The Court of Justice sets aside in part a judgment of the Court of First Instance in the electrical cables case and reduces by a margin the fine imposed on one of the undertakings penalised
- 14 May 2020
CJEU, 14 May 2020, NKT A/S, NKT Verwaltungs GmbH v Commission, Case C-607/18
An appeal against a judgment of the General Court of the European Union in the cable cartel case concerning NKT and its subsidiary NKT Verwaltungs GmbH
has been brought before the Court of Justice, which partially annuls the contested decision and reduces the fine imposed on the applicants.
As a reminder, by decision of 2 April 2014, the European Commission penalised 26 undertakings for infringement of Article 101 TFEU and 53 of the Agreement on the European Economic Area on the market in (very) high-voltage underground and submarine power cables. The cartel was a single and continuous infringement of almost worldwide scope and concerned the market-sharing for power cable tenders. The Commission imposed a total fine of € 302 million on the European, South Korean and Japanese companies involved.
Some of the undertakings penalised applied to the General Court for annulment and/or amendment of the decision. By 15 judgments of 12 July 2018, the General Court dismissed all the actions, including that brought by the applicants, NKT (Denmark) and its subsidiary NKT Verwaltungs (Germany), active in the production and supply of underground and submarine power cables. The applicants were fined €3 887 000 for their participation in the cartel during the period from 3 July 2002 to 17 February 2006.
The NKT companies subsequently brought an appeal before the Court of Justice alleging that the General Court had committed a number of errors of law. In support of their action, the appellants put forward three grounds of appeal alleging that the General Court erred in law as regards:
- the definition and assessment of the territorial scope of the infringement;
- the assessment of the scope of the infringement;
- the assessment of the plea alleging infringement of the applicants' rights of defence.
As regards the first plea alleging failure to have regard to the territorial scope of the infringement, the applicants rightly submitted that the statement of objections expressly excluded activities relating to sales outside the European Economic Area (EEA) from the territorial scope of the alleged infringement.
However, it follows from the case-law of the Court and from Regulation No 1/2003 that the statement of objections constitutes the 'procedural guarantee' of the respect of the rights of the defence, so that the Commission cannot, without infringing that principle, impose a penalty on an undertaking for facts which it has previously excluded from the statement of objections. In the light of those considerations, the Court upholds the plea raised by the NKT companies and notes that, by basing its decision on objections in respect of which the applicants were unable to put forward their arguments, the Commission infringed the rights of the defence.
The Court adds that the case-law according to which infringement of the rights of the defence is liable to result in the annulment of the contested measure only if it is shown that, in the absence of that irregularity, the procedure would have led to a different result is not transposable to Article 27 of Regulation No 1/2003, which states that 'the Commission is to base its decisions only on objections on which the parties concerned have been able to comment'
The Court therefore considers that the first part of the first ground is well founded, without it being necessary to examine the second and third parts.
By their second ground of appeal, the appellants argued that the General Court confirmed the Commission's assessment that they had participated in a single and continuous infringement and that they had a sufficient degree of knowledge of the various aspects of that infringement. The plea here relates to the material scope of the infringement.
In the present case, the Court finds two material errors. First, it acknowledges that the General Court erred in validating the Commission's approach which held “the appellants liable for the collective refusal to supply accessories and technical assistance to competitors not participating in the cartel, without having demonstrated that the appellants had been aware or could reasonably have foreseen it
” (169). On the other hand, the Court considers that the General Court also erred in law by relying on non-evidence in order to uphold the applicants' participation in an infringement prior to 22 November 2002 and thus infringed the presumption of innocence (235 et seq.).
Finally, as regards the third ground of appeal concerning an infringement of the rights of the defence, the Court rejects all the pleas in law in so far as the right to complete and automatic access to the replies of competing undertakings to the statement of objections does not constitute a right which the applicants could rely on.
Following examination of all the grounds of appeal, the Court of Justice annulled in part the decision of the General Court and, pursuant to the first paragraph of Article 61 of the Statute of the Court of Justice of the European Union, gave final judgment in the dispute.
The Court therefore decided “to reduce the fine imposed on the appellants by €200 000, and to reduce the amount of the fine to € 3 687 000” (306).
General Court, 12 July 2018, NKT A/S, NKT Verwaltungs GmbH v Commission, Case T-447/14