Euclid Law continues to strengthen its practice with hire of Partner Andrea Zulli to head the Brussels office

Andrea joins from US law firm Covington. He was previously a Partner at Norton Rose Fulbright in Milan.

Being qualified in the UK, Belgium and Italy, Andrea advises clients on all aspects of EU and UK competition law, with a strong focus on merger control, behavioural antitrust, compliance, and foreign direct investment. Andrea’s experience and innovative thinking covers a variety of sectors, including private equity, financial services, basic industries, consumer & luxury goods, technology and life science. He is also instructed by Italian law firms on Brussels matters.

Oliver Bretz, Founding Partner of Euclid Law, commented: “I have known Andrea for over 20 years – in addition to being an outstanding lawyer, his reputation in Brussels, London and Italy and his broad and profound experience across all areas of competition law will be of great value to the firm and to our clients.  I look forward to working with Andrea to expand our Brussels footprint.”

Andrea Zulli commented: “I am delighted to be joining Euclid Law, a truly innovative and diverse boutique firm entirely focused on providing expert competition law and FDI advice to the highest possible standard, both in Brussels and London.  I am looking forward to being able to provide a unique offering and insight to clients both here and in Italy.”

Andrea holds an LL.M. in EU and Competition Law from the University of Stockholm and a J.D. from L.U.I.S.S. University in Rome. He is an Italian avvocato, admitted to the Rome Bar, a Solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales, and registered in the A-list at the Balie Brussel.

European Commission confirms final texts for new EU rules for vertical agreements

On 10 May, the European Commission (the ‘Commission’) published final texts of the new Vertical Agreements Block Exemption Regulation (‘VBER’) and the accompanying Guidelines on Vertical Restraints (‘Guidelines’).  These two documents set out the full legal framework for the assessment of vertical agreements under EU competition law that will apply from 1 June. 

Although the process leading up to this moment started back in 2018, this means that businesses and their advisers have been given only three weeks to digest the final texts before they come into force.  While the main changes that will come into force on 1 June are largely as previewed in the draft texts that were published for consultation back in July last year, there are some surprises.

To discover and be surprised, download a copy of our briefing.

The CMA’s draft VABEO Guidance Consultation

Response of Euclid Law Ltd. to the Consultation on the CMA’s Draft Guidance on the Vertical Agreements Block Exemption Order 2022 (CMA154)

We welcome publication of the CMA’s draft guidance on the Vertical Agreements Block Exemption Order 2022 (‘VABEO’) (the ‘Draft Guidance’) and the opportunity to comment on it.

Given the shared heritage of the VABEO and the EU Vertical Agreements Block Exemption Regulation (‘VBER’), as well as the extensive precedent in which the VBER and related principles of EU law have been applied in a UK context, we agree with the CMA’s decision to “broadly reflect” the EU’s Vertical Guidelines (the ‘EU Guidelines’) in the Draft Guidance.

While there are some instances where the application of principles developed with the EU’s single market in mind to a UK-specific context can come across as somewhat strained, we agree that prioritising consistency is the right approach at this time.

To read and download the full Response, click here.

Response to the additional Public Consultation on Proposed Guidance relating to Information Exchange in the context of Dual Distribution

As part of the ongoing review of the Vertical Block Exemption Regulation and Guidelines, on 4 February 2022, DG COMP launched a two-week consultation regarding proposed guidance on information exchanges in dual distribution.  The proposed new section provides much needed clarity and valuable additional guidance on the circumstances in which information exchange in a dual distribution context will not raise concerns.  The Commission also appears to have dropped the proposed 10% market share threshold, which is very welcome as this will materially reduce complexity and uncertainty.   

Euclid Law’s response is available here

Control Online Sales in the US and Europe for Optimized Growth

BWG ConnectVorys eControl & Euclid Law invite you to participate in an interactive discussion on Feb 24, 2022, 12:00pm – 1:pm EST / 5pm – 6pm GMT

Summary

In this webinar, Sarah Long, Partner at Euclid Law, Daren Garcia, Partner at Vorys eControl and Jessica Cunning, Partner at Vorys eControl will discuss the similarities and differences between a U.S. and European online sales control program to achieve successful eCommerce growth.

