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The Antitrust Source

Antitrust Magazine Online | June 2022

Interview with Ioannis Lianos

Ioannis Lianos


  • Ioannis Lionos speaks about what it’s like for an academic to take over leadership of Greece’s competition agency, reforms to allow the agency to address the digital economy, the impact of Covid-19, and the importance of international cooperation among small agencies.
Interview with Ioannis Lianos
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Ioannis Lianos was appointed President of Greece’s Hellenic Competition Commission (HCC) in September of 2019. He came to that position from University College London, where he was Professor, Chair of Global Competition Law and Public Policy and founding Director of the Centre for Law, Economics and Society at the Faculty of Laws. He has published widely on competition law and policy and is a member of the executive committee of the Academic Society of Competition Law. He was interviewed for the Antitrust Magazine Online by Krisztian Katona on April 7, 2022.

Antitrust Magazine Online: Many thanks for accepting our invitation to do the interview, Ioannis.

First, I’d like to start by stepping back in time a bit. You have been President of the Hellenic Competition Commission since September 2019. What have been your key priorities and agenda items since then?

Ioannis Lianos: Thank you very much again for the question and the opportunity.

The Hellenic Competition Commission is an agency that participates in the European Competition Network (ECN) and enforces both EU and Greek competition law.

I would say one of the most important challenges we had when I joined was that many of the cases they had were pretty old cases, so we had a logjam in the docket, in a sense. The average age of cases was almost eight years. We had even cases from the late 1990s. Obviously that was absolutely unacceptable and we had to speed up and finalize quite a number of cases to able to free staff and focus on the real economy.

After two and a half years, right now our average age of cases has gone down to one year and one month. We finalized almost 160 cases in two years. Some of them ended up having sanctions; some others were put aside because there was not any anticompetitive effect. This was one of the first priorities, because if you want to make a difference as a competition authority you have to deal with matters of the real economy and have an enforcement record that could be easily perceptible also by the citizens.

Our second priority was to develop new cases, in particular in areas of importance for the Greek economy. We have a number of cases that we put forward the last couple of years: a number of bid-rigging type of cases; we have brought abuse of dominance cases in the gaming industry, the waste management and the beverages industries for example. We launched two market investigations, one was in the construction sector, another one was in the press distribution sector. We had a number of cartel settlements in various economic sectors, including security services, the catering for refugees, the maintenance of elevators, among other things. We finalized a sector inquiry on supermarkets, which has been completed after many years. It was initiated by the HCC in 2014 but did not make much progress, and it was completed in 2020.

One of our important priorities has been the digital economy, and for the first time the HCC has been active in this front. We launched two sector inquiries, one in e-commerce and the other one in fintech, whose aim is basically to promote open banking. These are in the final phase, and I guess they will be completed in the next few months.

An important priority in our agenda was also to promote the activity of the competition authority in economic sectors that have not been examined in recent years. We launched an important ex officio investigation about bank charges in 2019, which is in the process of being completed and we have recently launched ex officio investigations in the energy sector (fuels and electricity retail and wholesale) and two new market investigation references in waste management/recycling and health insurance and healthcare. These market investigation references enable the authority to gather information about the industry, to reflect on the impact on competition of new business models and to develop a proactive approach in order to promote competition in the context of the development of new platforms and value chains as a result of the transition to the green and the digital economy. Our aim is to promote dynamic efficiency for the benefit of the consumers.

Of course, an important item in our agenda during this period has been the technological transformation of the authority. We invested a lot in IT and technology. We try to smooth a little bit the process of case management and make sure that we can monitor our performance, and I think this is something where we have achieved very good results so far.

Finally, we had to develop a competition advocacy program from scratch as for many years the HCC was not very active in this front.

Antitrust Magazine Online: There have been proposals recently to reform the Greek competition law; I think there have been a couple of proposals in the last few years. What are these legislative proposals and changes?

Ioannis Lianos: The whole process started with the implementation of Directive 2019/1, the ECN+ Directive, but to a certain extent I think this was perceived as an opportunity to reform the whole law, to modernize competition law in Greece. Our law dated from 2011. Of course, this is not really a long period of time to revise a law, considering that the Sherman Act dates from the 19th century! I think however that it was important to think about the digital transformation of the economy and the way that competition law may be framed in Greece in order not only to deal with the issues arising out of the development of digital platforms but also as a tool for the broader (digital) transformation of our economic model.

The government put in place a Law Commission and I had the honor to chair this Law Commission. We worked with a number of experts, many of them coming from the Greek diaspora, academics from the United Kingdom and the United States, in order to rethink the fundamentals of Greek competition law.

The reform passed with a significant majority in parliament, and most political parties supported this reform. It was in January 2022, so it is pretty new.

And this new law has some interesting provisions about the digital economy, for instance, enabling us to have powers of investigation that could also apply to the digital economy and in particular enhance our technological capabilities in terms of mapping. Also there are specific provisions about price signaling and invitations to collude, which I think is pretty unique in the European Union; some provisions concerning the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and competition law; and concerning the organization of the authority. Finally, there is a new provision on no action enforcement letters which aims to enhance legal certainty for firms engaging in joint investments in favor of sustainable development goals.

