The Secret Meeting To Break The World’s Biggest Corporations

A secret meeting is held annually at the posh Steigenberger Wiltcher’s hotel to break the world’s biggest corporations, known as the Brussels Conference on Antitrust.

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The parties are extravagant, security is tight, and the panel discussions are ostentatious when the wealthiest CEOs in the world congregate in the Alps or the Arabian Desert.

And then there’s the Brussels Conference on Antitrust, which is akin to an anti-Davos gathering where a rather less glamorous group of influential but obscure regulators pool their minds to devise strategies to topple that global order.

Held annually at the posh Steigenberger Wiltcher’s hotel, the annual convention has grown to be one of the most significant—if geekiest—tickets on the transatlantic business circuit. Around a thousand corporate attorneys, lobbyists, regulators, journalists, and students attended this year’s event to hear from the individuals spearheading that endeavor: Jonathan Kanter of the U.S. Department of Justice, Lina Khan of the Federal Trade Commission, and their equivalents from the European Union and other regions.

In an interview, Indian Oil Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said that the West has tried to ‘weaponize’ Russian oil for ideological reasons.

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The capacity crowds in the ballroom two weeks prior witnessed the growing strength and impetus of the worldwide campaign aimed at limiting the influence of multinational enterprises.

The rhetoric demonstrates how ambitious its leaders have gotten, as it talks of preserving democracy and stabilizing international politics in addition to corporate competition.

The wider objectives of antitrust laws may surprise individuals who view them as exclusively economic. This year, regulators pushed for a wide range of measures, such as trade, industrial, and tax policy, to combat corporate dominance, citing it as a threat to both political and economic freedom.

While seated next to a representative of South Africa, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai made the case for “transitioning out of old systems and trying to create new ones that are democratic and competitive” as well as “breaking out of some of these colonial and post-colonial structures.”

She was given a round of applause for that, one of many she got that day, which was unusual on the stuffy conference circuit.

Tai’s arrival also represents a larger change in the balance of power in international corporate governance. This year’s gathering was partly a celebration of American regulatory power since U.S. agencies were embroiled in high-profile lawsuits against multiple large digital corporations.

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The annual meeting, held each year at the upscale Steigenberger Wiltcher’s hotel, has become one of the most important, if nerdiest, tickets on the transatlantic business circuit. | Vlad VDK

“The Americans were fluent and assertive with language about democracy and liberty while many Europeans were still talking the language of protecting the competitive process,” said the event’s organizer, Cristina Caffarra, a competition economist, in an interview afterward. That “feels entirely inadequate to the task.”

This is new in the antitrust space, and because of President Joe Biden’s active nominations and the evolving European legal environment, it has gained international attention and is now a dynamic that businesses must consider.

In an interview, Tommaso Valletti, a professor at Imperial College London and the former top antitrust economist at the European Commission, stated, “The EU and U.S. are largely aligned, but right now, the posture of U.S. enforcers is much more direct and aggressive.”

“They are talking to people across the country, which is something that doesn’t happen in the EU, and pushing themselves to the limit of what the law allows them to do,” Valletti said. “I didn’t see that same posture” from the Europeans at the conference, noting that’s in part because of the upcoming EU parliamentary elections.

In recent years, there has been a global campaign against corporate development. This push has gained traction in Europe, Britain, and now the United States, where Biden’s appointments have adopted a strict form of corporate restraint.

Restricting the influence of digital behemoths like Google, Apple, and Amazon is a shared goal shared by regulators on both sides of the Atlantic. They routinely speak in public together, collaborate on investigations, and maintain regular communication.

However, there have also been openings.

Senior European antitrust official Olivier Guersent caused a scandal at the conference in Brussels while his boss, EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager, was in the United States. The debate is still raging in the Financial Times. In an interview with German member of the European Parliament Andreas Schwab, he maintained that competition enforcement was only a “side dish” to other policy areas and that there was no need for a drastic change from the present quo. He remarked of those other policy areas, “None of this has to do with competition.”

Throughout the day, regulators and others refuted the notion that they didn’t prioritize competition, which sparked rebuttals.

“Competition underlies and is implicated by all the work of government,” said Democratic FTC Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter. “And we’re either going to do that with open eyes thinking about the competition, the effects of different government policies and choices, or we’re going to do that with our eyes closed.”

