Application of competition rules
As operators providing professional services qualify as undertakings, EU competition rules apply. The Commission has three tools to make sure they are followed:
This involves encouraging professional bodies to use their self-regulatory powers to benefit not just their own members, but consumers as well.
Commission reports on liberal professions
The Commission set out its position on the need for reform and modernization of specific professional rules in its report on Competition in Professional Services adopted in 2004. A further follow-up report 'Scope for more reform' was adopted in 2005.
These reports explained that the Commission is not opposed to regulation as such, as there are legitimate arguments in favour of certain regulations in the professions. However, restrictive regulations should only exist where they provide an effective and proportionate means of protecting consumers. The Commission invited regulatory authorities in the Member States and professional bodies to review voluntarily existing rules taking into consideration whether those rules are necessary for the public interest, whether they are proportionate, justified and necessary for the good practice of the profession, and to reform or eliminate those rules, which are unjustified. It also sets out the legal framework in which these rules and regulations should be analysed and how the EC Competition rules apply to regulation in this sector.
The 2005 follow-up report gave an overview of progress made during 2004-05 by Member States in the review and removal of unjustified regulatory restrictions in the professions.
For more details see:
- "Report on Competition in Professional Services"
Commission Communication COM (2004) 83 final (09.02.2004)
- "Professional Services - scope for more reform" Follow-up to the Report on Competition in Professional Services.
Commission Communication COM (2005) 405 final (05.09.2005)
- Progress by Member States in reviewing and eliminating restrictions to Competition in the area of Professional Services.
Commission Staff Working Document SEC (2005) 1064 (05.09.2005)
Commission Guidelines on Collective agreements involving the “solo self-employed”
More recently, on 9 December 2021, the Commission launched a public consultation on draft guidelines on the application of EU competition law to collective agreements entered into by the “solo self-employed” i.e. people who work completely on their own and do not employ others. In certain instances, members of the liberal professions can be regarded as “solo self-employed” and in such instances, these draft guidelines would apply to them. The draft Guidelines aim to improve legal certainty and ensure that EU competition law does not impede efforts to improve collectively the working conditions of the “solo self-employed” in cases where they face a significant imbalance in bargaining power. The draft Guidelines cover both online and offline situations.
- Press release - Commission invites comments on draft Guidelines about collective agreements regarding the working conditions of solo self-employed people.
- Press release - Commission proposals to improve the working conditions of people working through digital labour platforms.
The Commission also deals with complaints alleging infringements of EU antitrust rules with regard to professional services.
A recent example relates to legal fees charged for out-of-court legal fees in Cyprus. At issue in this case was a minimum fee scale contained in regulations called the Minimum Fees Regulations and adopted by the Cyprus Bar Association. The scale applied to all forms of out-of-court work including such areas as the drawing up of wills, contracts, the administration of estates, and the registration of companies. The case originated from a formal complaint made by Fairness in Fees Ltd., a UK company. The fee scale had been adopted by the CBA pursuant to powers granted by legislation (Article 24 (1) (k) of the Advocates’ Law).
In April 2018, the Commission raised concerns with the Cypriot authorities that certain provisions of the Advocates’ Law were not compatible with EU competition rules. The Commission had concerns that the legislation, by empowering the Cyprus Bar Association to adopt fees for out-of-court work, encouraged behaviour that could prevent, restrict or distort competition within the EU. In response to the concerns raised, Cyprus amended the legislation in question. The new legislation removed the specific provision empowering the Cyprus Bar Association to set these fees.
In a related procedure, the Commission also conducted an antitrust investigation into the minimum fee scale adopted by the Cyprus Bar Association (based on the empowerment contained in the national legislation). The Cyprus Bar Association decided to abrogate this minimum fee scale after the Commission raised concerns as to its compatibility with Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
In a case, relating to architects’ fees in Belgium in 2004 the Commission fined the Belgian Architects Association for operating a recommended minimum fee scale. The Commission found that establishing a fee scale was not necessary to ensure the proper practice of the architect’s profession and was not therefore compatible with the competition rules.
The Commission has also intervened to condemn French professional association of pharmacists, the Ordre National des Pharmaciens (ONP) for taking decisions aimed at imposing minimum prices by seeking to prohibit discounts of more than 10% and for impeding the development of certain undertakings with the sim of hindering their expansion on the French market. The Commission found that ONP had systematically used or threatened to use its disciplinary powers in areas which had nothing to do with its public health mission but which were designed to defend the economic interests of members engaged in the market for clinical laboratory tests. This decision was taken following a complaint made by the LABCO group.
For further information, see list of Commission decisions and case law relating to professional services.
Cooperation with other authorities
Coordinating work with national competition authorities through the European Competition Network. Many national authorities are reforming the regulatory landscape for professional services by, for example, applying EU competition rules.
The Commission's Competition DG works closely with Directorates-General dealing with the internal market, enterprise and industry and consumer affairs. The Commission also discusses reform with professional bodies and consumer organisations.
The European Parliament supports the Commission's efforts to eliminate anti-competitive regulation, for the benefit of the EU economy and consumers.