Margrethe Vestager, commissioner in charge of competition policy, said, “AB InBev's strong position on the Belgian beer market is not a problem. However, we want to make sure there are no anti-competitive obstacles to trade in beer within the European Single Market. Keeping out cheaper imports of its beer from neighboring countries would be both against the interests of consumers and anti-competitive."
'Deliberate strategy to restrict so-called 'parallel trade' of its beer'
The Commission will also investigate whether its initial concerns are confirmed: its preliminary view that AB InBev may be pursuing a deliberate strategy to restrict so-called 'parallel trade' of its beer from less expensive countries, such as the Netherlands and France, to the more expensive Belgian market.
Korneel Warlop, external communications manager BeLux & Global, AB InBev, told BeverageDaily, “We confirm the European Commission has opened investigation proceedings, in relation to the Netherlands, France and/or Belgium.
“We are fully cooperating with the European Commission. It would not be appropriate for us to comment on the substance or potential consequences of the ongoing investigation by the Commission.”
The Commission will investigate potentially anti-competitive practices by AB InBev such as: possibly changing the packaging of beer cans/bottles to make it harder to sell them in other countries and possibly limiting ‘non-Belgian’ retailers' access to rebates and key products to stop them from bringing less expensive beer products to Belgium.
Anti-competitive obstacles to trade within the EU's Single Market
If established, such behaviors would create anti-competitive obstacles to trade within the EU's Single Market and breach Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).
Article 102 TFEU prohibits the abuse of a dominant market position that may affect trade between Member States. The implementation of this provision is defined in the EU Antitrust Regulation (Council Regulation No 1/2003), which can also be applied by national competition authorities.
The initiation of proceedings by the Commission relieves the competition authorities of the Member States of their competence to apply EU competition rules to the practices concerned.
The Commission has informed AB InBev and the competition authorities of the Member States concerned that it has opened proceedings in this case.
There is no legal deadline for bringing an antitrust investigation to an end. The duration of an investigation depends on a number of factors, including the complexity of the case, the cooperation of the undertakings with the Commission and the exercise of the rights of defense.
The case is registered on the Commission's Competition website, under case number 40134.
AB InBev acquisition of SABMiller
BeverageDaily reported in May the European Commission approved AB InBev’s acquisition of SABMiller; conditional on AB InBev ‘selling practically the entire SABMiller beer business in Europe.’
"The decision will ensure competition is not weakened and EU consumers are not worse off,” said Vestager at the time.
The Commission’s concerns had been that the takeover could have led to higher beer prices in Member States where SABMiller is active at present.
In a statement, AB InBev said, “Clearance decisions, with or without conditions, have been obtained in Asia-Pacific (Australia, India and South Korea); in Africa (Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, Swaziland, and Zambia); in Europe (the EU, Albania and Ukraine); and in Latin America (Chile, Colombia and Mexico). Approval in Ecuador is subject to certain conditions.”