Stärkung der Verteidigungsrechte im EG-Kartellverfahren: EuGH hebt € 22 Mio.-Bußgeld auf (Bolloré i.S. "Durchschreibepapier")

Der Europäische Gerichtshof (EuGH) hat heute eine Kartellbuße gegen das Unternehmen Bolloré in Höhe von € 22,68 Mio. aufgehoben.

1.

Die EG-Kommission hatte Bolloré und neun weiteren Unternehmen in Entscheidungen aus dem Jahr 2001 vorgeworfen, ein Kartell zur Festsetzung der Preise und Aufteilung des Marktes für Selbstdurchschreibepapier gebildet zu haben, und Geldbußen von insgesamt € 313,7 Mio. verhängt. Ein elftes Unternehmen wurde nicht bebußt (Kronzeuge). 

In der ersten Instanz (EuG) hatten zwei Betroffene eine zum Teil erhebliche Reduzierung ihrer Geldbußen erstritten. Drei Unternehmen (darunter Bolloré), die vor dem EuG unterlagen, legten Rechtsmittel zum EuGH ein (verb. Rs. C‑322/07 P, C‑327/07 P und C‑338/07 P).

Vor dem EuGH war nur Bolloré erfolgreich. Aus der Pressemitteilung des EuGH von heute Morgen:

“Das Gericht [erster Instanz] hat in seinem Urteil festgestellt, dass die Entscheidung der Kommission fehlerhaft sei, weil in dieser Bolloré die Zuwiderhandlung aufgrund ihrer eigenen unmittelbaren Beteiligung an dem Kartell zugerechnet worden sei, obwohl ihr die Zuwiderhandlung in der Mitteilung der Beschwerdepunkte nur in ihrer Eigenschaft als 100%ige Muttergesellschaft ihrer Tochtergesellschaft Copigraph zugerechnet worden sei. Das Gericht hat die Ansicht vertreten, dass der festgestellte Fehler jedoch nicht zur Nichtigerklärung der Entscheidung führe, da andere in der Entscheidung berücksichtigte Umstände, zu denen Bolloré habe Stellung nehmen können, der Kommission erlaubt hätten, die Verantwortung von Bolloré für das rechtswidrige Verhalten ihrer Tochtergesellschaft unabhängig von ihrer eigenen unmittelbaren Beteiligung zu bejahen. Da das Gericht der Meinung gewesen ist, dass der Rechtsverstoß der Kommission sich auf die Höhe der gegen Bolloré festgesetzten Geldbuße nicht auswirke, hat es die Entscheidung, soweit sie Bolloré mit der Sanktion einer Geldbuße belegt hat, bestätigt.

Der Gerichtshof hat festgestellt, dass auch dann, wenn in der streitigen Entscheidung die Verantwortung von Bolloré nicht nur wegen ihrer eigenen Beteiligung, sondern auch wegen ihrer Beteiligung in ihrer Eigenschaft als Muttergesellschaft von Copigraph bejaht worden ist, dies nicht ausschließt, dass sich die Entscheidung möglicherweise auf Verhaltensweisen gründet, in Bezug auf die Bolloré sich nicht hat verteidigen können.

Aufgrund dessen hat der Gerichtshof das Urteil des Gerichts, soweit es Bolloré betrifft, aufgehoben.”

2.

Das Urteil ist noch nicht veröffentlicht.

Der EuGH folgt offenbar GA Bot, der zu diesem Punkt in seinem Schlußantrag vom 2. April 2009 ausführlich vorgetragen hat.  GA Bot stellte unter anderem auf zwei Überlegungen ab:

  • Art. 6 Abs. 1 EMRK (Satz 1: “Jede Person hat ein Recht darauf, daß über Streitigkeiten in bezug auf ihre zivilrechtlichen Ansprüche und Verpflichtungen oder über eine gegen sie erhobene strafrechtliche Anklage von einem unabhängigen und unparteiischen, auf Gesetz beruhenden Gericht in einem fairen Verfahren, öffentlich und innerhalb angemessener Frist verhandelt wird.”)
  • Schadensersatz, d.h. die zivilrechtliche Haftung eines bebußten Unternehmens gegenüber geschädigten Wettbewerbern und Konsumenten “but also, in exceptional circumstances, a party to that agreement” (unter expliziter Bezugnahme auf die Bemühungen der Kommission um eine Stärkung des von ihr sog. “private enforcement”).

