Brussels: The European Union executive fined 17 producers of prestressing steel a total of €518 million ($634 million) on Wednesday for operating a cartel covering most EU states over a period of 18 years.
The European Commission said the firms, including world number one steel maker ArcelorMittal, operated the price-fixing and market-sharing cartel from 1984 to 2002 in all the countries that then formed the EU except Britain, Ireland and Greece.
The largest fine — €276 million — was imposed on ArcelorMittal, a Commission statement said, adding that any person or firm affected by the anti-competitive behaviour could seek damages in member-state courts.
“It is amazing how such a significant number of companies abused nearly the entire European construction market for such a long time and for such a vital product. This was almost as if they were acting in a planned economy,” EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said in the statement.
“The Commission will have no sympathy for cartelists; recidivists will be fined more and inability-to-pay claims will be accepted only when it is clear the fine would send a company into bankruptcy, which is rare even in the current difficult times”.
The Commission said that over the 18-year period, the companies fixed individual quotas and prices, allocated clients and exchanged sensitive commercial information.
In addition, they monitored price, client and quota arrangements through a system of national co-ordinators and bilateral contacts.
It said companies involved in the cartel usually met in the margins of official trade meetings in hotels all over Europe and the Commission had evidence of over 550 such meetings.
The statement said the first pan-European cartel meetings took place in Zurich, and were referred to as “Club Zurich”. Later the cartel was dubbed “Club Europe” and had two regional branches — in Italy, “Club Italia”, and in Spain and Portugal, “Club Espana”.