EU & Competition

Slovenia: Food Supply Chain - The Limits of Competition Law and the Regulation of Unfair Trading Practices

In recent years food sector analyses across the EU have flagged the issue of unfair abuse of power between contractual parties1 as being a concern and since the controversial practices do not always fall under existing competition law rules, member states and the EU have recognised the need to further clarify and regulate trading practices in the food supply chain. The challenge is to create a regulatory environment, which will clearly lay out which practices are in breach of competition laws and, which are grossly unfair and consequently in breach of other applicable national and EU laws, and to ensure that adequate enforcement measures are provided going forward

Imbalance of powers and unfair trading practices

In its Communication on tackling unfair trading practices in the business-to-business food supply chain (“Communication”), the European Commission (“EC”) points out that while the existence of a difference in bargaining power is common in commercial relationships, a problem arises when this difference is abused and leads to unfair trading practices (“UTPs”). According to the Communication, common examples of such practices include abuses of unspecified and incomplete contract terms, excessive transfer of contractual risks and costs to the weaker party, and abuse of confidential information.2 Only some of these practices fall under (EU or national) competition law rules, however, so the EC and member states are in the process of creating a separate legal environment to tackle those that remain.

Competition law assessment

Unfair conduct of a contracting party with a stronger position is captured by EU or national rules of competition law only where that party holds a dominant position in the relevant market (whereby geographically the procurement markets for most food items are usually defined as national or larger).3 In such cases, some UTPs qualify as an abuse of a dominant position in the sense of Article 102 TFEU (and respective national rules). Practices such as unnecessary or discriminatory contract costs charges and demands for super rebates are exploitative abuses, although unequal bargaining power is often also exploited to foreclose competitors, for example through as exclusivity obligations, minimum purchasing obligations, tying and refusals to supply.4 However, the competition law criteria for finding of abuse should be maintained and delineated from those applicable to UTP; in that sense not all UTP committed by a dominant undertaking should qualify as an abuse under 102 TFEU or respective national rules.

Regulation of UTPs

There is no unified and coherent regulation of UTPs on EU level nor harmonisation among member states. The EC is encouraging member states to put in place adequate measures against UTPs by taking into account their national circumstances and by the end of 2015 the EC shall assess what has been done on the national level and evaluate whether a regulation at EU level is required and, if so, what form it should take. In view of the European Parliament, the first regulatory steps to be taken on the EU level would include drawing up of a clear definition of UTPs and then establishing rules for their prohibition. Furthermore, the member states should be required to set up or recognise a national authority to oversee the process.5

National update: Slovenia

In Slovenia, the latest amendment of the Slovenian Agriculture Act in 2014 introduced a new prohibition of abusive conduct (defined as contrary to “good business practices”) by a contracting party in food supply agreements, which has a considerable market power (based on the scope or value of the sales). Among the examples of such unfair conduct the Agriculture Act lists undue delay in payments, forcing unfair payment terms, rebates, promotions, sales and delivery conditions, additional payments for, or return of unsold goods etc. The Agriculture Act defines that such abusive provisions are legally void.

To secure the enforcement of this rule, the amendment also introduces the institute of an Ombudsman for Relations in the Food Supply Chain, whose primary tasks are an overview of the food supply in Slovenia, recommendation of good practices and reporting of bad practices to the Slovenian Competition Protection Agency (“SCPA”)6. However, it is yet to be seen how exactly the cooperation between the Ombudsman and SCPA will work in practice and whether a clear line between competition law rules and the new rules on unfair conduct will be maintained.

Looking forward

While already to competition law restrictions on drafting supply agreements, practitioners and businessmen will, going forward, also have to pay attention to the regulation of UTPs, setting a higher threshold of diligence. Initially, this will be met with some growing pains due to the absence of a clear record on the application of such rules — a problem the regulators should recognise and consider addressing with clarity and transparency in other ways.

While already accustomed to competition law restrictions on drafting supply agreements, practitioners and businessmen will, going forward, also have to pay attention to the regulation of unfair trading practices, setting a higher threshold of diligence. Initially, this will be met with some growing pains due to the absence of a clear record on the application of such rules - a problem the regulators should recognise and consider addressing with clarity and transparency in other ways.

