The European Commission warned it will strongly resist attempts byliner shipping companies to take advantage of their partial freedom from EC antitrust laws to drive out competition.
Liner shipping conferences benefit from a "particularly liberal" exemption from EC competition rules, but this does not free them from other antitrust disciplines, said Sir Leon Brittan , the EC competition commissioner.''The commission must take steps to ensure that conferences remain subject to effective competition (that) is tangible rather than hypothetical," Sir Leon told the Institut Francais de la Ner in Paris.
The commission had given a block exemption from EC competition rules to the Eurocorde rate-setting agreement between conference carriers and independents on the North Atlantic.
But Brussels is radically rethinking its position, Sir Leon said, because there have been great changes in competitive relationships on the trade since the leading "outsider," Maersk Line, joined the North Europe/USA Rate Agreement in October.
The commission was seriously concerned at the steady reduction in the size of the EC merchant fleet, but its recovery must not be at the expense of quality and competitive transport costs, Sir Leon stressed.
The commission agrees that shipping consortia have positive benefits for shippers, but "they are also inherently restrictive," he added.
As a result, the commission does not agree with shipping lines that consortia agreements be covered by block exemptions granted to conferences.
The commission currently is examining a number of criteria to assess conditions under which it will exempt consortia from EC antitrust laws. These include: the market share of consortia members, the terms on which its members may withdraw, and the interests of users and intermediaries.
The commission is exploring the possibility that consortia could, independently of the conferences, offer shippers their own service contracts. Another essential feature would be the creation of a "user-consultat ion" structure to insure that the anticipated benefits of consortia agreements are evenly spread.
Sir Leon said the shift from individual ocean operations to intergrated services run by shipping companies has "worrying" implications for the development of competition.