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Monopoly Power and EU Competition Policy — with Angela Wigger
Episode 411th March 2024 • Crash Course Economics • Crash Course
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During the pandemic and its aftermath, the world witnessed a revival of new narratives and strategies related to industrial policy in a geopolitically competitive environment. We invite Angela Wigger to reflect on the history of competition policy in the EU and provide a deeper understanding of the latest “come-back” of EU industrial policy. She will explain how EU competition policy is enshrined in the shift towards a neoliberal order since the 1980s. Angela will provide a perspective on contemporary competition policy since the financial crisis, reflecting on the role of political institutions like the European Commission.

We will further ask Angela:

  • How should we understand the concept of “competition” in the context of the EU?
  • Whose interests do the EU’s competition policy serve, both in terms of industries and geopolitical actors?
  • Are alternative types of competition policy feasible, and how should we shape them?

Angela Wigger is an associate professor on Global Political Economy at the Radboud University in Nijmegen (the Netherlands). She researches capitalist crises from a historical materialist perspective. Focal points are the geopolitics of EU industrial and antitrust policy, industrial re-shoring attempts, the “competitiveness” fetish, internal devaluation and debt-led accumulation in the age of rentier capitalism.

She wrote “The Politics of European Competition Regulation. A Critical Political Economy Perspective” (with H. Buch-Hansen, 2011, Routledge/RIPE) and published in journals like New Political Economy, New Political Science, RIPE, JCMS, Economy & Society, Globalizations, Geoforum, Capital & Class, Ephemera, and many more.

You can get in touch with Angela via this address: angela.wigger@ru.nl Follow Angela here on X: @AngelaWigger

About Crash Course Economics

Crash Course is a platform designed to open up debate on how we can move out of the current crisis and make the necessary steps towards achieving social, economic, ecological and regenerative justice.

Crash Course is inviting global experts to break down complex issues in lay terms and make them accessible to all so that we can understand how to shape our economic system for a just recovery and future.

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Music credit: "Capital G" by Nine Inch Nails, "Tribal Remix" by Imnotlouis (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US) 


Transcripts

Sara Murawski

Good afternoon, everybody. A very warm welcome to crash course economics, or welcome back. It's nice to see you all here. So today we'll feature the fourth and already last webinar of our fourth crash course series on Ralge and monopoly capitalism. I'd like to ask you to introduce yourself in the chat. Just say who you are, where you're based, and at which institute you work. So, my name is Sarah. I'm a project manager at the Sustainable Finance Lab and at the Transnational Institute. I'll be your host today, together with Rodrigo Fernandes, a researcher at SOMO. And behind the scenes, we have our team consisting of Jeremy Krollsmith, our web developer, Jenny Pannemaker, communications officer at case start from global Info, working, as always, very hard to make this webinar into a success. So briefly, about crash course. We are a collective of engaged activists and experts from a number of organizations, and we united at the start of the COVID pandemic in order to understand how Covid the pandemic changes the world and reflect on challenges that we're faced with and also reflect on possible solutions. So crescourse is designed as a platform to open up debate on how we can move out of the multiple cris we're facing today and towards achieving social, economic, and ecological justice for all across the globe. In order to do this, we invite global experts to break down complex issues and make them accessible to you all so that we can shape our economic system in a just and democratic way. And by doing this, we want to democratize knowledge and give you the necessary tools to change the world. So this time in these series, we're discussing how a few corporate giants gained significant control over market access, technology and resources, which allowed them to extract increasingly substantial rents to the detriment of smaller competitors, but also undermining more stringent regulation and our democracies. And also, of course, consumer rights and labor rights. And in each webinar in this series, we provide you with a 1 hour crash course on a specific subject related to the main subject, ranche capitalism. That makes you understand our contemporary economy and society a bit better. So if you missed out on any of our crash course episodes, you can watch them all on our website, crashcourseeconomics.org. We also have a YouTube channel, and of course, you can listen to them on our podcast. So, of course, of this episode, there also be a recording, a podcast, and a summary on our website. Rodrigo, would you like to introduce this series?

