HUGE FINE: EU Antitrust Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, addresses the media at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. The EU has slapped its biggest ever cartel fine, worth billions, on a half-dozen of Europe's top truck producers. Image: AP / Darko Vojinovic. Image: AP / Darko Vojinovic
Brussels - The EU slapped a record fine of nearly three billion euros on Europe's biggest truckmakers, accusing them of colluding to fix prices and dodge the costs of stricter pollution rules.
Senior managers from Daimler, DAF, Iveco, MAN and Volvo/Renault hatched the plan in a "cosy" Brussels hotel and kept it going for 14 years, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said.
Vestager told a press conference: "We are imposing the highest fine ever for a single cartel, but there are good reasons for this. In particular this cartel involves a very large market and continued for a very long time."
Major case in Europe
Germany's MAN tipped off the European Commission about the collusion at the highest level, triggering an investigation that began with raids on large truck manufacturers in 2011.
The five manufacturers account for nine out of every 10 trucks sold in Europe, meaning that the case had a major bearing on the operation of the free market in the EU, Vestager said.
Vestager said: "Our investigations showed that a meeting in Brussels was the start of this long-lasting truck cartel.
"The first meeting... was organised right here in January 1997 in what seems to be a cosy hotel and it was the beginning of a 14-year collusion," she said, adding that "senior managers" ran the cartel until 2004 when it was organised at a lower level.
The commission's previous record of a 1.5-billion-euro ($1.7-billion) fine dates back to 2012 when seven TV and computer screen makers, including LG Electronics and Philips, were found guilty of running a decade-long price-fixing scheme.
Pollution costs 'dodge'
The charge sheet includes accusations of price-fixing, but also alleges the existence of a secret agreement by the companies to delay and then pass on the costs of anti-pollution technology to consumers.
This accusation is particularly embarrassing in the wake of revelations last year of pollution test cheating by Volkswagen that has rocked the auto industry. The commission said its investigation found no connection to the Volkswagen case.
Germany's Daimler received the biggest fine of 1 billion euros, followed by DAF of the Netherlands at just above 750 million euros.
The fines were in fact reduced from original estimations due to the companies' cooperation and "take into consideration turnover of companies, length and size of the market," Vestager said.
A sixth company, Sweden's Scania, has refused the commission's settlement and an investigation is ongoing, she added.
MAN received full immunity for blowing the whistle on its fellow companies.
In a statement, the company said it held "a clear belief in free and fair competition (and) does not tolerate any unfair business practices or illegal conduct."
Heavily-fined Daimler meanwhile said it "takes its responsibilities very seriously in terms of competition law and has taken all appropriate measures to ensure that all employees act in accordance with applicable law."
The huge fine comes less than a week after Vestager filed new anti-trust charges against US internet giant Google.
Coming down hard on the five European companies will also counter accusations by Washington that Vestager unfairly targets US firms.