On 19 October 2022, the European Commission (the “Commission”) adopted its new State aid Framework for research, development and innovation (the “2022 RDI aid Framework”). This instrument governs Member States’ investment in RDI activities. It is an important response to the 2020 Commission Communication on a new European Research Area for Research and Innovation (the “ERA Communication”), aiming at strengthening investments and reaching a 3% GDP investment target in the field of RDI. The 2022 RDI aid Framework is a revision of the previous version of 2014.

The three most important things you need to know about the 2022 RDI aid Framework are:

  • The Commission’s approval is subject to a set of criteria to determine whether the aid is justified and can be authorised, and compliance with recent EU objectives such as the EU Green Deal and the EU Industrial and Digital Strategies will have a positive influence on the Commission’s assessment;
  • RDI activities now explicitly include digitalisation and digital technologies; and
  • Member States can grant aid for testing and experimentation infrastructures which predominantly provide services to undertakings for R&D activities closer to the market.
Continue Reading The Commission has revised its framework for State aid for research and development and innovation

On October 26, 2022, the German government permitted (with conditions) an investment by Chinese state-owned COSCO Shipping Group (“COSCO”) in one of Hamburg’s four shipping container terminals. Pursuant to foreign direct investment (“FDI”) laws, the German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Klimaschutz, “BMWK”) had been notified of the proposed acquisition by COSCO of a 35% minority interest in the port terminal, a strategic location on the German coastline. The BMWK ordered that COSCO’s acquisition of voting rights must remain below 25%. The details of the decision remain confidential, but the BMWK justified its partial prohibition on the grounds that the acquisition of 35% as notified would constitute a “threat to public order and security”. According to the BMWK’s press release, the partial prohibition decision prevents COSCO from acquiring a ‘strategic’ shareholding, and reduces the acquisition to a mere financial participation. As a safeguard in this respect, the decision contains provisions prohibiting COSCO from acquiring any additional influence, for example, through a grant of rights that would be atypical for a holder of a less than 25% interest. Furthermore, under the German FDI regime, any follow-on acquisition of additional voting rights by COSCO would be subject to a new notification requirement.

Continue Reading COSCO FDI Review: Germany partially prohibits Chinese investment in a Hamburg container terminal – Spotlight on minority investments

On 28 October 2022, the European Commission (the “Commission”) adopted the  second amendment to its Temporary Crisis Framework for State Aid measures to support the economy following the aggression against Ukraine by Russia (the “Framework”). The second amendment to the Framework extends its duration by one year until 31 December 2023.

The four most important things you need to know about this amendment are:

  • Maximum aid amounts have been increased;
  • Guarantees or subsidised interests can now cover larger amounts of loans when taken by large energy utilities companies that provide financial collateral for trading activities on energy markets. Exceptionally, guarantees can also be provided as unfunded financial collateral directly to central counterparts or clearing members to cover the liquidity needs of energy companies, to clear their trading activities on energy markets;
  • To achieve the EU targets of reducing electricity consumption in response to high energy prices, Member States may provide compensation for genuine reductions in electricity consumption; and
  • State recapitalisations are not subject to detailed rules as under the COVID-19 Temporary Framework, however the Commission highlights the general principles it will use to assess them on a case-by-case basis. 
Continue Reading The Commission prolongs and amends its Temporary Crisis Framework relaxing State aid rules to support the economy following the aggression against Ukraine by Russia

On September 29, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a package of three antitrust bills (H.R. 3843) by a vote of 242-184. The package includes: (1) the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act; (2) the Foreign Merger Subsidy Disclosure Act; and (3) the State Antitrust Enforcement Venue Act.

Continue Reading U.S. House of Representatives Passes Antitrust Legislative Package

Over the summer, the UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (“BEIS”) delivered the first decisions, in the form of final orders, under the National Security and Investment Act 2021 (“NSIA”).  We consider these decisions and other cases in the context of the first nine months of the UK’s new (quasi) Foreign Direct Investment (“FDI”) regime.