1
A few examples of such inquiries: Germany, BKA: Sektoruntersuchung “Nachfragemarkt im Lebensmitteleinzelhandel” (2014); Slovenia, AVK: Preiskava sektorja prehrane (2014); Austria, BWB: Allgemeine Untersuchung des österreichischen Lebensmittelhandels unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des Aspekts der Nachfragemacht (2007); European Commission: ” The economic impact of modern retail on choice and innovation in the EU food sector” (2014).
2
Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: Tackling unfair trading practices in the business-to-business food supply chain, 15 July 2014, pg 5.
3
For market definition see, for example, IV/M.803 — Rewa/Billa (1996), para 14; COMP/M.2161 — Ahold/Superdiplo (2000), para 21.
4
For examples of how NCAs have established the abuses of dominance in the food market, see ECN Report on competition law enforcement and market monitoring activities by European competition authorities in the food sector, 2012.
5
European Parliament, Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection: Draft Report on unfair trading practices in the food supply chain (2015/2056(INI)), 6 July 2015, pg 6.
6
His first list of good and bad practices after his initial months in the position was presented this September: Nepoštene prakse v verigi preskrbe s hrano Ljubljana; Slovenski dan varstva konkurence; 17 September 2015.

Slovenija: Veriga preskrbe s prehrano: meje konkurenčnega prava in regulacija nepoštenih pogodbenih praks

V preteklih letih so številne preiskave sektorja oskrbe s prehrano širom Evrope izpostavile obstoj in problematičnost nepoštenih zlorab razlik v moči med podjetji v pogodbenem razmerju.1 Ker tovrstne prakse niso vselej pokrite z obstoječimi pravili prava o varstvu konkurence se tako EU kot države članice zavedajo potrebe po nadaljnji razjasnitvi in posebni ureditvi pogodbenih praks v verigi preskrbe s hrano. Pred njimi je sedaj tako izziv kako ustvariti pravno okolje, kjer bodo tako prakse, ki kršijo konkurenčno pravo kot prakse, ki so zaradi nepoštenosti v neskladju z drugo nacionalno oziroma evropsko zakonodajo, jasno opredeljene in razmejene obenem pa bodo zagotovljena tudi ustrezna pravna sredstva za uveljavljanje takšnih pravil.

Neenakost moči in nepoštene pogodbene prakse

Evropska komisija (“EK”) je v svojem Sporočilu o spopadanju z nepoštenimi trgovskimi praksami med podjetji v verigi preskrbe s hrano (“Sporočilo”) izpostavila, da so razlike v pogajalski moči v gospodarskih odnosih sicer pogoste in normalne, a v primeru zlorabe postanejo problematične ter vodijo v nepoštene pogodbene prakse (“NPP”). Kot pogoste primere takšnih praks Sporočilo izpostavlja zlorabo nedoločenih ali nepopolnih pogodbenih določb, prekomeren prenos pogodbenih rizikov na šibkejšo stranko in zlorabo občutljivih informacij.2 Ker obstoječa pravila konkurenčnega prava pokrivajo le nekatere od tovrstnih praks EK in države članice za pravno ureditev ostalih sprejemajo nova pravna pravila.

Konkurenčno-pravna presoja

Konkurenčno pravo sankcionira nepoštena ravnanja pogodbene stranke z večjo pogajalsko močjo tedaj, kadar ima le-ta prevladujoč položaj na relevantnem trgu (pri čemer je geografski trg za nabavo hrane v večini primerov določen nacionalno ali širše).3 V takšnih primerih nekatere NPP lahko predstavljajo zlorabo prevladujočega položaja v skladu s 102. členom PDEU (oziroma ustreznimi nacionalnimi pravili). Medtem ko prakse kot so odvečni ali diskriminatorni pogodbeni stroški ali zahteve za super-rabate predstavljajo izkoriščevalske oblike zlorabe, se lahko prevladujoč položaj v pogodbenem razmerju izkorišča tudi za izključevalne oblike zlorabe, kot so ekskluzivne pogodbe, obveznosti o minimalnem odkupu, vezanje produktov in odrekanje dobave.4 Z vidika pravne presoje takšnih ravnanj je ključnega pomena, da obstaja jasna razdelitev med konkurenčno-pravnimi kriteriji za ugotovitev zlorabe prevladujočega položaja ter kriteriji, na podlagi katerih se vzpostavi, da gre za NPP; vsako nepošteno dejanje podjetja s prevladujočim položajem namreč ne predstavlja tudi zlorabe v skladu s 102. členom PDEU (oziroma ustreznimi nacionalnimi pravili).

