Conference of Nordic Competition Authorities, Bergen, 4 September 2019
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Ladies and gentlemen
It’s a great pleasure to be with you today, to celebrate sixty years of Nordic cooperation on competition.
Sixty years is a long time. It can give you a sort of vertigo, when you look back such a long way. It’s what I imagine it must be like to hike up Stoltzekleiven to the top of Sandviksfjellet, one of the mountains that overlook Bergen. All you can think about, as you climb, is the next step in front of you. So it’s only when you reach the top, and look down at the city and the fjord below, that you realise just how far you’ve come.
Sixty years of change
Sixty years ago, the Nordic people already knew that they had to work together, to shape the world around them. And since then, the way that the world has changed around us – the way we’ve become more connected, more dependent on each other – has only made cooperation more important.
Digital technology has shrunk the world we live in. It’s made it simple for us to stay in touch with friends around the world. It lets us work, or watch TV, or shop, no matter where we are.
And our economies have opened up and become more connected. In 1960, world trade was worth less than a quarter of GDP – now, that figure is close to 60%.
In one sense, that doesn’t affect what we do, as competition enforcers. Technology and markets may be vastly different from the way they were sixty years ago. But human nature doesn’t change that fast. The reasons why companies can be tempted to harm competition – motives like greed and fear – go all the way back to Adam and Eve. And so, even though our markets have changed a lot in sixty years, the basic principles that guide the competition rules are as relevant as ever.
But we face new challenges, as we work to put those rules into practice. Like a footballer who gets to play in the World Cup for the first time, we find that the rules of the game are no different – but suddenly, the stakes are much higher.
The importance of competition
What’s at issue, in our work as competition authorities, is whether the changes we’re seeing will be good for consumers – or only for a few global businesses.
Opening up to trade can make us all better off. It can mean vastly wider choice, and lower prices, for consumers. And part of the reason for that is precisely that trade helps to bring more competition into our markets. So if a few companies misuse their power to take over global markets, then consumers will lose out on many of the benefits that should come from trade.
And the same is true for digitisation. Digital technology can bring new ideas into old markets. It can help companies cut costs, and bring down prices for consumers. And with its endless ability to innovate, the world of digital technology can offer us a digital future that’s even more exciting than the present. But consumers will only see those benefits if competition stays strong.
Dealing with big companies
So our work, as competition authorities, is more important than ever. But we also find ourselves facing new challenges.
These days, we have to deal with companies that span the world, and have millions, if not billions, of users.
So it’s vital that we have all the powers we need, to make sure that these companies follow the rules. We need strong powers of investigation, so we can dig out the evidence that companies will go to great lengths to keep secret. We need the power to impose fines that are more than just a line on a spreadsheet – fines that are big enough to deter these huge companies from breaking the rules.
This was one of the issues which the Nordic competition authorities brought up a few years ago, in your vision for the future of Nordic competition policy. And it’s also a priority for us at the European Commission. That’s why we were very pleased at the end of last year, when the European Parliament and the Council adopted our proposal for new rules to make sure the EU’s national competition authorities have all the powers they need, to enforce the EU antitrust rules.
Competition in fast-moving markets
And the stakes today are high, not only for us, but for businesses too. Because in these global, digitised markets, being big can give you a huge head start over your rivals. So the temptation for businesses to get big faster, by undermining competition, can be very high. And if they succeed, the whole market can quickly tip in their favour, and drive out competition for good.
So we don’t have the time to sit back and watch how the market develops. Of course, we need good evidence that a company’s actions could harm competition. But we can’t expect that we’ll always be able to say exactly how many more kroner consumers have had to pay because of those actions. Even if that were possible, by the time we could do it, the damage to competition would already be done.
So we need to be able to intervene quickly. And that means being prepared. It means getting all the equipment on the fire engine ahead of time, so we’re ready to go when the fire alarm rings.
So in the last few years, we’ve been thinking a lot about what digitisation means for our work. In January, we brought together more than 500 people for a conference to discuss the future of competition in a digitised world. To prepare for that conference, we collected more than a hundred written contributions, from all sides of the debate. And in the spring, we received the independent report which three special advisers worked on for a year, giving their views on how digitisation is likely to affect competition and consumers – and how competition policy can respond.