Rodrigo Fernandez

Yes. Thank you, Sara. So in the first three episodes, we focused on separate sectors. We focus on big tech, on asset management, and on pharma, and how market power, monopoly power, operates in those fields. In this fourth and final episode, we will take a step back and focus on the policy side, on states versus markets, on the political economy side of how this all has been developing, particularly in the EU and beyond. So I think that this is a very important episode that will bring, hopefully will help to bring everything better together. Back to you, sile.

Sara Murawski

f crash course, and we finish:

Rodrigo Fernandez

Yeah. So I'm very happy to have to announce Angela Wigger. She's with us today. She's an associate professor on global political economy at Rodbat University in Naime in the Netherlands. She has published. She's done research and published in a great number of topics, but originally, her phd was on competition policy in the EU. So in this episode, we asked her to go back in memory lane and to her original work. And I think her work in this field is very important and well can really help us to illuminate this topic. Next to being an academic, Angela is also the chair of the supervisory board of Somal, so the organization where I work at. And she was also a longtime chair at critical Political Economy Research Network. And beyond that, she works in many other networks, but let's not delve into that. So without any longer deal, I would like to ask Angela to put on her video and when she has time to do that, to start her PowerPoint presentation. So we will have some time left for Q A.

Angela Wigger

pen up their books. And since:

Rodrigo Fernandez

Angela, thank you. Thank you for this very clear introduction. So Sarah and me have some questions to continue with this. So my first question is about what makes the EU's competition policy special compared to other countries? So, yeah, if I compare competition policy with, for example, tax policy in the EU, in tax policy, it is clear that it's part of the national competence. The EU Commission has nothing to say about taxation, but with regard to competition policy, it is fully concentrated at the commission. So my question is, how come that competition policy is so much at the heart of the EU Commission compared to other policy areas? Does it matter that competition policy is supranational in nature? In EU, compared to, I don't know, the US or Japan, does it lead to different. Also, sorry, these are a lot of questions. You can pick one if you want. But also, is it the case that competition policy, because of this supranational nature, because of its undemocratic nature, concentrated in the commission, it is much more in the hands of unelected officials, which sets it apart from how competition policy is shaped in other countries. So basically, this whole unelected official machinery that decide on this, does it set it apart from how it works in other countries?

Angela Wigger

an competition network around:

Sara Murawski

So, yeah.

Angela Wigger

It'S a unique body that has a lot of power and it can use this power in discretionary ways.

Sara Murawski

Maybe to go to one of your favorite persons in the commission, the former competition commissioner, Neely Cruz. So one of her quotes is that the merger tsunami is a good sign. It shows that the market itself is adapting to change and that the european companies are adapting to global competition. Healthy restructuring is taking place in many sectors. These processes must be allowed to run their course without undue political interference, end of quote. So, yeah, what we see here, I think, is that commission is very clearly actively promoting the concentration of corporate power to compete also with other economic blocs. And I think it's more true today than ever. Right. We also see a lot of geopolitical muscles being flexed. Ursula von de Lair is very keen on building a big european industrial bloc.

Angela Wigger

Right.

Sara Murawski

So do you think that this kind of power dynamic can be coined as imperialist in the sense that big states and big corporations operate tandem, so their power goes hand in hand at a supernatural scale for a geopolitical muffler flexo to say, visa vis China, vis a vis the US and other competitors. So is that really imperialist?

Angela Wigger

al was sort of solid from the:

Sara Murawski

Many.

Angela Wigger

Countries in the world, even countries like Zambia, that have one main road and a hospital. But they also happen to have a competition authority because this came as part of the development aid that the EU does, establishing competition authorities and creating new capabilities in this regard.

Sara Murawski

Great. Thank you. Very clear answer.