Im Einzelnen:

“101. I consider that the Court of First Instance erred in law in applying that case-law in this case.

102. It is true that the pleas in respect of which Bolloré was heard are in themselves sufficient to justify its censure, since it must answer for the conduct of its subsidiary.

103. The operative part of the contested decision remains unchanged for two reasons. First, the Commission considered that Bolloré, being the parent company of the group, should be held liable for the infringement committed by its subsidiary. It is therefore liable, as such, for the infringement of Article 81 EC, and the wording of Article 1 of the contested decision remains in effect the same. Secondly, the amount of the fine given in Article 3 of that decision has not been changed either – however surprising that may seem – because of the Commission’s method of calculation. In fact, the fine imposed on the undertakings concerned was calculated on the basis of the turnover from the sale of carbonless paper in the EEA. In Bolloré’s case, it was only the subsidiary that had such turnover. Consequently, if we consider that Bolloré must only be held liable for the activities of its subsidiary, the amount of the fine remains the same as that shown in the operative part of the contested decision.

104. None the less, it appears to me that the case-law referred to by the Court of First Instance in paragraph 81 of the judgment under appeal cannot be applied in the present case. I consider that in a case such at that at issue, the Court of First Instance could not merely dismiss the objection based on the personal and direct involvement of Bolloré in the cartel and draw no other conclusion as to the lawfulness of the contested decision, for the following reasons:

  • first, because that would amount to disregard for the fundamental nature of the principle of observance of the rights of the defence;
  • secondly, because the case-law of the Court on this subject is well established;
  • thirdly, because the Court of First Instance’s analysis fails to have regard to the consequences deriving from a Commission decision censuring an undertaking for an infringement under Article 81(1) EC, and,
  • fourthly, because the procedure concerned is quasi-criminal in nature and may fall within the provisions of Article 6(1) of the ECHR.

105. I shall now expand on each of those arguments.

106. First, in the judgment under appeal the Court of First Instance appears to misconstrue the nature of the right in question by giving precedence to the effectiveness of the Commission’s action and public policy in the field of competition.

107. In fact, the Commission has infringed not merely a procedural rule but the right of an undertaking to defend itself against being implicated in the commission of an infringement. The principle of observance of the rights of the defence, since it is a fundamental principle of the Community legal system, is an essential procedural requirement. Consequently, infringement of that principle should, in my view, be penalised as such by the Community judicature under Article 230 EC and should entail annulment of the measure in question, in whole or in part …

120. None the less, I consider that, over and above the effect which the flawed ground might have on the operative part of the decision at issue, the Court has attached greater importance to whether the contested grounds are essential or subsidiary. In those cases, each of the flawed grounds was an essential factor in the infringement complained of.

121. The same applies in this case as regards identification of the undertakings liable. The contested objection concerns Bolloré’s personal and direct involvement in commission of the infringement. It refers to that undertaking as the perpetrator of the infringement complained of. If such an objection is to be ruled out since that undertaking has not had an opportunity to defend itself, it is right that the full conclusion should be drawn from this with regard to the lawfulness of the contested decision based on such factors.

122. Thirdly, in finding that infringement of Bolloré’s rights of defence is not likely to affect the validity of the contested decision in so far as it concerns that undertaking, the Court of First Instance, in my view, failed to have regard to the consequences of a Commission decision establishing an infringement under Article 81(1) EC.

123. I consider, on the one hand, that Bolloré has a moral interest in having the contested decision annulled in so far as it implicates that undertaking directly and personally in the commission of the infringement.

124. On the other hand, annulment of the contested decision, since it is based on a flawed ground, is needed for reasons of clarity and legal certainty, in particular as regards the civil law consequences of infringement of Article 81 EC.

125. Where the Commission establishes an infringement of Article 81 EC, a victim of that infringement may bring an action for damages before the national courts against the perpetrators of the anti‑competitive practice at issue, seeking compensation for loss suffered. The persons who can benefit from that protection are not only third parties, that is to say, consumers and competitors who are damaged by the anti-competitive agreement but also, in exceptional circumstances, a party to that agreement. 

126. In that regard, the Commission decision, as upheld or invalidated by the Community judicature, forms the basis for their proceedings. It is thus essential, in particular in the case of a complex, collective and continuous infringement, that that decision should state very clearly the liability of the various undertakings in committing the infringement. If that decision results in the undertakings in question incurring civil liability, it is only because they have been found to have participated in the collective conduct that has been collectively penalised and correctly defined. That constitutes an essential preliminary for the proper institution of a damages action, which the Commission advocates strongly in its white paper on damages actions for breach of the EC antitrust rules. 

