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Thank you very much for inviting me here today. I especially want to thank Mr Szanyi for his draft report.
I think the report sums up very well why competition matters. As it says, competition policy is a cornerstone of the single market. State aid rules give every company a fair chance to compete. And antitrust and merger rules make sure that markets serve the public, not just big companies.
Last year, we found that five truckmakers – which together sold nine of every ten medium and heavy trucks in Europe – had colluded for fourteen years to raise gross list prices and delay the launch of green technology.
This sort of cartel can make a lot of money for the companies involved. It's their customers who pay the price. So it takes firm action to make sure companies have nothing to gain by breaking the rules. That’s why we fined those five businesses nearly three billion euros – the largest cartel fine in the Commission’s history. Meanwhile, our case is continuing against a sixth company that decided not to settle.
But enforcing these rules throughout Europe has to be a team effort, involving national competition authorities as well as the Commission. And that can only be effective if they have all the powers they need.
So I fully agree with your recommendation that we should propose EU legislation to make sure they have the right powers. We’ve had the same message from our consultation and our impact assessment. So we’re now working on a proposal, which I hope to present before the summer. And I firmly expect that it will fully involve Parliament.
As well as antitrust cases, we deal with mergers that are reshaping whole global industries, like the ones that will reduce the six biggest producers of seeds and pesticides to just three.
These transactions can affect all of us because the seeds and crop protection are the beginning of our food chain. It is important that this sector continue to develop new products that correspond to the regulatory requirements in Europe and that it will sell those products at competitive prices.
It is important for farmers, for consumers and for the environment.
That is why my services are looking into them in great detail. Each of them will be assessed on their own merits and will only be allowed to proceed if they do not pose any impediment to effective competition.
Tax and state aid
When it comes to state aid, our cases on tax rulings show that no company, however big or powerful, can avoid paying its fair share of tax.
We’ve taken four final decisions so far that deal with illegal state aid given through tax rulings. Like all our decisions, they were based purely on the evidence and the law. And we will take forward our open cases – involving Amazon, McDonald’s and Engie – in exactly the same spirit. At the same time, we will continue our investigations into tax rulings in every Member State.
And we're always ready to work with Member States to make sure that state aid issues don't come up in the future.
It's good to see that Luxembourg has brought in stricter rules on the taxation of financing companies. We were happy to discuss that plan with the national authorities. And my door is always open to any Member State that wants to discuss this sort of change.
Meanwhile, the legislative work that Commissioner Moscovici has been leading has already helped to close loopholes and improve transparency. And I hope that our other proposals will also make rapid progress in the Council – including public country-by-country reporting.
State aid to banks
When it comes to banks, our state aid rules make sure that support for troubled banks comes on the same terms throughout the EU. And we apply those rules in the same way to every bank, in every Member State.
European banks are far more stable than they were a decade ago. The Banking Union rules – which were adopted by Parliament and the Council – work together with the state aid rules to protect taxpayers from losses. If that affects retail customers, who were misled by their bank about the type of investments they were buying, then they can be compensated for mis-selling without breaking the state aid rules. Which, of course, doesn’t change the fact that it's still the bank that is primarily responsible for paying compensation.
But despite those improvements, some banks in Europe are still struggling to deal with non-performing loans to defaulting borrowers. The Commission is working with those Member States and banks where non-perfoming loans remain high to help banks' gradually reduce them. European banks need to put the legacy of the crisis firmly behind them.
State aid and energy
Renewable energy, on the other hand, does still need state support. But competition can help to keep down the costs of that help.
Since the start of this year, all new support for large renewable plants has had to be given through a tender. Pilot tenders have already shown how much we could save – in Germany, they have brought down the price of support for solar energy by 25% in the last year and a half.
Meanwhile, the sector inquiry report on capacity mechanisms – which we published in November – will help Member States to keep down the cost of making sure electricity generation can meet demand.
Our report encourages Member States to look carefully at whether they need a capacity mechanism. And it shows how competition can keep costs down, by using competitive bidding where as many providers as possible can bid – including providers in other EU countries.
Competition and competitiveness
And if the costs of funding renewable energy would make an energy-intensive sector like steelmaking uncompetitive, the state aid rules don't stop Member States compensating part of those costs.
Because the competition rules are there to support Europe’s competitiveness, not to undermine it.
An open single market, with fair competition, helps to cut the cost of inputs. It helps the best businesses to grow big enough to compete throughout the world.
And through our free trade agreements – including the agreement with Canada – we are encouraging countries around the world to use subsidies more responsibly.
Because competition works. That is the message of our enforcement work, and I think it is also the message of Mr Szanyi’s report.
So the Commission will keep working to enforce the competition rules.
We will take forward our three cases involving Google. We will keep working on our case on Gazprom, so consumers and businesses don't pay inflated prices for gas. We will use all our powers to make sure that the single market is open and fair.
In that work, as in everything we do, I very much appreciate your support. So I would like to thank you, and I look forward to this discussion.