Consequently, it says that Belgian consumers may have had to pay more for the beer brands than those in neighboring countries.
The Commission opened formal antitrust proceedings in June last year into AB InBev’s practices affecting the Belgian beer market.
It has now sent a statement of objections – a formal step in Commission investigations into suspected violations of EU antitrust rules - to AB InBev.
AB InBev highlights that the statement of objections is not the final decision on the case; and says it takes compliance very seriously with integrity and ethics part of its core values.
Price differences between EU Member States
In the EU, national competition authorities and the European Parliament have raised concerns across sectors that prices for the same food and drink products can vary significantly between neighboring EU countries.
There can be a number of reasons for price differences: but when producers put in place artificial obstacles to trade from less expensive countries to more expensive countries, such obstacles can be deemed to breach EU antitrust laws.
AB InBev is the world’s largest brewer, with a strong position in the Belgian beer market.
Its most popular beer brands in Belgium are Jupiler and Leffe: two brands it also sells in the Netherlands and France.
The European Commission says that its investigation shows that AB InBev sells Jupiler and Leffe at lower prices in the Netherlands and France than in Belgium, due to the increased competition it faces there.
Language on cans
The Commission says AB InBev has pursued a 'deliberate strategy' to prevent supermarkets and wholesalers buying the beers at lower prices in the Netherlands and France and importing them into Belgium.
It highlights two businesses practices which it says AB InBev has had in place since 2009.
It says AB InBev changed the packaging of Jupiler and Leffe beer cans in the Netherlands and France to make it harder to sell them in Belgium.
For example, French text was removed from cans in the Netherlands (to prevent their sale in French speaking parts of Belgium), and Dutch text from cans in France (to prevent them from being sold in Dutch speaking parts of Belgium).
If confirmed, the EC's preliminary view – that ‘AB InBev’s practices created anti-competitive obstacles to trade and partitioned the EU’s Single Market along national borders’ – would infringe Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, that prohibits the abuse of a dominant market position.
The Commission also says that AB InBev limited the access of Dutch retailers to key products and promotions, in order to prevent them from bringing less expensive beer products to Belgium.
Final decision is yet to come
In a statement, the European Commission says: “The Commission's preliminary view, outlined in its Statement of Objections, is that AB InBev is dominant on the Belgian beer market.
“It alleges that AB InBev has abused this dominant market position by pursuing a deliberate strategy to prevent supermarkets and wholesalers from buying Jupiler and Leffe at lower prices in the Netherlands and France, and from importing them into Belgium.”
A statement from AB InBev says: “It would not be appropriate for us to comment further concerning the European Commission’s decision to issue a Statement of Objections in relation to certain alleged practices on the Belgian beer market, other than that we have been working constructively with the EC since the investigation was announced in June 2016.
“Today’s announcement is a procedural step. A Statement of Objections is not a final decision on the outcome of the case. We refer to the Commission’s press release.
“As a company, we take compliance very seriously. Integrity and ethics are part of our core values, embodied in our company culture. As the world’s leading brewer it is our aspiration that all of our 200,000 colleagues act with the highest ethical standards.”