INTERVIEW : BELGIUM - NATIONAL COMPETITION AUTHORITY

Jacques Steenbergen, Belgian Competition Authority: A Counsel for the Belgium NCA

QUESTIONS :

1. Since April 2007, you are the Director General of the Belgian Service for Competition. Prior to this, you were a Partner in a major international law firm, as well as a Professor at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Could you please come back on the reasons which induced you to join the public sector?

2. Could you please describe the institutional framework for the enforcement of the Belgian competition law and, in particular, the missions of the Directorate General?

3. In the past, many have criticized the relatively weak enforcement record of the Belgian competition authorities. How do you intend to reinvigorate Belgian competition policy?

4. The weak enforcement record of the Belgian competition authorities has often been attributed to insufficient administrative resources. Could you please clarify the resources now made available to the Service for competition (human resources, budget, etc.)?

5. The Directorate General for competition is officially placed under the authority of the Minister for Economy. In practice, is the Minister able to influence the activities of the Service for competition?

6. In the current economic context, some claim that where possible, competition laws should be enforced more intrusively, to enhance the purchasing power of consumers (through, e.g., the control of dominant firms’ pricing policies, etc.). What do you think of such proposals? Given that inflation is mostly a parameter exogenous to market players, don’t you think that competition law is hardly capable of correcting that market failure?

7. You have said that merger control was not a necessity for small economies. Shall that be interpreted - that point has been made in Scandinavian countries - that merger control systems prevent firms from small economies to achieve the critical mass required to compete on global markets?

8. To what extent does the Directorate General combat public distortions of competition (i.e. anticompetitive regulations) as well as restrictions in the field of professional services, which are notoriously pervasive in western European countries?

9. Some consider that administrative agencies are ill-equipped to delve into complex economic assessments. More importantly, economic theory often brings about ambiguous conclusions and its added-value is not always clear-cut when it comes to decision-making. What is your opinion regarding the role of economic theory into decision-making processes?

10. The present political context in Belgium is characterized by strong regionalization dynamics. In Belgium, competition law and policy have so far been a federal matter. What is your opinion regarding proposals for the regionalization of competition policy? Alternatively, what is your opinion with respect to the creation of a transnational Benelux competition authority?

11. Under Belgian competition law, the Competition Council may refer questions for preliminary rulings to the Supreme court, in much the same vein as the procedure set out at Article 234 of the EC Treaty. Lately, the Competition Council has sparked controversy, by referring questions to the Supreme court in the context of merger proceedings. Indeed, the decision to request a preliminary ruling from the Supreme court suspends the time limits for the review of merger transactions. Isn’t there a risk here that, indirectly, concentrations may be de facto prohibited?

12. The European Commission just adopted a white paper which aims at promoting private enforcement in the field of competition law. What is your opinion on the issue of private enforcement? Isn’t there a risk of imposing excessive constraints on market players?

13. A vigorous controversy has surrounded the June decision by the Heads of State, to remove Article 3(1)(g) EC from the Lisbon Treaty. In your opinion, what are the likely consequences of that Treaty modification?

14. The European Commission is adamant on the promotion of alternative enforcement techniques: commitments, settlements, leniency, private enforcement, and so on. A number of scholars consider, however, that the Commission’s initiatives curtail the EC judicial review system. Others view these measures as a driver for efficiency in decision-making. Is the Service also interested in promoting alternative enforcement techniques?

15. Competition law is sometimes a means of competition in itself: occasionally, firms bring actions on the basis of competition rules in order to harm those of their rivals who have prevailed - through competitive means - on the market place. Should competition agencies enforce such claims? Don’t you think it would make sense to punish inefficient firms who seek to curb competition rules to their own economic advantage?

16. Too often, society misunderstands competition policy. As a university Professor, what part of your activities in the public service do you intend to dedicate to advocacy in the field of competition law?

17. As a scholar and the Director of a competition authority, what topics and issues would you put on top of a research agenda?

Interview conducted by Nicolas Petit, Liege Competition and Innovation Institute, Belgium, EDHEC, Paris.

1. Since April 2007, you are the Director General of the Belgian Service for Competition. Prior to this, you were a Partner in a major international law firm, as well as a Professor at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Could you please come back on the reasons which induced you to join the public sector? There is no mystery. I approached the age limit in my firm. And after having had the opportunity to contribute to the reform of the Belgian competition act, the challenge was very tempting. 2. Could you please describe the institutional framework for the enforcement of the Belgian competition law and, in particular, the missions of the Directorate General? The Belgian Competition Authority consists of the Competition Council and the Directorate General for Competition. The

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Jacques Steenbergen, Jacques Steenbergen, Belgian Competition Authority: A Counsel for the Belgium NCA, September 2008, Concurrences Review N° 3-2008, Art. N° 16281, www.concurrences.com

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