Starting from June 2016 the European Commission (EC) has been investigating commercial practices of AB InBev in relation to alleged abuse of dominance in the Belgian beer market by pursuing a ‘deliberate strategy’ to prevent supermarkets and wholesalers from buying Juliper and Leffe at lower prices in the Netherlands and France, and from importing them into Belgium. Such practices could be considered as anti-competitive obstacles to trade, which partitioned the EU single market along national borders. More details are provided in the Statement of Objections of the EC sent to the company in the end of November 2017.
Nature of the ‘deliberate strategy’
In its Statement of Objections sent to AB InBev, the EC expressed its concerns that in its preliminary view, the company has abused its dominant position by a number of business practices which have been in place since 2009, including:
- Preventing the sale of the beer cans in the French and Dutch speaking parts of Belgium by changing packaging of Jupiler and Leffer beer cans in the Netherlands and France, i.e. removing French text from its cans in the Netherlands, and Dutch text from its cans in France;
- Limiting the quantity (or not selling at all) of certain products to Dutch retailers, and restricting availability of certain promotions if there was a chance that the Dutch retailers could import the products to Belgium.
These practices of the dominant player in the market prevented the retailers from bringing less expensive beer products to Belgium and in the EC’s view, could be considered as anti-competitive obstacles to (parallel) trade, which partitioned the EU single market along the national borders.
The outcome of the investigation is yet to be seen, and the Statement of Objections does not prejudice the final decision of the EC. The AB In Bev has now the opportunity to respond to the EC’s concerns. While certain price differences can be justified/explained, nevertheless, the case is just another reminder to the companies that artificial obstacles to parallel trade, i.e. trade from less expensive to more expensive countries, implemented by the dominant undertakings in particular, can breach the antitrust rules.
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