European Commission Opens Investigation into Aid to Two Antwerp Terminal Operators
The European Commission has opened an in-depth inquiry into whether reductions in compensation payments granted by the Port of Antwerp to two container terminal operators gave them an undue advantage over competitors, in breach of EU state aid rules.
The Port of Antwerp is managed by the Antwerp Port Authority, a public authority, and fully-owned by the city of Antwerp. The authority makes land available to companies to operate in the port area on the basis of concession agreements.
The concession agreements for PSA Antwerp NV and Antwerp Gateway NV, two container terminal operators in the Port of Antwerp, contained a requirement that a minimum amount of containers must be handled in the port every year. The concession contracts were concluded for a period of 42 years, until 2046.
Between 2009 and 2012 PSA Antwerp NV and Antwerp Gateway NV did not reach these minimum tonnage requirements. Under the agreements, they were obliged to pay compensation to the authority. However, instead of collecting the compensation due from the two companies, in March 2013 the Antwerp Port Authority retroactively revised the minimum tonnage requirements downwards. This reduced the amount of compensation to be paid by PSA Antwerp and Antwerp Gateway by around 80 percent.
Following a complaint from a competitor, the commission opened an in-depth investigation to examine whether a private investor would have reduced its compensation in a similar manner. If the operation was not carried out on market terms it could constitute state aid as defined by EU rules. The commission would then verify whether such aid could be authorized under state aid rules that allow member states to grant state aid for certain public interest goals.
Under EU state aid rules, public interventions in favor of companies can be considered free of state aid when they are made on terms that a private operator would have accepted under market conditions.