Rodrigo Fernandez

Yeah, if I can continue on this imperialism. Well, at least as we know it from almost 100 years ago, from Lenin's time, it is about shared interests of the state and big corporations. And what we see today, if we look at your work, it is that the EU merger control, the system of merger control basically is facilitating and pushing for economic concentration. It is pushing this from position of basically of being isolated from democratic control and democratic accountability and being operating very close to corporate lobbyists. The corporate lobbyists know how to find this institution. So there's no democratic accountability or very little. So is it possible for the EU Commission to operate in a different way in this regard? Because at the moment you're seeing a large number of ngos pushing for a change, for a wind of change. You see this also, for instance, SoMO, but also the balanced economy project, has been set up to push for a different type of approach by the EU Commission with regard to mergers. But do you think it is possible at all to operate against the interest of big corporations?

Angela Wigger

Oh, yeah, we have to. I think that we have to think about the different steps of what we should do to get started. And we have to debunk the myth that capitalist competition is something inherently good. And the freedom, I mean, the European Commission presents the freedom to compete together with broader notions of political freedom and individual self determination. Even democracy and competition is argued to boost the overall competitiveness of an economy. It would increase social welfare, benefiting society as a whole. And in the context of european integration, it has even become a sort of unifying principle. It's been elevated as a mantra, totalizing logic. And this might seem intuitively appealing and politically motivating. But capitalist competition distinites more than it unites. So it negates individual freedom. It's a social class relation that is essentially antagonizing. Capitalist competition pits capital against capital, capital against labor, and in the presence of a reserve army of the unemployed, labor against labor. So we have to debunk the myth that capitalist competition is something good. So at the end of the day, capitalist competition installs a race to the bottom. It devalues labor through lowering wages for the sake of ensuring the continued accumulation of capital. So there's nothing wrong in creating better products and maybe also environmentally sustainable products. But competition should never take place on the basis of prices. And that's the central focus. So where to enter is so debunk the myth that price competition is something good and that it will ultimately benefit consumers because you need to have a job first before you can consume. So we have to bring labor into the equation and we do have to reform the commission as an institution. We have to democratize. And it's quite interesting if we go back in time when the allied forces occupied Germany, they had a program, a 4D program. It was de nastified, decartitalize, deconcentrate and democratize. We could bring up another 4D program. So de neoliberalize, deconcentrate, democratize. What would be the force?

Rodrigo Fernandez

I decarbonize.

Angela Wigger

Decarbonize.

Rodrigo Fernandez

Thanks.

Angela Wigger

That's excellent. Yes, perfect. In a capitalist system, production takes place for creating exchange value more than use value. So we could give more primacy to use value. So we have to fundamentally change the institutional body that is looking at competition and how we interpret competition and remove the capitalist logics of price competition. Yeah, so that would be the. It is possible, but we will not see it very soon.

Sara Murawski

No, thanks a lot. I mean it's something we need to work on, I guess, especially in these very geopolitical sensitive times. And also thank you for bringing in the workers. I had a question about that, but I don't have to ask that anymore. And that's also good because we have quite some question six already from the audience. So I'm going to start with the most upvoted question, which is from Margarita Silva. You can also read it, Angela, if you'd like, in the Q A tab. And the question is, do you think there's a welcoming approach towards EU companies while a hostile approach towards the US and chinese companies? So a welcoming approach towards EU companies vis a vis a hostile approach towards american and chinese companies case.

Angela Wigger

It goes very subtle. You really need to beat footer lines and do a very good profound analysis, go through all the case work and I haven't done that. It is the image that this is the case because there's a lot of chinese companies that, especially in Germany, have taken over german companies and there is some resistance emerging from there. So there is a privileged, or at least sometimes you get the impression there's a privileging of EU industrial capital and financial capital visa the competitors. Absolutely. But I haven't done really the profound casework to sustain this. Good.

Sara Murawski

So still research out there to be done?

Angela Wigger

Absolutely, yeah.

Rodrigo Fernandez

I don't know which question is next.

Sara Murawski

There's, I think one by an anonymous attendee which is upvoted.

