To Infinity and Beyond: The Extra-territorial Application of the UK’s National Security Regime

By Oliver Bretz and Becket McGrath

With the coming into force of the UK National Security Regime on 4 January 2022, the UK will subject 17 sectors to mandatory notification and clearance requirements.  In addition there is a wide power to call-in other transactions.

A lot has already been written about the implications of having a national security regime that applies without any thresholds and regardless of the identity of the purchaser so we will not repeat that here.

What has received a lot less attention is the potential extra-territorial effect of the regime, which should be of concern to companies and third-country States at a political level.

On 20 July 2021 the UK published Guidance on how the National Security and Investment Act 2021 could affect people or acquisitions outside the UK.

Qualifying Entity

The Guidance defines a qualifying entity as being one that carries on business in the UK (including from a regional office or research facility), or supplies goods and services to people in the UK (including an overseas company that produces goods for exporting to a company in the UK or is responsible for distributing them to the UK company).

Having a sales subsidiary in the UK or supplying to a distributor in the UK would therefore be a sufficient nexus with the UK.  The extra-territorial scope is therefore very wide.

The Guidance goes on to state that if one of the following is met, the entity would definitely be a qualifying entity if it:

 supplies goods or services to the UK

·      carries out research and development in the UK

·      has an office in the UK from which it carries on activities

·      oversees the activities of a subsidiary that carries on activities in the UK (unless it is independent from the parent entity being acquired)

·      supplies goods to a UK hub which sends the goods onto other countries (unless the UK hub only places orders for goods to be sent to other countries)

·      has staff that travel to the UK for business

·      supplies goods that pass through the UK

It should be noted that UK investors, a UK Stock Exchange listing or a the existence of a common parent with a UK subsidiary is not sufficient to be regarded as a qualifying entity.

Qualifying Asset

qualifying asset is defined as an asset that is used in connection with activities carried on in the UK (regardless of where the asset is based or who is carrying on that activity) or used in connection with the supply of goods or service in the UK (regardless of where the asset is based or who is carrying on that activity).  The example in the guidance is a wind-farm supplying electricity to the UK.

This is satisfied where the asset is used:

·      by someone in the UK

·      by someone outside the UK to supply goods or services to the UK or

·      to generate energy or materials that are used in the UK.

The Guidance notes that asset purchases are not subject to compulsory notification and that the call-in of an asset purchase is going to be relatively rare. 

Information Powers

The government can require a person/entity to provide information or to give evidence if any one of the following applies:

·      if the person carries on business in the UK, even if they are not directly involved in an acquisition being investigated

·      if the person is a UK national

·      if the person is an individual ordinarily resident in the UK

·      if the entity is incorporated or constituted under the law of any part of the UK

·      if the person or entity has or is in the process of or contemplating acquiring, a qualifying entity or qualifying asset

The Government can do this by issuing information and attendance notices and the Guidance states that it will use available criminal and civil penalties including fines and custodial sentences against individuals outside the UK.

A company that is not subject to UK mandatory notification because it does not carry on activities in the UK but only provides goods or services to the UK could find itself on the receiving end of an interim order or final order. Equally a transaction that takes place entirely overseas could be subject to UK mandatory notification.

An example

Many will be familiar with the LNG import terminal (LNG Terminal) on the Isle of Grain, which is likely to be of strategic importance to the UK.  However an LNG Terminal does not own the gas that it handles – it merely makes a charge for the gasification process.  If you now take an Algerian state-owned company that merely sells its gas through the LNG Terminal to the UK that wishes to sell a 40% shareholding stake to a Gulf investor, it would be unthinkable that such a transaction would be subject to UK mandatory notification?  Think again.

The relevant steps are as follows:

1)    The state-owned company is a qualifying entity because it carries on business in the UK;

2)    The transaction may be subject to mandatory notification if that state-owned company has an existing up-stream petroleum facility (as defined in the Regs);

3)    The acquisition of 40% is a triggering event.

Whether in practice the UK would be able to compel the notification of such a transaction is a different matter.  Politically that may also be difficult in relation to companies that are majority-owned by another state.  But as always, the risks will be on the UK nationals or UK residents working for that company who may be asked to provide information, which may be subject to strict confidentiality obligations, sometimes backed up by criminal law. 

The UK will have to think long and hard about how it is likely to use those powers, especially if a transaction is not notified in the UK when it should have been.  In addition, in our example, how would the UK enforce the likely remedies set out in the Guidance:

Requiring the state-owned company to not sell more than a certain percentage of its shares; 

·      ensuring the Gulf investor cannot access certain intellectual property;

·      requiring the state-owned company to report regularly to the UK government on compliance.

