In his Opinion of 3 October 2013 in case C-365/12 EnBW Energie, Advocate General Cruz Villalon has proposed a holistic interpretation of the regulatory schemes relating to access to documents of the institutions and, more specifically, of access to the European Commission’s files in the context of its leniency programme. In my view, the holistic approach advocated for still leaves some important issues unresolved and, consequently, the Judgment of the CJEU in this case will be highly relevant.
According to AG Cruz Villalon, when access to the file in cartel investigations is concerned,
64. That conclusion must carry a qualification, however. The abovementioned presumption ‘does not exclude the possibility of demonstrating that a given document, of which disclosure is sought, is not covered by that presumption or that there is a higher public interest justifying the disclosure of that document under Article 4(2) of Regulation No 1049/2001 (Commission v Technische Glaswerke Ilmenau, paragraph 62)’. Consequently, the fact that Regulation No 1/2003 does not provide for access by persons who are not parties to the proceedings means only that, in the event that such persons request access, their requests must be dealt with in accordance with Regulation No 1049/2001 (as the general legislation in the area of transparency), interpreted in the light of the general presumption that disclosure of the documents may undermine the purpose of the proceedings under Regulation No 1/2003. This presumption does not in any way rule out access pursuant to Regulation No 1049/2001: it merely imposes more stringent conditions on the access granted under that regulation (emphasis added).
in my opinion a legislative rule would be more appropriate that provided absolute protection for the participants in a leniency programme, but which required the interests of other participants to a restrictive practice to be balanced against the interests of the alleged victims. […] Furthermore, in my view and except for undertakings benefiting from leniency (sic!), participation in and of itself in an unlawful restriction on competition does not constitute a business secret that merits protection by EU law (para 64, emphasis added).
as regards the public interest of having effective leniency programmes […] it should be observed that, given the importance of actions for damages brought before national courts in ensuring the maintenance of effective competition in the European Union (see Courage and Crehan, paragraph 27), the argument that there is a risk that access to evidence contained in a file in competition proceedings which is necessary as a basis for those actions may undermine the effectiveness of a leniency programme in which those documents were disclosed to the competent competition authority cannot justify a refusal to grant access to that evidence (para 46, emphasis added).
the effectiveness of leniency programmes can be safeguarded only (sic!) if it is guaranteed that, as a general rule, the documentation provided will be used by the Commission alone. This would, of course, be the ultimate safeguard. However, other safeguards should also be considered that are less extensive but still attractive for those wanting to take advantage of those programmes. In the final analysis, the rationale underlying leniency programmes is a calculation as to the extent of the harm that might arise from an infringement of competition law. Considered in those terms, to guarantee that the information provided to the Commission can be passed on to third parties only if they can adequately prove that they need it in order to bring an action for damages could constitute a sufficient safeguard, particularly considering that the alternative might be a penalty higher than that which might ensue were the action for damages to be successful. Admittedly, it is possible that a safeguard of that kind might result in fewer parties deciding to take advantage of leniency programmes. However, the objective of maximum effectiveness for that mechanism should not be regarded as justification for a complete sacrifice of the rights of those concerned to be compensated and, more generally, for an impairment of their rights to an effective remedy under Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (para 78, emphasis added).
the possibility that disclosure of the information provided by the undertakings in question might objectively undermine their commercial interests cannot be ruled out. The fact that the information was provided voluntarily and with a view to avoiding or minimising a penalty is, in my opinion, no basis for regarding the commercial interests involved as unworthy of protection. Otherwise, undertakings that have cooperated with the Commission would suffer a further penalty, in addition to whatever penalty is ultimately considered appropriate, in the form of the damage caused to their commercial interests (para 93).
47 By contrast, the fact that such a refusal is liable to prevent those actions from being brought, by giving the undertakings concerned, who may have already benefited from immunity, at the very least partial, from pecuniary penalties, an opportunity also to circumvent their obligation to compensate for the harm resulting from the infringement of Article 101 TFEU, to the detriment of the injured parties, requires that refusal to be based on overriding reasons relating to the protection of the interest relied on and applicable to each document to which access is refused.
48 It is only if there is a risk that a given document may actually undermine the public interest relating to the effectiveness of the national leniency programme that non-disclosure of that document may be justified.