127. In the present case, taking these factors into account, it seems to me that the Court of First Instance should not therefore merely reject the objection in question, without ‘expurgating’ from the contested decision the factors on which the Commission based Bolloré’s own liability. The rejection of an objection is by no means equivalent to its annulment by the Community judicature and so the Court of First Instance has not removed it from the legal order, whereas it is deemed never to have existed if it is annulled. Such reasoning does not give the procedure in question for establishing an infringement the necessary clarity as regards the role and liability incumbent on Bolloré, which, under that procedure, is likely to be held liable for committing that infringement.

128. Fourthly, I consider that judicial review must be all the stricter because the infringement of the rights of the defence is committed by the Commission in quasi-criminal proceedings which may fall within the provisions of Article 6(1) of the ECHR.

129. That provision reads: ‘[i]n the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law’. 

130.  According to its settled case-law, the European Court of Human Rights does not require all courts involved in both types of judicial proceedings to observe all the requirements of Article 6 of the ECHR. Thus, where a decision is taken by an administrative authority which does not provide all the safeguards of judicial proceedings, that decision must then be open to subsequent review by a judicial body having unlimited jurisdiction, in accordance with the requirements of Article 6(1) of the ECHR. 

131. Application of Article 6 of the ECHR to a proceeding pursuant to Article 81 EC has raised a number of questions, in particular since the Commission cannot be classed as a ‘tribunal’  within the meaning of that provision and the proceeding does not, strictly speaking, constitute criminal proceedings.

132. It appears none the less that the fines referred to in Article 15 of Regulation No 17 can, by their nature and size, be likened to a criminal penalty (although strictly speaking they are an administrative penalty) and in view of the Commission’s investigation, inquiry and decision-making functions, a proceeding pursuant to Article 81 EC is quasi‑criminal in nature.

The Court moreover expressly noted the special nature of such a proceeding in Hüls v Commission, and did not hesitate on that occasion to refer to the presumption of innocence resulting from Article 6(2) of the ECHR. In that case, the Court observed that ‘given the nature of the infringements in question and the nature and degree of severity of the ensuing penalties, the principle of the presumption of innocence applies to the procedures relating to infringements of the competition rules applicable to undertakings that may result in the imposition of fines or periodic penalty payments’. 

133. It seems to me perfectly possible to transpose that case-law to the present case and so a proceeding pursuant to Article 81 EC must also comply with the requirements laid down in Article 6(1) of the ECHR. It is not clear however how compliance with the principle of the presumption of innocence can accommodate infringement of the rights of the defence.

134. That means that, in quasi-criminal proceedings like the proceeding at issue, in which the Commission performs investigation, inquiry and decision-making functions, the Community judicature must conduct a very detailed judicial review to ascertain whether the Commission has observed the procedural rights of the parties. In other words, I consider that it should draw all the necessary conclusions where the Commission, in exercising its prerogatives, fails to observe the fundamental rights afforded to undertakings in a proceeding pursuant to Article 81 EC.

135. In the present case, the approach taken by the Court of First Instance seeks to restrict the review which, in my view, the judicature should exercise over Commission decisions, for the purposes of Article 6(1) of the ECHR. That approach may, in my view, prove dangerous. In a case such as that at issue, to hold that infringement by the Commission of an undertaking’s right to be heard does not vitiate the decision since the undertaking must in any event be held liable for the infringement committed by a third party amounts to saying that the Commission may infringe essential procedural requirements with impunity.

136. In the light of all those factors, I consider that the Court of First Instance erred in law in its assessment of the infringement of Bolloré’s rights of defence, by failing to annul any of the provisions of the contested decision implicating that undertaking directly and personally in the commission of the infringement. In my view, the Court of First Instance should have drawn the necessary conclusions, namely, that the contested decision should be annulled in so far as it was based on the objection alleging Bolloré’s personal and direct involvement in the infringement.

137. I therefore propose that the Court should declare Bolloré’s first plea in law well-founded.

138. As a final comment, I should like merely to state that it is clear that where a statement of objections is vitiated by such a significant omission the Commission can only remedy the matter by adopting a supplementary statement of objections allowing the parties to examine it and express their views during the prior administrative procedure.”

P.S. 4.9.09 – Nachtrag zum Thema “Mittelstand”.

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