The answer is of course that it would not and could not – and in this example the risk to UK national security would probably be minimal.   But just replace LNG with uranium fuel rods and Algeria with France and you will see how political this issue may become.

Internal Restructuring of an International Group

If the foregoing discussion has not had anyone worried about regulatory overreach, we would like to introduce the topic of internal restructurings.  It is a canon of merger control that internal restructurings, especially of multinational companies, which do not change the ultimate control structure are not caught by merger control.  Not so with the NS&I Act.

The Guidance provides that:

Qualifying acquisitions that are part of a corporate restructure or reorganisation may be covered by the new rules. This is the case even if the acquisition takes place within the same corporate group. This means that even within corporate restructures, it may be mandatory to notify.

So that means that a corporate reorganisation taking place in Brazil could potentially trigger a filing obligation in the UK, which is clearly completely bonkers.  What conceivable UK national security concern may be triggered by such a reorganisation is not discussed in the Guidance and remains a mystery.

Impact of a failure to notify – unenforceability?

So why does any of this matter.  Well, it matters!  Many transactions are conducted under English law and are subject to English jurisdiction.  Even if they are not, the lawfulness of the underlying transaction documents will be relevant to the financing of the transaction, which is most likely going to involve English Law documents and London banks.  Law firms will be issuing legal opinions attesting to the enforceability of the financing documents with all the usual disclaimers and caveats.

The bottom line will be the impact that illegality for failure to notify under the NS&I Act 2021 could have on the transaction and financing documents.  A textbook example of the unintended consequences of well-intentioned regulatory overreach.

Webinar: Foreign direct investment in Germany and the investor status of the UK

On 13 May, Oliver Bretz hosted our monthly live webinar #FDI on the European Foreign Direct Investment Screen #EUFIS, which affects most mergers and investments at this critical time. Oliver had the pleasure of chairing the Microsoft Teams debate alongside Dimitri Slobodenjuk who provided an interesting update on the changes to the German FDI control system.

The discussion also focused on the status of UK investors and UK Private Equity in the EU during the Transition Period.

Notes from the webinar can be found here.

The European “CIFIUS”: Understanding the EU Foreign Investment Screening (EUFIS).

Marie Leppard chaired the teleconference  “The European “CIFIUS”: Understanding the EU Foreign Investment Screening (EUFIS)” organised by the ABA Section of International Antitrust Law Committee Panel on 29th October 2019.

The event covered the new EU Foreign Investment Screening (EUFIS) framework and its similarities to CFIUS and Investment Canada. EUFIS will come into force in October of 2020 and is already relevant to deals and investments being negotiated today.

The speakers participating in the teleconference included:

  • Carlo Pettinato – head of Investment Policy Unit, DG Trade at European Commission
  • Damara Chambers – Partner at Vinson & Elkins
  • Michael Cadelcott – Senior Associate at McCarthy Tetrault.

ARISE EUFIS, SON OF CIFIUS

Dr. Alan Riley and Oliver Bretz

This article argues that EUFIS, the EU Foreign Investment Screening is modelled on CIFIUS, in that it is a political rather than an administrative process. Merging companies should take it into account if there is a risk of their long-stop date being extended beyond the autumn of 2020. Early engagement with DG Trade, especially in relation to remedies, will be an important step

Compared to CIFIUS on this side of the Atlantic, the adoption of the EU Foreign Investment Screening (EUFIS) has gone almost unnoticed. This may be due to the fact that it is seen as a distant threat, coming into force in late 2020. However, for deals that are currently being negotiated with long-stop dates into 2020 one may need to start looking at this issue quite seriously.

It should also be noted that the European Commission will have no formal decision-making powers. Instead, it will be the coordinating entity between the different foreign investment review systems of the Member States. That co-ordinating role will give it a significant influence over the process. That influence is underpinned by the Commission’s right to publish opinions of its view of the proposed transaction. Given also the Commission’s role as defender of the overall European interest, and its technical capacity it is also likely to become the focal point for the development of acceptable remedies. It is also clear from the experience of CFIUS in Washington that the investment review process will be far less administrative and technical and far more political, with all the uncertainties that this brings.

