On 19 December 2007, the UK's Office of Fair Trading ("OFT") announced that it had charged three UK businessmen with cartel offences under the Enterprise Act 2002. The three individuals were charged with dishonestly participating in a cartel to allocate markets and customers, restrict supplies, fix prices and rig bids for the supply of marine hose and ancillary equipment in the UK. If the men are found guilty of the cartel offence, they face up to five years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. The OFT's announcement stated that its investigation related to a worldwide conspiracy between a number of company executives to rig bids, fix prices and allocate markets in the supply of marine hoses, which are used by customers in the oil and defense industries to transport oil between tankers and storage facilities. The businessmen, together with five nationals from other countries, were originally arrested by the United States authorities in May 2007 for suspected breaches of US antitrust law. The arrests took place in Houston, Texas where they were attending an industry conference, and were timed to coincide with searches carried out by the OFT at locations in the UK, as well as on-site inspections by the European Commission. On December 12, 2007, DoJ released a statement stating that the three UK individuals had agreed to plead guilty to participating in a conspiracy to rig bids, fix prices and allocate market shares of marine hoses sold in the US in violation of the Sherman Act. The Plea Agreements filed with the US District Court in Houston stated that each agreed to serve certain periods in jail and pay fines: Peter Whittle, the sole proprietor of a consulting business, PW Consulting (Oil & Marine) agreed to serve 30 months in jail and to pay a fine of US$100,000; Bryan Allison, managing director of Dunlop Oil & Marine Ltd (a UK company based in Grimsby), agreed to serve 24 months in jail and to pay a fine of US$100,000; and, David Bramner, the sales and marketing director of Dunlop Oil & Marine, agreed to serve 20 months in jail and to pay a US$75,000 fine. Although the three defendants agreed to plead guilty to the charges in the US, they also agreed to be escorted back to the UK to plead guilty to price-fixing charges under the UK's Enterprise Act, and serve jail terms in English prisons for a period no less than the time agreed in their plea agreements. This is the first time that the OFT has announced that arrests have been made under the criminal cartel provisions of the Enterprise Act. The case has been heralded both by the DoJ and the OFT as an example of the two authorities working together against cartel activity. It demonstrates the increasing cooperation between competition authorities in investigating and prosecuting international cartels. The OFT also stated that the bringing of these charges is "highly significant development in both the UK's own competition regime and in international cooperation against cartels". It considers that the case demonstrates its willingness to "act decisively and innovatively when investigating suspected cartel activity".
On December 5, 2007, the European Commission imposed fines totaling €243m on the Bayer, Denka, DuPont, Dow, ENI and Tosoh Groups for allegedly participating in a cartel for chloroprene rubber in the European Economic Area (EEA) in violation of the EC Treaty’s ban on cartels and restrictive business practices (Article 81). The EC alleged that between 1993 and 2002, these companies shared the market and fixed prices for chloroprene rubber, which is used for rubber components in a range of industrial products, as latex for the production of diving equipment, and the inner soles of shoes and as adhesive. The EC increased ENI's fine by 60% on the basis that it was a repeat offender. The fine of Bayer would also have been increased for the same reason, but Bayer was the first company to come forward with information about the cartel under the Commission's 2002 Leniency Notice, and received full immunity from fines. This is the eighth cartel decision reached by the Commission during 2007, resulting in total fines so far of over €3.3 billion (the highest ever imposed in a single year, and almost double the previous record of €1.843 billion in 2006). The increase in ENI's fine by 60% for recidivism reflects the policy under the new Guidelines on Fines. The Commission's approach under the previous guidelines has been to increase fines by 50% where the undertaking in question is found to have previously been involved in one or more similar infringement. The new Guidelines, however, allow for an increase of up to 100% for each prior infringement. This is the third occasion in which the Commission has applied its new Guidelines on Fines.