Key takeaways:

  • The NSIA has broad reach, and BEIS has shown willingness to exercise the powers to review transactions that can stretch beyond mergers and acquisitions, for example, to licensing agreements.
  • NSIA review involves the weighing of a number of factors relating to the target, the acquirer and the level of control being obtained.  Early decisions suggest that target’s products/services and activities are just as important a factor as the acquirer’s identity, among the cases that have engaged the attention of the Investment Security Unit (“ISU”).
  • “Behavioural” undertakings, e.g. involving implementation of security controls or granting of audit rights to regulators appear to be a continuation of trends seen in the predecessor UK ‘public interest’ regime, and similar to other EU FDI procedures.
Continue Reading UK FDI: Decision-making practice emerging under the National Security and Investment Act

On 22 June 2022, the EU’s General Court (“GC”) fully dismissed thyssenkrupp’s appeal against the European Commission’s (“Commission”) decision to block its proposed joint venture (“JV”) with Tata Steel in 2019.

This is the first time that the GC has considered the prohibition of a “gap” case under the EU Merger Regulation (“EUMR”) since it annulled the Commission’s prohibition of CK Hutchison’s proposed acquisition of Telefónica UK (O2) in 2020 (“CK Hutchison”) (see our previous blog post here). A “gap” case is a merger in an oligopolistic market that does not result in the creation or strengthening of an individual or collective dominant position. Rather, it risks causing a “significant impediment to effective competition”.

This result may indicate a return to a more traditional approach by the GC as regards “gap” cases than that demonstrated in the CK Hutchison judgment. The judgment also provides helpful guidance on the interpretation of the EUMR and other legal instruments (such as the Market Definition Notice and the Notice on Remedies). The key findings are:

  • Standard of proof: In order to block a “gap” merger, the Commission must show with a sufficient degree of probability that the transaction significantly impedes effective competition in the internal market or in a substantial part of it.
  • SSNIP test: The Commission is not required to apply the SSNIP (small but significant and non-transitory increase in price) test when assessing substitutability between products — it is only one of the methods available to the Commission when defining the market.
  • Remedies: When assessing remedies, it is not necessary to demonstrate that the remedies remove the entire overlap between the merging parties or re-create fully the pre-merger structure in affected markets.
  • Requests for Information (“RFI”): There is no procedural error where the Commission fails to take additional steps (beyond sending systematic reminders) to ensure that recipients respond to an RFI.
Continue Reading EU General Court Upholds Tata Steel/thyssenkrupp JV Prohibition

On 30 June 2022, the Council of the EU (the “Council”) and the European Parliament (the “Parliament”) reached a much awaited agreement on the proposal of the European Commission (the “Commission”) for the Regulation on foreign subsidies distorting the internal market (the “FSR”) (see our alert on the proposal). This political agreement swiftly concludes the trilogue discussions initiated in the beginning of May this year, after the Council (see our blog post) and the Parliament (see our blog post) each adopted their own positions. The agreement has been approved by the Permanent Representatives Committee (“COREPER”) of the Council on 13 July and the Committee on International Trade of the European Parliament on 14 July.

The FSR grants substantial new powers to the Commission and “will help close the regulatory gap whereby subsidies granted by non-EU governments currently go largely unchecked”, according to remarks from Executive Vice-President of the Commission, Margrethe Vestager. It will be deeply transformative for M&A and public procurement in the EU.

The agreement on the FSR did not lead to any major changes in the proposal made by the Commission. The most notable points of discussion between the Parliament and Council and the outcome of this agreement are:

  • The thresholds above which companies are obliged to inform the Commission about their foreign subsidies remain unchanged compared to the Commission’s proposal;
  • The time period in which the Commission has to investigate foreign subsidies in large public procurement has been reduced. In the same way, the retroactive application of the FSR has been limited to foreign subsidies granted in the five years prior to the application of the regulation;
  • The Commission will issue guidelines on the existence of a distortion, the balancing test and its power to request notification of non-notifiable transactions, at the latest three years after the entry into force of the FSR; and
  • A commitment to a multilateral approach to foreign subsidies above the FSR and the possibility for the Commission to engage in a dialogue with third countries has been included.
Continue Reading The Council of the EU and the European Parliament agree on the Foreign Subsidies Regulation

The European Commission (“Commission”) has repeatedly urged EU Member States to set up foreign direct investment (“FDI”) screening mechanisms. To date, 18 out of 27 Member States have adopted FDI screening powers, providing for the review of M&A transactions and other investments on national security and public policy grounds. Recently, Belgium and Ireland have each announced draft proposals which, once implemented, will enlarge the group of Member States reviewing transactions on FDI grounds.

