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Friday, November 9, 2007

EU fines cut if groups admit to cartels

EU fines cut if groups admit to cartels

Published: October 26 2007 20:32 | Last updated: October 26 2007 20:32

Companies could receive lower fines if they admit guilt in cartel cases, the European Union’s antitrust regulator proposed on Friday.

With an increasing workload and ever tougher financial penalties, the European Commission’s overstretched competition directorate aims to close cases more quickly so it can handle more.

“Companies would benefit by drawing a line under their past illegal behaviour, the Commission would benefit by freeing up resources to pursue more cartels and the European economy would benefit because more cartels would be punished more quickly,” Neelie Kroes, the competition commissioner said.

Ms Kroes’ spokesman stressed this was not a move towards a US-style plea-bargain system. “There would be no negotiations. It is at our discretion,” he said.

Nor would it affect the successful leniency scheme that encourages whistleblowers.

Under that scheme if one member of a cartel informs the authorities of its existence it escapes punishment. It must also hand over documentation and actively assist investigators.

The settlement procedure would come into play after an investigation was ­concluded.

“We would ask a company if it agreed with the findings. If it did and accepted liability, it could receive a lower fine,” said a Commission official.

He said that with fines rising it could be a tempting offer for those found guilty but there was no question of taking away legal rights such as an appeal in court. Fine totals have increased from €683m ($982m, £333m) in 2005 to €1.85bn in 2006 to €2.5bn in the year so far.

Brussels is allowed to fine companies up to 10 per cent of turnover but rarely goes that far.

Separately, Ms Kroes on Friday asked EU governments to reclaim illegal subsidies to business more quickly.

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