After 11 years in opposition, a new Australian Labor Government was elected on the November 24, 2007, promising changes to Australia's trade practices laws. One of the key areas in which change is the criminalization of cartels. Currently, all penalties for cartel involvement are civil in nature. Other expected changes include a redefinition and simplification of existing provisions for price-fixing and market-sharing; "strict liability" approach which will not require any need to prove "dishonest intent" by those accused of engaging in cartel conduct; and, a retention of civil penalties for less serious cartel behavior.
On 19 December 2007, a Finnish Court imposed fines of €19.4 million on seven companies alleged of colluding to fix prices and rigging bids on the Finnish asphalt market. Although the Court reduced the Finnish Competition Authority's (FCA) original fine proposal by one fifth, this is largest imposed fine by a Finish court for antitrust violations. The alleged conspiracy included all the major players in the field, with a combined market share up to approximately 70%. They were accused of fixing prices and bid-rigging in connection with a number of Government-funded and private projects between 1994-2001. The Court's decision follows 5 years of investigation by FCA investigation. The companies are likely to appeal the decision to the Finnish Supreme Administrative Court. The FCA has criticized the Court for departing from the FCA's original fine proposals, and granting the companies a substantial reduction in fines.
On December 17, the Netherlands Competition Authority (NMa) imposed fines totaling €2.7 million on suppliers of steel grates. T he NMa alleged that four companies entered into cartel agreements lasting a period of six years concerning the sale of steel grates used in (fire) stairs, balcony fences and floors. In particular, the NMa alleged that the companies regularly met to "protect" each other against competition and to co-ordinate their prices for steel grates. For larger orders, the NMa alleged that they decided who would win the work and at what price. In addition, the NMa alleged that they agreed on a division of their market shares on an annual basis. One of the four companies was granted full immunity from fines under the NMa’s leniency program; two others received reductions of 15% and 10% respectively as they applied for leniency at a later stage.
On December 3, the Hellenic Competition Commission ("HCC") fined 17 dairy producers and retailers a total of €48.3 million for alleged price-fixing. This is the highest fine ever imposed in Greece for violation of the competition rules. The HCC alleged that the five largest dairy producers organized a meeting with an agenda which was aimed at improving the quality of milk. In fact, the HCC alleged that the companies agreed on their pricing policy and the allocation of the supply sources of fresh milk. One of the alleged cartel participants filed a leniency application but later withdraw it. The HCC alleged that the leniency applicant withdrew its application following pressure by other members of the cartel. The HCC alleged this highlighted the effect and the power of the cartel.
On November 23, the French Competition Council rejected a complaint from British Airways that Eurostar, a subsidiary of the national French railway company, SNCF, in charge of rail passenger transport between Paris and London, had abused its dominant position. On November 18, 2004, the French Competition Council received a complaint from British Airways concerning an alleged abuse of dominant position by Eurostar. In its complaint, British Airways alleged that not only did Eurostar practice predatory pricing by offering cheap tickets that did not cover its costs but it also implemented a policy to saturate capacity in order to foreclose British Airways from the Paris to London market. According to British Airways, the unprofitable Eurostar subsidiary was able to implement such policies as it was financed by SNCF, which has the monopoly on the French Railway network, resulting in illegal cross-subsidies. Although the Competition Council agreed that Eurostar holds a dominant position on the market for passenger transport on the Paris-London line, the Council held that its policies were not predatory. It held that such a strategy would imply that Eurostar had rationally accepted that it would sustain losses by putting more trains than necessary on the network, and by selling tickets at abnormally low prices in order to eliminate competition from air transport. It would then increase its prices and recoup the losses suffered. Rather, the Council held that: Eurostar had not increased capacity during the relevant time period (2004) but rather reduced it; Eurostar's pricing policy did not have an anticompetitive object or effect on the market; each train covered variable costs but not fixed ones as Eurostar was committed to pay for the use of the Channel Tunnel and the British railway lines over a long time period; and, the alleged market disruption resulting from cross subsidies within SNCF had not been proved, and even if airlines had lost market share, the market itself increased considerably as a result of the new services offered by Eurostar. In the light of the above, the Competition Council decided that Eurostar had not infringed the French competition laws.