Discussion Topics

  • The critical need for online sales control across geographies
  • Key distribution and sales control elements needed to address growing challenges
  • Differences in seller enforcement & monitoring tools when in the U.S. vs. Europe
  • Online sales control as a function of empowering sales growth and protecting brand value

Meta hit with second fine for breach of Giphy hold-separate order

by Charley Connor / 4Feb 22 / the Global Competition Review (GCR)

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority has fined Meta £1.5 million for failing to alert the agency about the departures of three key US staff during an in-depth review into its Giphy acquisition, which Meta claims could interfere with its employees’ rights under US labour law.

The CMA today issued its second penalty to Facebook’s parent company for breaching the initial enforcement order imposed on it as the authority reviewed – and ultimately blocked – its already-completed acquisition of Giphy.

The order in part required Meta to inform the authority in advance of any “material changes” to its business. That included resignations of key staff named on a list drawn up by the CMA and seeking the agency’s prior consent before rehiring or redistributing responsibilities.

But Meta failed to comply with each of these requirements after three “key employees” resigned and the company reallocated their roles, the enforcer said today.

It added that Meta had also failed to properly inform it of staff changes “multiple times” in 2021.

[…]

Sarah Long was quoted, saying “the CMA’s initial enforcement orders can come down like a sledgehammer on a business under investigation.  The scope of any such order can be “draconian” and is not limited to those parts of the business that cause a competition issue. Importantly, any derogation from an initial enforcement order must be negotiated with the CMA on an individual basis, which can take time and require significant interactions with the purchaser’s counsel. Companies therefore have no option other than to take an IEO seriously. Otherwise, as we have seen, the financial penalties for breaching an IEO can be severe.”

Link to the full article for GCR subscribers.

Britain’s government is trying to protect national security

Without throttling investment that will be tricky

On January 4h a new investment-screening law came into effect, heralded by the government as “the biggest shake-up of the uk’s national-security regime for 20 years”. That is no exaggeration. It marks a shift away from economic openness towards suspicion and intervention. Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, said it would show members of the public that “their security remains our number one priority”. What could go wrong?

The government is seeking to stop assets vital to national security falling into hostile hands. A report in 2017 warned that “ownership or control of critical businesses or infrastructure could provide opportunities to undertake espionage, sabotage or exert inappropriate leverage”. The context is concern about Chinese investment, and pressure to fall into line with allied countries such as America, Australia and Germany that have already tightened up.

Becket McGrath had the pleasure of discussing the UK’s new National Security and Investment Act with The Economist. “Just over a week in to the scheme, it’s a relief to see that the Government’s notification platform is working and the Investment Screening Unit is doing a good job at processing filings quickly […]. The really interesting thing now will be to see which deals get called in for more detailed review”.

Clicl here to read the article (subscribers only).

Taking Security and Options Seriously: the UK and German Investment Screening Regimes

Arrangements involving current and potential future events, such as taking security and agreeing options, require careful scrutiny under investment screening regimes. It is not safe to assume that a trigger will operate in the same way as under another more developed regulatory regime, such as merger control. Moreover, taking a security or agreeing an option needs to be considered upfront and not just when the security is about to be enforced or the option exercised.

In this piece we consider the position under the UK’s forthcoming National Security & Investment Act (NSI Act) regime and briefly compare this to the position under the recently reformed German regime. We assume that the other requirements for triggering are satisfied and focus on whether a security or an option could in itself take the transaction over the jurisdictional threshold.

Taking security

When a security is actually enforced, then this may well trigger an investment screening regime, as enforcement will typically involve the lender gaining control over the relevant target or its assets which are the subject of the security. The more difficult question, which will likely arise many years earlier at the initial transaction stage, is whether merely taking the security is sufficient.

To download and read the full paper, click here.

UK consumer watchdog frustrated at lack of bite

CMA left reliant on courts to fulfil role despite government promises to give it more powers two years ago

“The CMA’s main gripe is that it has never had the fining powers and the ability to run a [consumer protection] case through to a final decision with penalties,” said Becket McGrath, competition partner at Euclid Law. “The CMA wants to have the equivalent set of [consumer] powers as its competition powers that it can use to effectively take enforcement action against consumer law practices which evolve at a [fast] rate.”

Follow the link to read the full Financial Times article.

Can financing transactions be caught by the UK’s new National Security Regime?

by Oliver Bretz, Michael Reiss, Benjamin Yip, Euclid Law

When the National Security and Investment Act 2021 received Royal Assent this year, it had become painfully apparent that its potential scope would be very wide and potentially extend beyond traditional M&A transactions. What few expected was its potential application to financing transactions.