Rodrigo Fernandez

Oh, yeah, I see it. Yeah. I also see that there are questions in the regular chat, so maybe we have to look at both if there's time to answer all of these questions. So this question is, I hope this is not out of the scope of your presentation. Would you be able to give an example of how the EU competition policies and the DG competition excessive competences influence the EU climate and environmental policies?

Sara Murawski

Interesting one.

Angela Wigger

Yeah, it's a very good question. But there's no climate and environmental policies, sort of public interest criteria included when assessing mergers or cartels. But what we do see, and we do see a temporal relaxation of state aid control. So basically, whenever national domestic member states are offering state subsidies, which does not have to be like non enbursable funds, it can also be just guarantees or tax concessions that go together with an EU program or industrial policy, but also moving the EU production towards a more green, more sustainable future, then there is no control for state aid. And we also see this with the important projects of european concerns, with the IPC. The important projects of european interest.

Sara Murawski

Exactly.

Rodrigo Fernandez

It is, of course, not my field of expertise, but I know my classics of Rockefeller and standard Oil being chopped into 21 separate entities, being the sort of the classic interaction of a state that really wants to intervene against monopolies. So this was 100 years ago, but now perhaps we're seeing oil companies mergering into ever larger energy companies that become untouchable. I mean, could that be also something that is the result of how the EU competition policy works?

Angela Wigger

Yeah, so maybe to this question. So we have like one share that comes with this greening capitalist production, but at the other mean there's no official distinction between made whether you're environmentally sustainable in the future or not. So there's no basis where the European Commission would judge these merchant's economic concentrations different to the more green technologies. And if you look at the fondle lion, she was quite outspoken, saying that the EU would do whatever it takes, echoing Mauritraki, to bring european companies ahead of the green and digital value chains. We do not hear Russell von Delane saying, we're going to do whatever is needed to decarbonize capitalism. So basically in here, you have the answer to your question, Rodrigo. It's bringing european companies ahead of value chain. So basically also the question that was posed before. So do we see that there's a privileged treatment? Yes. European companies have to dominate global value chains.

Sara Murawski

Thanks a lot, Angela. We have a burning question here from Isa Stasi, who managed to put her question in the Q and A. It has been uploaded now as well. So ISA is from article 19. And thanking you, Angela, for the great session. The question is about discretionary power. The question reads, I think it's very useful to guarantee functional interpretation of the rules rather than a narrow literal one. I think functional interpretation is essential to realize the full potential of the rules and achieve their goals. A great example is DMA Digital Markets Act. I presume with a literal interpretation of the obligations, gatekeepers might be required to do just some tweaks. But with a functional interpretation, they might need to do much more. So maybe the point is to have clear regulatory principles to oriented discretionary power and then accountability. That's the question. Maybe you can just briefly reflect on what functional means in this context. Angela?

Angela Wigger

Yeah, I don't interpret, I find functional interpretation. My answer would be like a competition policy is always political. I mean, you're benefiting some agents more than others. So there is no functional logic. Capitalism does not work like that. So when we have to politicize what is political, because competition control is being taken out of the democratic realm like any other field of european governance that deals with the economy. We organize, orchestrate the economy. So yeah, a functional has a bit of an undertone of that. There is a solution, there's a certain fix. And I don't think so, because if we want to democratize the European Union, we have to account for what is political and treated as political.

Sara Murawski

So instead of depoliticize, repoliticize.

Angela Wigger

Absolutely, yeah. And maybe also what competition policy does, or competition laws, they function. There's one function that I would use as an fictitious equalizer. They treat different corporate units as if they were equals while they're not. So this whole logic of creating a level playing field, so every company is basically treated as if it were equal. There is a de minimis rule. I have to give justice to that. So that there's certain companies from smaller size that are being excluded, they have a special treatment.

Sara Murawski

Indeed.

Angela Wigger

But still competition laws function as fictitious equalizer.

Rodrigo Fernandez

Maybe we have time for two questions because we're very ambitious. So I think that the next question in line would be from Miriam von Steichler. Is there renewed interest in the dominance test? How should a dominance test look like?

