On December 23, 2022, Regulation (EU) 2022/2560 of December 14, 2022 on foreign subsidies distorting the internal market (FSR) was published in the Official Journal of the European Union. The FSR introduces a new regulatory hurdle for M&A transactions in the European Union (EU), in addition to merger control and foreign direct investment screening. The FSR’s impact cannot be overstated as it introduces two mandatory pre-closing filing regimes and it gives the Commission wide-reaching ex officio investigative and intervention powers. Soon, the Commission will also launch a public consultation on a draft implementing regulation that should further detail and clarify a number of concepts and requirements of the FSR.
The bulk of the FSR will apply as of July 12, 2023. Importantly, the notification requirements for M&A transactions and public procurement procedures will apply as of October 12, 2023.
The FSR tackles ‘foreign subsidies’ granted by non-EU governments to companies active in the EU and which ‘distort the internal market’.
First, a ‘foreign subsidy’ will be considered to exist where a direct or indirect financial contribution from a non-EU country or an entity whose actions can be attributed to a non-EU country (public entities or private entities) confers a benefit on an undertaking engaging in an economic activity in the EU internal market, and where that benefit is not generally available under normal market conditions but is, instead, limited, in law or in fact, to assisting one or more undertakings or industries. A ‘financial contribution’ covers a broad spectrum and encompasses, amongst others, positive benefits such as the transfer of funds or liabilities, the foregoing of revenue otherwise due (e.g., tax breaks, the grant of exclusive rights below market conditions, or the provision or purchase of goods or services).
Second, a ‘distortion in the internal market’ will be considered to exist in case of a foreign subsidy which is liable to improve the competitive position of an undertaking and which actually or potentially negatively affects competition in the EU internal market. The Regulation provides some guidance on when a foreign subsidy typically would not be a cause for concern:
– A subsidy that does not exceed EUR 200,000 per third country over any consecutive period of three years is considered de minimis and therefore not distortive;
– A foreign subsidy that does not exceed EUR 4 million per undertaking over any consecutive period of three years is unlikely to cause distortions; and
– A foreign subsidy aimed at making good/recovering from the damage caused by natural disasters or exceptional occurrences may be considered not to be distortive.
The FSR looks at ‘undertakings’, as is the case for merger control. Therefore, the Commission will not look merely at the legal entity concerned, but at the entire corporate group to which the entity belongs in order to calculate the total amount of foreign financial contributions granted to the undertaking. Even companies headquartered in the EU that have entities outside of the EU that have received foreign financial contributions are covered by the FSR.
The FSR introduces three tools for the European Commission (Commission): (i) a notification requirement for certain M&A transactions, (ii) a notification requirement for certain public procurement procedures (PPP) and (iii) investigations on a case by case basis.
Notification Requirement for Certain M&A Transactions
M&A transactions (or “concentrations”) involving a buyer and/or a target that has received a foreign financial contribution shall be notifiable if they meet the following cumulative conditions:
At least one of the merging undertakings, the acquired undertaking (target, not buyer) or the joint venture is established in the EU and has an EU turnover of at least EUR 500 million, AND
The combined aggregate financial contributions provided to the undertakings concerned in the three financial years (combined) prior to notification amounts to more than EUR 50 million.
M&A transactions that meet these criteria will need to be notified and approved by the Commission prior to implementation. During its review, the Commission will determine whether the foreign financial contributions received constitute foreign subsidies in the sense of the FSR and whether these foreign subsidies actually or potentially distort or negatively affect competition in the EU internal market. The Commission likely will consider certain indicators including the amount and nature of the foreign subsidy, the purpose and conditions attached to the foreign subsidy as well as its use in the EU internal market. For example, in a case of an acquisition, if a foreign subsidy covers a substantial part of the purchase price of the target, the Commission may consider it likely to be distortive.
Notification Requirement for Certain Public Procurement Procedures
A notifiable foreign financial contribution in the context of PPP shall be deemed to arise where the following cumulative conditions are met:
The estimated value of the public procurement or framework agreement net of VAT amounts to at least EUR 250 million, AND
The economic operator was granted aggregate foreign financial contributions in the three financial years prior to notification of at least EUR 4 million from a non-EU country.
Where the procurement is divided into lots, the value of the lot or the aggregate value of all lots for which the undertaking bids for must, in addition to the two criteria set out above, also amount to at least EUR 125 million.
Through this procedure, the Commission will ensure that companies that have received non-EU country subsidies do not submit unduly advantageous bids in public procurement procedures.
During the Commission’s review, all procedural steps may continue except for the award of the contract.
Even if the thresholds are not met, the Regulation requires undertakings to provide to the contracting authority in a declaration attached to the tender a list of all foreign financial contributions received in the last three financial years and to confirm that these are not notifiable, which the contracting authority will subsequently send to the Commission.
Investigations on a Case-by-case Basis
The Commission may on its own initiative investigate potentially distortive foreign subsidies (e.g. following a complaint). These investigations are not limited to M&A transactions or PPP. However, on the basis of this power, the Commission may investigate M&A transactions and awarded contracts under PPP which do not fall within the scope of the notification requirements set out above.
If the Commission carries out an ex-officio review, its analysis will be structured in two phases: a preliminary examination and an in-depth investigation. Although these phases have no time limits, the Commission will endeavor to take a decision within 18 months of the start of the in-depth investigation.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR THE APPLICATION OF THE FSR
Application of the FSR – Timetable
As mentioned above, the FSR will apply as of July 12, 2023. The FSR shall apply to foreign subsidies granted in the five years prior to July 12, 2023 where such foreign subsidies create effects at present, i.e., they distort the internal market after July 12, 2023. By way of derogation, the FSR shall apply to foreign financial contributions granted in the 3 years prior to July 12, 2023 where such foreign financial contributions were granted to an undertaking notifying a concentration or notifying a PPP pursuant to the FSR.
The FSR shall not apply to concentrations for which the agreement was signed before July 12, 2023. The FSR shall also not apply to public procurement contracts that have been awarded or procedures initiated before July 12, 2023.
In general, the FSR shall apply from July 12, 2023 while the notification obligations for M&A transactions and PPP shall only apply from October 12, 2023. However, it is advisable to start preparing immediately for the application of the FSR, given the substantial scope of the regulation.
Actions to Take Now
Businesses which conduct activities in the EU, should put in place a system to monitor and quantify foreign financial contributions received since at least July 2020 – to cover the three-year review – and, preferably, July 2018. In particular, attention should be paid to positive benefits and reliefs from certain costs normally due by the company. External counsel can assist in determining whether these foreign financial contributions constitute a ‘foreign subsidy’.
As soon as a company decides to engage in an M&A or PPP in the EU, the company should map all relevant foreign financial contributions for the relevant time period to check whether the relevant notification thresholds are met. Subsequently companies must carefully consider whether any such financial contribution constitutes a foreign subsidy and, if so, whether such foreign subsidy may have a distortive effect. It is also advisable to determine whether there any positive effects relating to the subsidy that could be invoked. Companies should ensure that the preparation above is ably assisted by external counsel.
In particular with regard to M&A transactions, companies should carry out an FSR analysis in addition to merger control and foreign direct investment reviews. Even at the stage of due diligence, it would already be advisable to check whether the target has received any foreign financial contributions. If the transaction might eventually trigger a notification to the Commission, the M&A agreement should provide for Commission approval in the closing conditions. When acting as a bidder for a target that meets the EU turnover threshold, your bid will be much better viewed when accompanied with clear assurances that no FSR filing is required or, alternatively, that a filing may be required but that the foreign subsidies received are not distortive of competition.