The new notification regime is not yet in force and is not expected to be until later this year. However, the UK government will have the retrospective power to call-in transactions where there is a trigger event that may raise national security concerns.  One of the trigger events is the acquirer being able to exercise material influence over the target’s policy.

 The UK government has indicated its intention to apply the same merger control concept of “material influence” under the NS&I regime.  We will therefore have to examine whether material influence could potentially exist in financing transactions, which will never become subject to any mandatory notification because they do not involve the acquisition of shares.

Material influence in the UK merger context occurs where one party gains a sufficient degree of influence over a target’s management of its business, including its strategic direction and its ability to define and achieve its commercial objectives. The assessment requires a case-by-case analysis of the overall relationship between the acquirer and the target. The key factors considered in the case law include the following:

·     the level of shareholding by the acquirer in the target. Shareholdings of less than 15%, with no board representation or other governance rights, are less likely to give rise to material influence, unless there is clear evidence of other factors that indicate the ability to exercise material influence over policy.

·     whether the acquiring party has the right to block special resolutions and whether it is able to do so in practice. This will be assessed on the basis of the distribution and holders of the remaining shares, the identity of other shareholders, including the status and expertise of the acquirer and its likely influence on other shareholders, the patterns of attendance and voting at recent shareholders’ meetings, the existence of any special voting or veto right attached to the shareholding and any other special provisions in the company’s constitution conferring an ability materially to influence its policy;

·     whether the acquirer has obtained board representation, which either alone or in combination with the shareholding confers on the acquirer the ability to materially influence the policy of the target entity; and

·     any other relevant agreements or arrangements with the company that enable the acquirer to materially influence such policy. For instance, agreements for the provision of consultancy services to the target and other relevant customer/supplier relationships, as well as financial arrangements making one party so dependent on the other that the latter gains material influence over the company’s commercial policy, may confer material influence. Indicatively, material influence could arise where a lender could threaten to withdraw loan facilities if a particular policy is not pursued, or where the loan conditions enable the lender to exercise rights beyond what is necessary to protect its investment (e.g. by options to take control of the company or veto rights over certain strategic decisions).   

From the above list, it seems that it would be highly unlikely that a traditional financing transaction could be called in for National Security Review.  But not so fast!

We have seen Partnership Agreements from specialist funders that give the lender a very significant say over the technology of the Target.  We have also seen Board Appointment rights, where the Board Director has very significant expertise in the relevant sector.  Couple that with some lender protection rights and a potential right to convert to equity at any point in the future, and you can see how one might be approaching material influence threshold.  It is of course open for the Department for Business to develop the material influence concept over time and to take a view that is more stringent than that of the CMA.

Aside from material influence, the regime identifies two other “trigger events” which are potentially relevant to financing transactions and which could result in call-ins by the Department for Business – either on a standalone basis or overlapping with the material influence trigger.  One is where a party obtains the right to control another party’s asset or to direct how it is used.  This could be relevant as at the initial financing transaction or subsequently, such as where collateral is seized on a default by the borrower.  Another “trigger event” is the acquisition of voting rights that “enable or prevent the passage of any class of resolution governing the affairs” of the Target.  The legislation’s reference to “any class of resolution” is broad and could even include lender protection rights against a Target making certain constitutional changes by resolution.  This means any such rights conferred on a lender need to be examined carefully.

They key point is this: financing transactions will not become subject to the mandatory notification regime (when it comes into force) because they do not involve the acquisition of shares (although a subsequent debt-for-equity swap on a borrower’s default could be caught).  However, this makes them potentially more vulnerable to a call-in by the Department for Business at a later stage, as they could involve (a) the exercise of material influence, (b) control over certain assets and/or (c) the lender’s ability to block certain resolutions of the borrower.  The Secretary of State has the power to call-in any transaction which falls within the scope of the regime, regardless of whether it has been notified, to assess its risk to national security within six months of the Secretary of State becoming aware of the transaction, (within a long-stop of five years for non-mandatory notifications). 

Therefore, the only way that this risk can be mitigated is to give notice to the Department of the trigger event, which will then reduce the period for intervention from 5 years to 6 months.

Of course, this would not be appropriate in all instances but should certainly be considered where (i) the target risk or acquiror risk is high; and (ii) the rights go beyond normal commercial lender protections.

The national security Genie is well and truly out of the bottle – and no amount of regret will ever put it back!