With the help of this knowledge, we can get ahead of the game. We can be ready to step in before it’s too late.
That could mean adopting interim measures, as the Commission is looking to do in a case involving the chipmaker Broadcom. So that we can take the time to do our job properly – to collect all the evidence, and listen to the company’s defence – without running the risk that in the meantime, the market will tip in a way that makes competition practically impossible.
We may also need to fix a market that’s already tipped, not just by ordering companies to stop doing things that harm competition, but by making sure they take positive action to make markets competitive again. Just as the Commission did in the Android case, where Google has taken action, with a consumer choice screen, to give rival search providers room to compete.
We can even look at new services even before they’re introduced. That’s what we’re doing right now, with Facebook’s plan for a new cryptocurrency, known as Libra, which it announced back in June. We’re looking at whether those proposals create risks for competition, so we can be ready to act swiftly if an intervention were to prove necessary.
Competition and competitiveness
But in this high-stakes world, we also sometimes hear calls to do something quite different. To use our power, not just to protect competition, but to help domestic businesses get a head start over rivals from other parts of the world.
And as the directors of the Nordic competition authorities pointed out a few months ago, this is where we need to draw the line. We need to draw that line, because our job is to protect consumers. But also because enforcing the competition rules firmly and impartially is the best way we can help business succeed.
Our economies are complex ecosystems, with companies of different sizes, from different sectors, all depending on each other. There’s no way that competition enforcers could help some of those businesses, without also harming others. But we can make the whole ecosystem work better, by enforcing the rules equally for everyone.
And when we do that, we also make local businesses stronger, and better at competing in markets around the world.
Because competition makes champions. It drives companies to do better, to become more innovative, more productive, better at meeting customers’ needs. And that, of course, is exactly what our businesses need, to compete successfully with the best in the world.
And when we stick to our task, defending consumers and competition, that also makes it easier to cooperate with other competition authorities. Because you work together best when you share the same aims.
And that’s hugely important, in this age of global business.
Two years ago, the Commission fined a number of companies that made car safety equipment, like seatbelts and airbags. Those companies were Japanese, and they formed their cartel entirely in Japan. But because the parts were used in cars sold around the world, it affected consumers everywhere – including here in Europe.
And when the threats to competition are global, competition enforcement needs to be global too.
We need to share ideas about how to adapt to the changes that are going on around us, through organisations like the International Competition Network. And that international cooperation has a strong Nordic influence – both Norway and Sweden are among the authorities that jointly chair groups where the ICN’s work is done.
But we also need cooperation closer to home. And the Nordics are leading the way here as well. The new cooperation agreement that came into force this year – which lets the Nordic competition authorities share confidential information, and raid companies on each other’s behalf – means that companies that break the rules have nowhere to hide.
But then, we at the Commission know very well what valuable partners the Nordic countries are. We know our counterparts from Denmark, Finland and Sweden very well, as members of the European Competition Network, working alongside the Commission every day to enforce the EU antitrust rules throughout the Union. And for 25 years, ever since the European Economic Area was founded, we've also worked closely with the EFTA Surveillance Authority – and with Iceland and Norway – to offer consumers the same protection, not just in the EU, but throughout the EEA.
Here in the Nordics, we may be at the extremes of geography. But we’re very much at the centre of the changes in the world.
The Nordic economies are great winners from overseas trade. Our societies are among the most digital in the world. Our outlook is global – and the Nordic answer to the challenges of today’s global markets can be a valuable guide for others around the world.
Because here in the Nordics, for sixty years and more, it’s been clear that the best way to deal with an interconnected world is to work together. To learn from each other, to support each other, to help each other protect people better.
Standing here today, at the summit of sixty years’ work, I hope you have a great sense of achievement. I know you can also see that there are even higher and tougher climbs ahead. But you can face those challenges with confidence. Because you already have the most important thing for a successful climb – you have a great team. And long may that continue.