The European Commission has fined AB InBev EUR 200.41million (USD 225 million) for breaching EU antitrust rules. “AB InBev, the world's biggest beer company, has abused its dominant position on the Belgian beer market by hindering cheaper imports of its Jupiler beer from the Netherlands into Belgium,” the European Commission said in a press release today.
Jupiler is the most popular beer brand in Belgium and represents approximately 40% of the total Belgian beer market in terms of sales volume. AB InBev also sells Jupiler beer in other EU Member States, including the Netherlands and France. In the Netherlands, AB InBev sells Jupiler to retailers and wholesalers at lower prices than in Belgium due to increased competition.
Margrethe Vestager, Commissioner in charge of competition policy, said: "Consumers in Belgium have been paying more for their favourite beer because of AB InBev's deliberate strategy to restrict cross border sales between the Netherlands and Belgium. Attempts by dominant companies to carve up the Single Market to maintain high prices are illegal. Therefore we have fined AB InBev €200 million for breaching our antitrust rules."
In June 2016, the Commission opened an antitrust investigation to assess whether AB InBev abused its dominant position on the Belgian beer market by hindering imports of its beer from neighbouring countries, in breach of EU antitrust rules. In November 2017, the Commission issued a Statement of Objections. (inside.beer, 30.11.2017)
Today's decision concludes that AB InBev is dominant on the Belgian beer market. This is based on its constantly high market share, its ability to increase prices independently from other beer manufacturers, the existence of barriers to significant entry and expansion, and the limited countervailing buyer power of retailers given the essential nature of some beer brands sold by AB InBev.
Market dominance is, as such, not illegal under EU antitrust rules. However, dominant companies have a special responsibility not to abuse their market power by restricting competition, either in the market where they are dominant or in separate markets.
AB InBev abused its dominant market position in Belgium by pursuing a deliberate strategy to restrict the possibility for supermarkets and wholesalers to buy Jupiler beer at lower prices in the Netherlands and to import it into Belgium. The overall objective of this strategy was to maintain higher prices in Belgium by limiting imports of less expensive Jupiler beer products from the Netherlands. AB InBev used four different ways to achieve this:
1) AB InBev changed the packaging of some of its Jupiler beer products supplied to retailers and wholesalers in the Netherlands to make these products harder to sell in Belgium, notably by removing the French version of mandatory information from the label, as well as changing the design and size of beer cans.
2) AB InBev limited the volumes of Jupiler beer supplied to a wholesaler in the Netherlands, to restrict imports of these products into Belgium.
3) A number of AB InBev's products are very important for retailers in Belgium as customers expect to find them on their shelves. AB InBev refused to sell these products to one retailer unless the retailer agreed to limit its imports of less expensive Jupiler beer from the Netherlands to Belgium.
4) AB InBev made customer promotions for beer offered to a retailer in the Netherlands conditional upon the retailer not offering the same promotions to its customers in Belgium.
On this basis, the Commission concluded that AB InBev abused its dominant position from 9 February 2009 until 31 October 2016 in breach of EU antitrust rules. It deprived European consumers of one of the core benefits of the European Single Market, namely the possibility to have more choice and get a better deal when shopping.
As a result, the Commission decided to impose a fine on AB InBev.
AB InBev has cooperated with the Commission beyond its legal obligation to do so, in particular by expressly acknowledging the facts and the infringement of EU competition rules and by proposing a remedy.
More specifically, the remedy will ensure that AB InBev provides mandatory food information in both French and Dutch on the packaging of its products. The remedy will specifically ensure that the packaging of all existing and new products in Belgium, France and the Netherlands will include mandatory food information in both Dutch and French for the next five years. The Commission decision has made this remedy legally binding on AB InBev.
Therefore, the Commission granted AB InBev a 15% fine reduction in return for this cooperation.