Doubt over €1.1bn fine for Intel as EU court’s own adviser backs chip giant

Intel could see a record €1.1bn fine for alleged anti-competitive behaviour reversed after one of the EU Court of Justice’s own lawyers said no rivals might have been harmed by the company’s actions.

The world’s biggest chipmaker was slapped with the fine in 2009 after the European Commission accused it of squeezing out competition from a smaller rival, Advanced Micro Devices.
The Commission had found that Intel gave hidden rebates to computer makers including Dell and Hewlett-Packard on condition that they bought all, or almost all, of their main processors from Intel.

Intel also made direct payments to Europe’s largest PC retailer – Media Saturn Holdings – on condition that it stocked only computers with Intel processors.
The chipmaker, which employs about 4,500 people in Ireland, also made payments to some computer makers to stop or delay the launch of products containing a rival’s processors.

But yesterday, an Advocate General for the European Court of Justice – Nils Wahl – said that the General Court failed to establish that the rebates and payments offered by Intel were anti-competitive and that certain deals between the firm and PC maker Lenovo harmed European consumers. These were key elements of the Commission’s 2009 decision.
The opinion from Mr Wahl – who has said a judicial review of the EC decision is needed – isn’t binding, but the advice of Advocate Generals is typically adopted by the court.

His opinion is a setback for the European Commission, which has prided itself on taking on giant corporations.
The opinion delivered yesterday comes as Ireland prepares to launch its appeal against the European Commission’s ruling this year that tech giant Apple must pay Ireland €13bn in back taxes for allegedly benefiting from a sweetheart deal here.

The Government and Apple have denied that such a deal ever existed. In 2014, Intel’s first appeal in its case was rejected by the Court of Justice.
The Commission said that decision it justified its pursuit of Intel’s anti-competitive conduct.

In its latest appeal, Intel argued that the Commission had failed to analyse “all relevant circumstances” to determine if the rebates did in fact result in rivals being squeezed out.
Mr Wahl’s opinion is a good omen for companies seeking guidance on what kind of rebates should be considered harmful, said Ian Giles, a partner at London-based Norton Rose Fulbright.

US chipmaker Qualcomm is fighting EU charges of using anti-competitive methods, including giving rebates. (Additional reporting Reuters)

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