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Are There Any Restraints On Vertical Block Exemptions?

 |  April 29, 2022

By: Stephen Kinsella (Chillin’ Competition)

Some time next month the Commission is due to adopt a revised version of the regulation that governs how the competition rules are applied to online sales in Europe. The Vertical Block Exemption Regulation (VBER) is set to run until 2034 and will have a major impact on the relationship between brand owners, retailers and consumers. It also risks causing harm to the European economy and creating considerable legal uncertainty because of the way in which the Commission has approached the renewal process.

The Commission does not have unlimited discretion when it passes laws in this area. It is bound by a Council Regulation dating from 1965 that only allows it to create a safe harbour for “vertical agreements” (agreements between parties at different levels in the supply chain) where it is clear that they are no more restrictive than necessary and will benefit consumers. In order to make sure that is the case, the Commission is supposed to carry out a rigorous assessment of the impact of its proposal on competition. Unfortunately in this instance, it failed to undertake that analysis. As a result the regulation it proposes goes beyond the powers it was granted back in 1965, and even beyond Treaty rules on competition, meaning its new regulation will be open to legal challenge. A regulation that is supposed to create legal certainty will instead generate considerable uncertainty.

A concrete example is the proposal relating to dual pricing. Under the existing regulation, when a brand supplies its goods to a retailer who then resells them both online and in its high street store, the brand owner has to offer a single wholesale price to the retailer. If the brand owner wants to encourage the retailer to invest in point of sale efforts, it can offer financial assistance. But it cannot “penalise” the retailer for reselling any of its stock online.

Under the new proposals, a brand owner will be able to say: here is a consignment of goods but for those you eventually sell in the store the wholesale price is X but for those you ultimately sell online the price will be Y. Meaning that it will only be apparent after a good has been sold to a consumer what will be the wholesale price that is retrospectively applied to that item…