Pravna ureditev NPP

Na ravni EU še ni enotne ali koherentne ureditve NPP, prav tako pa tudi ni poenotenja med praksami posameznih evropskih držav. Medtem ko EK trenutno spodbuja vse države članice k reguliranju NPP ob upoštevanju nacionalnih okoliščin in posebnosti, pa bo EK na koncu leta 2015 presodila, kako so posamezne države ukrepale in ocenila, ali je potrebna tudi regulacija na ravni EU ter kakšna naj bi le-ta tudi bila. V skladu s poročilom Evropskega Parlamenta bi med prve izmed morebitnih EU ukrepov spadali natančna definicija NPP in priprava podlage za njihovo prepoved, ob tem pa bi bile države članice dolžne zagotoviti ali opredeliti še nacionalni organ za nadzor izvajanja takšnih pravil.

Novosti: Slovenija

V Sloveniji je bila z zadnjo spremembo Zakona o kmetijstvu v letu 2014 uvedena prepoved nove kategorije nedovoljenih ravnanj v verigah preskrbe s hrano, in sicer dejanj s strani pogodbene stranke z znatno tržno močjo (na osnovi obsega ali vrednosti prodaje), ki so v nasprotju z dobrimi poslovni običaji. Kot primere takšnih ravnanj zakon navaja nespoštovanje predpisanih plačilnih rokov, vsiljevanje pogojev, dodatnih plačil, nepoštenih dobavnih pogojev, dodatnih plačil, zahtevanje popustov in podobno. Na podlagi zakona je pogodba je v delu, ki vsebuje tovrstna nedovoljena ravnanja, nična.

Za učinkovito uveljavljanje navedene prepovedi je sprememba zakona prinesla tudi institut varuha odnosov v verigi preskrbe s prehrano (“Ombudsman”), čigar poglavitne naloge so spremljanje odnosov v verigi preskrbe s hrano, objavljanje primerov dobrih poslovnih praks in priglasitev slabih in morebitnih nedovoljenih praks Javni agenciji Republike Slovenije za varstvo konkurence (“AVK”). Trenutno še ni znano kako bo sodelovanje med Ombudsmanom in AVK potekalo v praksi ter ali bo ostalo izvrševanje pravil o konkurenčnem pravu in pravil o nedovoljenih ravnanjih v verigi preskrbe s hrano do zadovoljive mere tudi ločeno.

Pogled naprej

Medtem ko je za podjetja in njihove svetovalce pri sklepanju pogodb o dobavi upoštevanje konkurenčno-pravnih omejitev doslej bržkone že v navadi, bodo odslej morali biti pozorni tudi na pravila o NPP, ki bodo prag previdnosti in skrbnosti dvignila. Pomanjkanje izkušenj in prakse z interpretacijo novih pravil bo zagotovo povzročalo (začetne) težave, zaradi česar je na zakonodajalcu in izvrševalcih navedenih pravil dolžnost, da stanje negotovosti na strani zasebnega sektorja prepoznajo ter hkrati čimprej poskrbijo tudi za predvidljivost in transparentnost izvrševanja navedenih pravil.

Medtem ko je za podjetja in njihove svetovalce pri sklepanju pogodb o dobavi upoštevan-je konkurenčno-pravnih omejitev doslej bržkone že v navadi, bodo odslej morali biti pozorni tudi na pravila o NPP, ki bodo prag previdnosti in skrbnosti dvignila. Pomanjkanje izkušenj in prakse z interpretacijo novih pravil bo zagotovo povzročalo (začetne) težave, zaradi česar je na zakonodajalcu in izvrševalcih navedenih pravil dolžnost, da stanje negotovosti na strani zasebnega sektorja prepoznajo ter hkrati čimprej poskrbijo tudi za predvidljivost in transparentnost izvrševanja navedenih pravil.

1

Nekaj primerov takšnih sektorskih preiskav: Nemčija, BKA: Sektoruntersuchung “Nachfragemarkt im Lebensmitteleinzelhandel” (2014); Slovenija, AVK: Preiskava sektorja prehrane (2014); Avstrija, BWB: “Allgemeine Untersuchung des österreichischen Lebensmittelhandels unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des Aspekts der Nachfragemacht” (2007); Evropska komisija: ” The economic impact of modern retail on choice and innovation in the EU food sector”.(2014).(2014).
2
Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: Tackling unfair trading practices in the business-to-business food supply chain, 15. julij 2014, stran 5.
3
O takšni določitev relevantnega trga , IV/M.803 — Rewa/Billa (1996), para 14; COMP/M.2161 — Ahold/Superdiplo (2000), para 21.
4
O tem, kakšne kršitve zlorabe prevladujočega položaja so bile na trgu oskrbe s prehrano ugotovljene v različnih evropskih uradih za varstvo konkurence, je mogoče prebrati v ECN Report on competition law enforcement and market monitoring activities by European competition authorities in the food sector, 2012.