Brussels stepped up pressure on Gazprom in its stand-off over gas prices, as Europe’s top competition enforcer warned the energy group that it is on course to face antitrust charges unless it moves to settle the case. Joaquín Almunia, the EU competition commissioner, repeated for the third time in a month that his staff were drafting a charge sheet – a so-called “statement of objections” – based on their one-year investigation of Gazprom’s pricing practices. Lithuania triggered the investigation with a complaint against Gazprom.
While the European Commission is aiming to be ready to accuse the group of abusing its dominance by the end of the year – the usual step at this point in a probe – the Gazprom investigation is far from a routine antitrust case. Any decision to press charges and move towards fining the group will be highly political and taken against the backdrop of rising EU-Russia tensions in a host of policy areas. “It would be premature to anticipate when the next steps would be taken in this investigation, but we have now moved to the phase of preparing a statement of objections,” Mr Almunia told an audience in Vilnius. Sergei Kupriyanov, spokesperson for Gazprom, said that Mr Almunia had said “nothing new”, adding that it was “just PR”.
So far Gazprom has made no attempt to negotiate a settlement with the commission, an outcome that lawyers see as probable in such diplomatically sensitive probes. Mr Almunia’s term as competition commissioner comes to an end next autumn, meaning any fines would probably be enforced by his successor. Some people involved in the case think it is an important factor for Gazprom in weighing up whether to open settlement talks. Referring to possible talks, Mr Kupriyanov said: “We are not in discussion with them on this because they haven’t concluded their investigation. And we have not been invited to take part in any settlement negotiations.”
The Commission is concerned that Gazprom overcharged customers in central and eastern Europe with prices that were out of kilter with competitive benchmarks. Investigators are also examining whether Gazprom’s considerable market power was abused to set high prices, through techniques such as blocking rival suppliers and placing territorial restrictions on gas supply contracts. Should wrongdoing be proven, the commission can fine Gazprom up to 10 per cent of global turnover and prohibit certain practices.