Key facts of the case:
This case concerned an action brought by the Commission against Unions in France representing farmers on the one hand and slaughterers on the other to fix prices allegedly in contravention of anti-competition provisions in the EC Treaty.
Results (sanctions) and key consequences of the case:
The ECJ dismissed the application and confirmed the Commission’s sanction although reduced the fine payable.
Interpretation of article(s) and implications for the resolution of the case:
FRC - Article 12: Although the freedom of association is a legitimate aim to be protected and agreements between employers and those representing employees is excluded from competition rules (on the basis that otherwise “the social policy objectives pursued by such agreements would be seriously undermined” (para 98), this does not mean that competition law does not apply to Unions at all. In the present case, the agreement was between different Unions which did not relate to measures for improving conditions of work and employment, but to the suspension of beef imports and the fixing of minimum prices. The Commission could therefore legitimately take action against the Unions concerned. Article 48: The Court confirmed that “Observance of the rights of the defence is, in all proceedings in which sanctions, in particular fines, may be imposed, a fundamental principle of Community law which must be respected even if the proceedings in question are administrative proceedings” (para 217)
The Court went on to confirm that “where the Commission expressly states in its statement of objections that it will consider whether it is appropriate to impose fines on the undertakings and it indicates the main factual and legal criteria capable of giving rise to a fine, such as the gravity and the duration of the alleged infringement and whether that infringement was committed intentionally or negligently, it fulfils its obligation to respect the undertakings’ right to be heard. In doing so, it provides them with the necessary means to defend themselves not only against the finding of an infringement but also against the imposition of fines” (para 218).
Article 50: The Court confirmed that “the principle ne bis in idem is a general principle of Community law which is upheld by the Community Courts. In the field of Community competition law, the principle precludes an undertaking from being sanctioned by the Commission or made the defendant to proceedings brought by the Commission a second time in respect of anti-competitive conduct for which it has already been penalised or of which it has been exonerated by a previous decision of the Commission that is not amenable to challenge” (para 340).
98, 217, 218, 340