgian market could possibly be considered according to the Authority. After a stakeholder consultation on the existing thresholds and the need to modify them, the BCA decided not to modify the thresholds for the time being.Finally, as was noted in the introduction, a new act was adopted on 25 April 2019 amending Belgian competition law. In particular, the Act introduces the worldwide turnover for the calculation of fines, and a stop-the-clock mechanism suspending the term within which the Prosecutor has to render a decision proposal, the term within which the College shall take its decision in regular proceedings and the term within which the Prosecutor has to render its decision in simplified procedures, with the time required for the parties to provide additional information requested or to offer commitments. The timing of the merger procedure will therefore become more uncertain. It remains to be seen how often the BCA will make use of its new powers to use this stop-the-clock mechanism.


Footnotes

1 Carmen Verdonck is a partner and Nina Methens is an associate at Altius.

2 Code of Economic Law of 28 February 2013, Belgian Official Gazette 29 March 2013.

3 Despite the Competition College formally holding the BCA's decision-making powers, Book IV of the Code of Economic Law also grants certain decision-making powers to the College of Competition Prosecutors (for example, within the framework of the simplified merger procedure).

4 Articles IV.16 of Code of Economic Law.

5 Article IV.7, Section 1 Code of Economic Law. In May 2017, the Authority launched a consultation of stakeholders on the thresholds for notification and an assessment whether they should be changed, but it was decided not to change the thresholds.

6 The most important royal decrees are the Royal Decree of 30 August 2013 on procedures with regard to the Protection of Economic Competition, Belgian Official Gazette 6 September 2013; and the Royal Decree of 30 August 2013 on the Notification of Concentrations of Undertakings in Accordance with Article IV.10 of the Code of Economic Law as inserted by the Acts of 3 April 2013, Belgian Official Gazette, 9 September 2013.

7 This mechanism allows the Prosecutor to extend a given deadline to give parties more time to provide information or offer commitments. Such decision suspends the term within which the Prosecutor has to render his decision proposal as well as the final term in which the College shall take its decision. Article IV.40 Section 1, Code of Economic Law.

8 Decision No. ABC-2018-C/C-02 of 11 January 2018 in case No. CONC-C/C-17/0034, the acquisition by D'Iteren SA of exclusive control of the operating companies of Rietje's Group.

9 Decision No. BMA-2018-C/C-04 of 31 January 2018 in case No. MEDE-C/C-17/0035, Volvo Group Belgium NV's acquisition of garages of the group Kant NV.

10 Decision No. BMA-2018-C/C-07 of 6 March 2018 in case No. MEDE-C/C-18/0002, the acquisition of joint control over Mediafin NV by Roularta Media Group NV and Rossel & Cie NV.

11 Decision No. BMA-2018-C/C-12 of 26 April 2018 in case No. MEDE-C/C-17/0014, application by Kinepolis Group NV for the annulment of the conditions imposed by the Competition Council in Decision No. 97-C/C-25 of 17 November 1997, as amended by the judgment of the Brussels Court of Appeal of 11 March 2010 in Case 2008/MR/22-23-24.

12 Decision No. BMA-2018-C/C-14 of 22 May 2018 in case No. MEDE-C/C-18/0011, Telenet Group BVBA/Telelinq NV.

13 Decision No. BMA-2018-C/C-20 of 20 June 2018 in case No. MEDE-C/C-18/0013, the takeover by Senior Living Group NV of residential care centres, service flats etc. of Senior Assist NV.

14 Decision No. BMA-2018-C/C-21 of 29 June 2018 in case No. MEDE-C/C-18/0016, the takeover by Roularta Media Group NV of a portfolio of brands from Sanoma Media Belgium NV and Sanoma Regional Belgium NV.

15 Decision No. BMA-2018-C/C-23 of 10 July 2018 in case No. MEDE-C/C-18/0017, Intergamma Holding BV/the VNG Bouwmarkent of CRH Nederland BV.

16 Decision No. BMA-2018-C/C-38 of 12 December 2018 in case No. MEDE-C/C-18/0038, Iveg/IMEA/INTEGAN – Fluvius Antwerpen.

17 Article IV.7, Section 1 of the Code of Economic Law.

18 Article IV.11 Code of Economic Law.

19 Article IV.8 Code of Economic Law.

20 Article IV.10, Section 4 of the Code of Economic Law.

21 Article IV.66, Section 2, 2 of the Code of Economic Law.

22 The Rules adopted by the General Assembly of the Competition Council regarding the simplified notification of concentrations of 8 June 2007 recommend contacting the College of Competition Prosecutors at least two weeks before notification (see Section III.i, infra). Until further notice, these Rules remain applicable also after the entry into force of Book IV of the Code of Economic Law.

23 Article 5, Section 4 of the Royal Decree on the notification of concentrations.

24 Annexed to the Royal Decree on the notification of concentrations. For the simplified procedure, form CONC C/C-V/S is used, which is annexed to the Rules adopted by the General Assembly of the Competition Council regarding the simplified notification of concentrations of 8 June 2007.

25 Article 4, Section 1 of the Royal Decree on the notification of concentrations.

26 Article 5, Section 2 of the Royal Decree on the notification of concentrations.

27 Article IV.10, Section 2 Code of Economic Law.

28 ibid.

29 Article IV.10, Section 1 Code of Economic Law. In Case No. 98-C/C-11 of the Competition Council of 28 July 1998, Promedia CV/Belgacom Directory Services NV, Belgian Official Gazette 18 September 1998, p. 30,441, the Council ruled that an agreement that had not yet been approved by the works council was not sufficiently binding to be notified.

