The European Commission has confirmed that its officials, together with Antitrust investigators, conducted a surprise raid on the headquarters of a car manufacturer in Germany as part of an investigation into possible illegal collusion among German vehicle manufacturers.
European antitrust authorities said in July that they were looking into allegations that Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW conspired to hold down prices of crucial technology, possibly including emissions equipment. The raid, which took place on Monday but did not come to light until Friday, is a sign that the investigation — which has not led to any formal charges — may be intensifying.
Following the raid BMW issued a statement seeking to dispel any implication it was embroiled in the emissions scandal that has badly damaged Volkswagen’s reputation and spread to other carmakers.
“The BMW Group wishes to make clear the distinction between potential violations of antitrust law on the one hand and illegal manipulation of exhaust gas treatment on the other hand,” the company said. “The BMW Group has not been accused of the latter.”
In a related development, Daimler said Friday that it had offered to provide evidence about the suspected conspiracy to antitrust investigators in return for lower penalties. Under its so-called leniency policy, the European Commission can reduce the fines imposed on companies if they volunteer information.
European carmakers are trying to cope with a public backlash against diesel engines, until recently the most popular powertrain option in Europe. Research by Germany and other European governments has revealed that almost all diesel cars produce far more harmful nitrogen oxide emissions in everyday use than in official tests.
German carmakers have for years met routinely to discuss technical standards for components. Such discussions might be illegal if, for example, the manufacturers agreed among themselves to limit competition in certain areas, such as the effectiveness of emissions systems.
The European Commission described the raid, which also involved German antitrust officials, as a preliminary step in the investigation related to Commission concerns that several German car manufacturers may have violated EU antitrust rules that prohibit cartels and restrictive business practices (Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union). The Commission officials were accompanied by their counterparts from the German national competition authority.
The Commission has stated that whilst it carries out inspections, this does not mean that the inspected companies are guilty of anti-competitive behaviour, nor does it prejudge the outcome of the investigation itself. The Commission respects the rights of defence, in particular the right of companies to be heard, in antitrust proceedings.
The Commission has no legal deadline to complete inquiries into anti-competitive conduct.