EUFIS will also for the first time put DG Trade on a par with DG Competition in merger cases, including in relation to remedies. Under the EU Merger Regulation, Member States may take “appropriate measures” to protect public security, the plurality of the media, and prudential rules. Any other public interests must be approved by the European Commission on a case-by-case basis.It will need to be seen how the review period will fit with the timelines of the EU Merger Regulation and national Takeover codes. DG Trade will have to evolve specific procedures for pre-notification and the negotiation of potential remedies.

On 14 February 2019 Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said: “I’m very pleased that the European Parliament has given its backing to this initiative. Foreign investment is essential to the health of the European economy. At the same time, it is clear that we have to address the concerns about the security risk posed by certain investments in critical assets, technologies and infrastructure. Member States and the Commission will have a much better overview of foreign investments in the European Union and, for the first time, will have the possibility to collectively address potential risks to their security and public order.” (emphasis added)

In summary, EUFIS creates a cooperation mechanism where Member States and the Commission will be able to exchange information and raise concerns related to specific investments. The Commission will be able to issue opinions when an investment threatens the security or public order of more than one Member State, or when an investment could undermine an EU project or programme of interest to the whole EU. There are also provisions for cooperation on investment screening, including the sharing experience, best practices and information on issues of common concerns. EUFIS also sets out some minimum requirements for Member States who wish to maintain or adopt a screening mechanism at national level, whilst leaving the ultimate decision to Member States.

The EUFIS process is intended to take around 35 working days and contains the following steps: (i) the Member State where the investment takes place has to provide information on the investment and upon request has to notify cases which undergo national screening (ii) other Member States can then request additional information and provide comments (iii) the European Commission can request additional information and issue opinions (summarising its views and the comments from other Member States).

The Regulation also lists several EU funded projects and programmes which may be relevant for security and public order, and which will deserve a particular attention from the Commission. That list includes for instance Galileo, Horizon 2020, Trans-European Networks and the European Defence Industrial Development Programme. The list will be updated as necessary.

The Regulation sets an indicative list of factors to help Member States and the Commission determine whether an investment is likely to affect security or public order. That list includes the effects of the investment on critical infrastructure, critical technologies, the supply of critical inputs, such as energy or raw materials, access to sensitive information or the ability to control information, the freedom and pluralism of the media.

Member States and the Commission may also consider whether the investor is controlled by the government of a third country, whether the investor has previously been involved in activities affecting security or public order, or whether there are serious risks that the investor could engage in criminal or illegal activities.

The Regulation does not require Member States to introduce investment screening mechanisms. Member States may maintain their existing screening mechanisms, adopt new ones or remain without such national mechanisms.

Only 14 EU Member States currently have national investment screening mechanisms. Several are in the course of reforming existing schemes or of adopting new ones. The precedent from the adoption of the EU Merger Regulation in September 1990, was that almost all Member States rapidly adopted their own national merger regime. As all Member States would want to be able to credibly influence other states investment decisions and the Commission process, it is likely in the run up to the coming into force of EUFIS those states without an investment regime will create one. This in turn could create a further hazard for smaller deals affecting only a national market, where clearance will be required in almost all Member States by the merger and the foreign investment regulator.

The Regulation does provide for some key requirements for national screening mechanisms including transparency of rules and procedures, non-discrimination among foreign investors, confidentiality of information exchanged, the possibility of recourse against screening decisions and measures to identify and prevent circumvention by foreign investors. Member States with current screening procedures include Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom (until such time as it leaves the European Union and becomes a foreign investor under EUFIS).

From the CFIUS experience it can be assumed that Member States will have to evolve sophisticated national review systems that are able to make complicated assessments on very fast-moving technologies in a very short timeframe. That is not an easy endeavour, it can be expected that the Commission will increasingly take some of the burden. That raises the question whether DG Trade is itself equipped to make these assessments and whether it needs additional staff and expertise.

Where EUFIS could make a significant difference is in the area of remedies. Where a merger triggers multiple national reviews, the Commission will almost inevitably become the coordinator on remedies. Experience suggests that the Commission will need to evolve remedies that can deal with these issues through measures such as (i) appropriate black-boxes and information barriers (ii) independent board directors with national security clearance (iii) appropriate national oversight. How these factors will be used is up for grabs in a process that is likely to be intensely political. However, as there is an obligation not to discriminate between investors, a body of precedent is likely to start evolving, perhaps even through the adoption of guidelines and remedies templates – in exactly the same way as has happened under the EU Merger Regulation.

Despite the fact that the decisions will ultimately be taken at national level, the mere existence of EUFIS will give the Commission a degree of oversight and power in the process, which should not be underestimated.