Sara Murawski

And maybe you can also reflect on how a dominance test functions.

Angela Wigger

ger regulation was adopted in:

Sara Murawski

So I think at least one more question that has also received an upload. Zadri Kawas, sorry for pronouncing you most likely incorrectly, but here goes. I think there is an anti monopoly approach that's rising at both sides of the Atlantic. So the Digital Market sect and Digital Services act are good examples, if you're interested in that, by the way, also see our former crash courses. Recently, EU also adapted foreign subsidies regulation, another regulation. Do you interpret these changes as a result of increased concentration or increased foreign dominance? Now, what is the main concern that drives EU policymakers to adapt new competition rules?

Angela Wigger

This is a difficult question. It's a good question. I'm afraid I can't answer it. What I do see is that the actual substance of the competition laws hasn't changed since the treaty of Rome. So they always had a very strong neoliberal core. Every competition provision that the EU has comes with a whole array of exemptions. And this is also part of the discretionary power that the European Commission enjoys. So we can just pick and choose some rules above others. So I do not see new competition laws being adopted. So they basically remain the same. And I have to say the digital Markets act is beyond my, I haven't studied it, so I can't say something really meaningful about it. I'm very interested in it. So this is homework for me. But I can't look at the competition provisions or say something about it right here.

Sara Murawski

No, no worries. And I think so in one of our former crash courses on big deck, there was attention paid to these regulations. So to all that are interested in this, maybe. Yeah, that's a good source.

Angela Wigger

Rodrigo, maybe one thing that is maybe important with regard to digital platform economies, the merger control regulation that the European Union has looks at aggregate combined annual turnover to assess whether or not you have to ask permission by the European Commission and we saw that companies like Amazon, in the beginning, they didn't have a turnover. There were loss. They were when they conducted mergers and acquisitions and grew in size by taking over other companies. This was not accounted for by the European Commission because they didn't meet this turnover threshold criteria. So a lot of these platform economies, because they enter this tipping point before they really become dominant, before that happens, they're outside of the control of the European Commission. So even if the European Commission would be more hesitant to excessive economic size, the rules would not allow to control these.

Sara Murawski

I think we briefly lost Angela.

Rodrigo Fernandez

Yes.

Sara Murawski

Let's see if she comes back, because we also need to wrap up. But this would be, of course, out with a bag. Too loud.

Rodrigo Fernandez

I think she fell out of the. She fell out.

Sara Murawski

Okay, well, we will have to wrap up, I'm afraid. Maybe in the meantime, while. I'll just keep talking. Angela will be back.

Rodrigo Fernandez

It was perfect timing by Angela.

Sara Murawski

Yeah, the timing is amazing. We have to agree on that. So, yeah, we want to thank Angela then, by means of this recording. So much for her presentation and her great answers to all the questions. Also, thank the audience for all your questions. Very elaborate. I see that there's a whole discussion unwinding also in the chat about depolitization. I wish we could continue that, but that will be for another occasion. So there will be a recording of the session, of course, put online, as well as a podcast version and a transcript on our website. For now, we'd like to thank you very much in participating in this fourth and final webinar of crash course economics on Ronchier and monopoly capitalism. It was the final webinar of this series, but we're thinking about a new series, so stay tuned. You can sign up for our newsletter on our website, crashcourseconomics.org. And I'm wishing you a very pleasant day. And there's Angela. That's great to see Angela. We were thanking you very much for your presentation and your presence and all.

Angela Wigger

The answers you gave.

Sara Murawski

And we're wrapping up, so we're just on time. So thanks a lot to you.

Angela Wigger

I was picked out, something happened, the Internet went down, and I was off screen.

Sara Murawski

Where are those big techs when you need them? Right? So.

Angela Wigger

Well, here we are.

Sara Murawski

Thanks again. Thank you so much. And we hope to see you on another location and just visit our website if you want to stay updated. Goodbye.

Angela Wigger

No bad bye. Thank you.

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