30 Article IV.92, Section 3, 5 Code of Economic Law.

31 Article 3, Section 4 of the Royal Decree on the notification of concentrations.

32 Article 3, Section 2 of the Royal Decree on the notification of concentrations.

33 Article IV.10, Section 4 Code of Economic Law.

34 Article IV.79, Section 1 and Article IV.80 Code of Economic Law.

35 This new maximum will apply only for infringements committed after the entry into force of the new Act on 3 June 2019. Infringements that have taken place and ended before the entry into force of the new law will be fined under the previous rules.

36 Article IV.10, Section 6 Code of Economic Law; See for a recent application also the decision No. BMA-2015-C/C-79 of 23 December 2015 in Case No. MEDE-C/C-15/0035, acquisition of Imtech Belgium Holding NV and Imtech Belgium NV by Cordeel Group NV Cordeel.

37 Article IV.82, Section 1 Code of Economic Law. See also decision No. BMA-2015-C/C-31 of 30 September 2015 in Case No. MEDE-C/C-15/0017, Acquisition of Humo NV, Story, TeVe-blad and Vitaya by De Persgroep Publishing NV, in which the Competition College ruled that the Guidelines on the calculation of fines may be used as guidance for the calculation of such fines.

38 In the April 2019 modification of Book IV of the Economic Law, the relevant provision was by mistake omitted in the new Book IV. It is, however, expected that this mistake will be corrected within a short time (probably the relevant provision will be inserted also in Article IV.82, Section 1 Code of Economic Law).

39 Rules adopted by the General Assembly of the Competition Council regarding the simplified notification of concentrations on 8 June 2007.

40 Point II.3.2 of the Rules adopted by the General Assembly of the Competition Council regarding the simplified notification of concentrations of 8 June 2007 states that, in special circumstances, the simplified procedure cannot be applied. This can be the case where it is impossible to determine the exact market shares of the parties (e.g., on new or less-developed markets) or where markets with high entry barriers or a high degree of concentration are concerned. In decision No. BMA-2015-C/C-79 of 23 December 2015 in Case No. MEDE-C/C-15/0035, the acquisition of Imtech Belgium Holding NV and Imtech Belgium NV by Cordeel Group NV Cordeel, 'gun-jumping' was also considered to be a special circumstance to set aside the simplified procedure.

41 Point II.1 of the Rules adopted by the General Assembly of the Competition Council regarding the simplified notification of concentrations of 8 June 2007.

42 Article IV.70, Section 6 Code of Economic Law.

43 Article IV.70, Section 3 Code of Economic Law. This criterion was widely interpreted in case law. In the Belgian Airports/Brussels South Charleroi Airport case, the Prosecutor refused the application of the simplified procedure merely because a third party voiced an objection against the concentration (Case No. 2009-C/C-27 of 4 November 2009, Belgian Official Gazette 22 January 2010).

44 Article IV.70, Section 5 Code of Economic Law. Strangely, this Paragraph ('doubts as to the permissibility') does not use the same criterion as Paragraph 3 ('no objection').

45 Article IV.70, Section 6 Code of Economic Law.

46 For example, Decision No. ABC-2014-C/C-03 of 26 March 2014 in Case No. CONC-C/C-13/0030, Tecteo/EDA – Avenir Advertising, which was notified under the simplified procedure but had to be renotified under the regular procedure as some of the market definitions were contested and the transaction raised multiple competition concerns according to the auditor.

47 Article IV.70, Sections 3 and 4 Code of Economic Law.

48 Article IV.64, Section 1 and 2 Code of Economic Law.

49 Article IV.64, Section 3 Code of Economic Law.

50 Article IV.65, Sections 3 and 4 Code of Economic Law.

51 Article IV.66, Section 3 Code of Economic Law.

52 Article IV.66, Section 3, 1 and 2 Code of Economic Law.

53 Article IV.67, Section 1 Code of Economic Law.

54 Article IV.67, Section 2 Code of Economic Law. This deadline shall be extended by a period equal to the period used by the parties to present commitments, if any.

55 Article IV.68, Sections 1 and 2 Code of Economic Law.

56 Article IV.68, Section 4 and Article IV.65 Code of Economic Law.

57 Article IV.69, Section 2 Code of Economic Law. This deadline shall be extended by a period equal to the period used by the parties to present commitments, if any.

58 Article IV.68, Section 1 and Article IV.65 Code of Economic Law.

59 Cour de Cassation, 22 January 2008, Tectéo/Brutélé.

60 Decision of the Brussels Court of Appeal of 19 November 2014 in Case No. 2013/MR/30, De Persgroep NV/Belgian Competition Authority and Corelio NV and Concentra NV.

61 Article IV.75, Sections 1 and 2 Code of Economic Law.

62 Article 74, Section 1 Code of Economic Law.

63 Article IV.90, Section 1 Code of Economic Law.

64 Article IV.90, Sections 4 and 5 Code of Economic Law.

65 Article IV.90, Section 7 Code of Economic Law.

66 Article IV.90, Section 2 Code of Economic Law. This was confirmed in the decision of the Brussels Court of Appeal of 19 November 2014 in Case No. 2013/MR/30, De Persgroep NV/Belgian Competition Authority and Corelio NV and Concentra NV.

67 Article IV.90, Section 3 Code of Economic Law.

68 Brussels, 25 January 2008, Tecteo, Brutélé, Case 2008/MR/1.