A more direct criticism of the EU was made by Johnny Ryan of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties: “We have to make sure that the next commission does not regard its job with competition as merely a side dish.”

Schwab, for his part, is in favor of more interventionist measures. However, he noted that industrial policy in the EU constantly clashes with the interests of the various member countries and that the constraints are spelled out in the EU Treaty. Schwab introduced a nonbinding resolution to dissolve Google in 2014.

“Generally there is quite a similar view on things. The Americans and Europeans both see a need to curb the dominance of the platforms, including mergers, and especially these killer acquisitions,” he said in an interview. The limitations are “nearly impossible to overcome, but we try to muddle through.”

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“Competition underlies and is implicated by all the work of government,” said Democratic FTC Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter (second from right). | Vlad VDK

One of the panel moderators, Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar, noted afterward that American authorities are ignoring European antitrust views because the Europeans “still seem stuck in the narrow, technocratic” ones. Days later, Guersent wrote back, accusing her of having a “clear disdain for facts” and dismissing the EU’s long history of strict enforcement.

As Guersent pointed out in his refutation, Europe was the region most aggressively pursuing litigation against tech giants and other global corporations for several years. For over ten years, Europe has been pursuing Google, and the United Kingdom recently unraveled a modest Meta acquisition. However, Washington has been the center of attention for the past year due to legal actions against Amazon, Google, and, most likely, Apple.

The Digital Markets Act, which goes into force next month, gives European regulators a new weapon to proactively influence the actions of some of the biggest internet corporations in the world. However, there are doubts regarding the bloc’s capacity to uphold the rule given its constrained funding.

Beyond the intramural jousting, there are other dissonances in the Brussels meeting. The opulent furnishings of the hotel provided an unusual backdrop for a populist rebellion. At least some U.S. officials were also compelled to stay somewhere else due to the hotel’s Chinese ownership.

There were the customary complaints from the business community. While the dominance of some large tech companies is concerning, a hedge fund investor at the conference said that Wall Street is extremely uncertain about what bets are safe and whether the pushback will continue in a potential Republican administration due to regulators’ rhetoric around monopoly power.

Concerns about governments not doing enough exist among more progressive antitrust scholars as well. They argue that if corporate power truly poses a threat to political as well as economic freedom, then the current patchy combination of approaches involving legislation, regulation, and law enforcement may not be sufficient to address the issue.

This raises questions about whether the recent increase in antitrust enforcement, especially in digital markets involving the United States, was implemented too little, too late.

15 years ago, the monopoly power of internet firms such as Google and Amazon needed to be handled, according to a person who is not permitted to talk publicly but is aware of some European judges’ perspectives. No matter how you go about it, it will be extremely hard to change it now, the person added.

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Jonathan Kanter, assistant attorney general for antitrust at the Department of Justice, spoke with conference organizer Cristina Caffarra during a fireside chat. | Vlad VDK

There are also doubts about this strategy’s viability on a domestic level.

Because Tai drastically rethought U.S. policy around digital trade, which attempted to limit the dominance of Google, Meta, Amazon, and other internet firms, she faced tremendous backlash both domestically and internationally.

Tai declared in October that the United States was pulling out of long-standing proposals for negotiations to encourage the free flow of data used by businesses internationally, forbid companies from being required to store data they gather locally and forbid nations from requiring software source codes to be transferred by companies. Although previous administrations—Democratic and Republican—have campaigned for similar measures in different trade agreements and discussions, this action signifies a fundamental shift in U.S. trade policy.

However, aggressive or not, antitrust cases are not a magic bullet for reducing corporate dominance. In an unresolved action that does not yet have a trial date, the FTC sued Meta in 2020 to compel the sale of Instagram and WhatsApp. Trials in Fall 2023 against Amazon and an anticipated Justice Department case against Apple are scheduled for 2026 and 2027, respectively, and are unlikely to conclude until the next ten years.

Additionally, there is a more significant structural issue. The government moves slowly; businesses move quickly. “Antitrust is glacial,” stated in an interview with Boston University economics professor Florian Ederer, who supported vigorous enforcement and attended the meeting.

Moreover, while having legal authority, a $1 trillion tech company functions on a scale that even large agencies can’t equal.

“You should certainly not expect us to have bright ideas about what to do about everything under the sun,” said Guersent about the commission’s authority under the DMA. “Certainly not with 40 people.”

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