Against this background of increasing FDI screening for local and global M&A transactions, some voices call for broader reforms. The European Parliament has launched an initiative aimed to address a future EU international investment policy and recently adopted a resolution with far-reaching proposals for FDI screening in Europe.

We provide an update on these developments in this blog post and consider the current outlook for FDI screening.

Continue Reading Belgium and Ireland to introduce new FDI screening powers – European Parliament calls for broader reforms

When its Anti-Monopoly Law (“AML”) went into effect in August 2008, China immediately became a significant antitrust enforcer on the world stage.  On June 24, 2022, the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, passed the Amendment to the Anti-Monopoly Law of the PRC (the “Amendment”), the first significant changes to the AML in nearly fourteen years.  The Amendment, which was signed into law by President Xi Jinping and published on June 24, will become effective on August 1.  It marks a major milestone in antitrust enforcement in China.

The more significant aspects of the Amendment include:

  • significantly enhanced penalties for AML violations, including the introduction of fines for individuals;
  • the introduction of a discretionary “stop-the-clock” mechanism for merger reviews;
  • the codification of a burden-shifting framework created by China’s courts that gives companies the opportunity to defend resale price maintenance agreements; and
  • new safe harbor and burden of proof provisions for matters involving vertical agreements.

Consistent with trends in other jurisdictions around the world, the Amendment also features a special focus on key economic sectors such as the digital economy.

Following the publication of the Amendment, the State Administration for Market Regulation (“SAMR”), China’s lead antitrust enforcement authority, released six sets of draft implementing regulations for public comment.  These cover subjects such as merger control and notification thresholds, anti-competitive agreements, abuse of a dominant market position, and the abuse of intellectual property rights to exclude or restrict competition.  SAMR is accepting comments on these regulations until July 27, 2022.

How Covington Can Help

Covington’s global antitrust and competition practice guides clients through the often-complex web of antitrust and competition laws around the world to help them secure their most important business objectives. Our team, which includes many attorneys who have served in senior leadership roles at government enforcement agencies and in in-house positions, has decades of collective experience advising clients regarding their global antitrust and competition concerns.  If you have any questions concerning the material discussed in this client alert, please contact any of the following members of our Antitrust/Competition practice: Jim O’Connell, James Marshall, and Alexander Wang.

This communication is intended to bring relevant developments to the attention of Covington & Burling LLP’s clients and other interested colleagues. It is not intended as legal advice. Readers should seek specific legal advice before acting with regard to the subjects mentioned herein. Please send an email to unsubscribe@cov.com if you do not wish to receive future emails or electronic alerts.

Continue Reading Significant Changes to China’s Anti-Monopoly Law to Take Effect in August

The UK government has reported a successful start to the implementation of the National Security and Investment Act 2021 (the “NSIA” or “Act”). During the first three months (Jan-March 2022) in which the new NSIA regime has been active, the Investment Screening Unit (“ISU”) received 222 filings and reviewed 17 transactions in depth. Of those 17 transactions, three have been cleared unconditionally, with the other 14 transactions still under review at the end of the reporting period.

Mandatory NSIA filings, which represented 196 of the total flings, were most commonly made in six sectors: defence, military and dual-use, critical suppliers to government, artificial intelligence, data infrastructure and advanced materials.  There were significantly fewer filings in other sectors, with fewer than five filings per sector in areas such as synthetic biology, civil nuclear, advanced robotics and transport.

Collectively, these figures and other data suggest that the NSIA regime is operating, so far, broadly in line with expectations. While there are fewer filings than expected overall, this may reflect a broader global slowdown in M&A and investment activity. The ISU further reports that it is meeting, and often working well within, the maximum statutory time periods for the assessment of filings. The ISU indicates its willingness to complete reviews expeditiously where possible, including for in-depth assessments.

Continue Reading UK National Security and Investment Regime Working Well