Monday, April 20, 2015

Anti-trust Enforcement in the E.U. and U.S.: Business, Government and Society

In 2014, the E.U. depended on Gazprom, a state-controlled Russian gas company, for one-third of the natural gas used in Europe. Meanwhile, Russia depended on the company for export-earnings. Moreover, both the E.U. and Russia view Gazprom from not only commercial vantage-points, but geopolitical ones as well. Both dimensions were in the mix as the European Commission weighed bringing anti-trust charges against the company in April 2015. At the time, the E.U.’s executive branch was already formally pursuing Google on anti-trust grounds. Relative to anti-trust enforcement in the U.S., the E.U.’s own represents a formidable attempt to open up competitive markets. We can generalize, in fact, to posit a more balanced “check and balance” between business and government in Europe.

Regarding the salience of geopolitics, the E.U.’s action could force Gazprom to “drop conditions with European utilities that restrict those utilities’ ability to share the gas with other countries.”[1] We need only recall Russia’s use of Gazprom to cut off natural gas to Ukraine in the midwinter “gas wars” in 2006 and 2009 to grasp the geopolitical weight on the Russian side of the “commercial transactions.” Even though an anti-trust action would also involve going after Gazprom for the more exclusively commercial practices of “thwarting its European customers’ efforts to diversity sources of supply, and . . . imposing unfairly high charges by linking gas prices to those of oil, rather than basing prices on global natural gas market rates,” the Commission’s decision-making process included the geopolitical element of Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine at the time. That is to say, going after even egregious commercial practices could have dire political consequences. Government regulation of business is not merely about market efficiency and effectiveness. In fact, Gazprom demonstrates just how salient geopolitics can be in the management of a company. 

In fact, government regulation is itself nestled in a broader social contract, even if implicit, between business and society. The greater a people’s ingestion of business values, the less likely is a government to pursue powerful companies on anti-trust grounds. Those companies may even have disproportionate influence politically. From this standpoint, the E.U.’s executive branch may seem biased.

For her part, Margrethe Vestager, the E.U.’s competition commissioner at the time, answered such criticism just prior to her visit to the U.S. In her view, going after Google for skewing search results in favor of its own shopping service is simply a matter of enforcing the law. “As enforcers, we build our cases on evidence and on interpretation of facts because the European Union as well as the United States is built on the rule of law.”[2] Although the definition of a market is different in the U.S., the relative dearth of anti-trust enforcement in the U.S. may have been her real message here. Rather than defending Google, Americans might see to it that their elected representatives represent constituents by pushing for more competitive and less oligarchic markets. 

To be sure, it is one thing for one government to go after a foreign company, and quite another for another government to go after a domestically-based company. It is also true, however, that a domestic company could have too much political leverage over its home government, especially if the societal values align with those in the business world. In the U.S., the relative value put on economic liberty and business values such as efficiency may ironically make anti-trust action in favor of more competitive (i.e., efficient) markets less likely; a pro-business society may actually be less favorable to the long-term best interests of a commercial system (while being more favorable to the more narrow interests of powerful companies).

[1] James Kanter, “Europe Is Expected to Charge Gazprom in Antitrust Case,” The New York Times, April 20, 2015.
[2] Jessica Guynn, “EU Enforcer Means Business,” USA Today, April 20, 2015.