Antitrust Magazine Online: You mentioned that the HCC participates in the ECN and other international fora. I was wondering, from the perspective of a smaller European national competition authority, what challenges have you been facing in recent years? And also how did the agency cope with the pandemic-related work changes?

Ioannis Lianos: I think one of the main challenges of a small competition authority is attracting an adequate number of high quality staff. Attracting good staff, and the budget which is connected, is one of the main issues we are facing.

With regard to the budget issue, we have made some progress. In the new legislation there is a minimum in terms of percentage of GDP that the competition authority is required to get every year, so we have some stability in terms of our financial resources over time, and there has been an increase of the resources that we have.

We are still facing a significant problem with regard to recruitment because we follow the usual public service recruitment process. Unfortunately, this doesn’t offer the flexibility we need in order to attract high quality specialized staff, particularly data scientists or econometricians. I think this is a common problem for many smaller competition authorities in Europe, as the market of expertise in these highly specialized areas is quite small and salaries are not high enough to attract the many Greek scientists living and working abroad.

The pandemic was a great opportunity to change things. Of course, we had a lot of challenges too! To enable the authority to continue functioning properly we had to switch to teleworking, 100 percent of our staff in a very short period of time. Actually, we were the first public service in Greece that started working online 100 percent a few days after the restrictions were put in place by the government.

I think this also gave us the opportunity to think differently about the organization of the authority. The structure we had before involved separate directorates for lawyers and for economists, so there was a separation of lawyers and economists that did not make sense, in my view, in the context of modern economically oriented competition law. I think in our context this wasn’t necessarily working very well. What we tried to do was to create sector-specific directorates that are mixed, so we have lawyers and economists working together.

This was, I think, possible also because of the fact that people were starting to work together online, and we had different meetings that were held online. I think the geographical separation that we had at the authority, where the lawyers were basically sitting on one floor of the authority and the economists on another floor, somehow impeded a little bit their collaboration. I think the online teleworking and the hybrid forms of work put in place helped a lot the cooperation between them.

Antitrust Magazine Online: You mentioned the agency’s budget. I also look back at the numbers, and it seems that since 2017 it pretty much has been flat. It’s interesting to see how you’re able to cope with all of those issues and technological transformation and reorganization of the agency.

Ioannis Lianos: In terms of results, we had a drop in the number of staff of around 12 percent since 2019. Although we have been recruiting now and we are going to have, I think, this year and next year almost a 30 percent increase in our work staff. But usually the public service process of recruitment takes time.

Although our staff went down, in 2021 we had 75 percent more cases finalized than in the last five years and 100 percent more dawn raids organized. This shows that the reforms work very well in terms of increasing the efficiency of the staff.

Antitrust Magazine Online: Now I’d like to turn to the substantive work of the agency, perhaps starting with digital markets. I know that in your previous economic writing, and your more recent work in that area as the head of the HCC, digital antitrust issues and also ecosystems have been a key focus of yours.

The HCC has been particularly active, for example, in organizing events, putting out studies and publications, and as you mentioned also making internal changes in this regard. In addition, the agency launched a sector inquiry into e-commerce back in 2020. What key developments in this area you would highlight for the agency in recent years?

Ioannis Lianos: One of the novel issues we put forward in our proposals for the law revision was the new provision concerning abuse of power in ecosystems. This is a provision that has attracted a lot of attention. In the end it did not go through, I think, because of concerns with regards to the Digital Markets Act (DMA) process and how this could impact Greece. The idea was to see how the DMA process would be finalized and then possibly to rethink if there is a need for Greece to have a specific provision concerning ecosystems. However, the proposal met a ferocious opposition by some vested interests in Greece and hence this may be another explanation on why it did not go through, even if the reforms were supported by a wide alliance of stakeholders, involving not just consumers but also small and medium firms and larger firms that operate as complementors in digital, or other, ecosystems.

From our perspective it was important to understand the way the digital economy evolves. Nowadays companies not only compete in relevant markets; they compete in ecosystems. Ecosystems are regarded as communities of collaborating firms that collectively produce a good, service, or a value proposition for consumers with an aligned vision. The concept reflects the emergence of business environments marked by modularity in production, co-evolution, and decisional complexity. Ecosystem orchestrators set the activity and value architectures of ecosystems and co-create products and services with a number of complementors, independent firms which often depend on the orchestrator’s platform in order to reach consumers. This raises issues of lock-in that could affect the incentives to innovate of complementors. The introduction of Article 2A—and, more specifically, the reference to a position of power in an ecosystem of paramount importance—aimed at covering such lock-in situations that may produce negative effects to competition and innovation, and which could not fall under the provision on abuse of dominance, if the ecosystem orchestrator did not enjoy a dominant position on a relevant market. However, in our view, the starting point for the analysis should not only be the relevant market, but the ecosystem itself. This is because undertakings compete against each other to expand their customer base, and/or exploit network effects and their positioning as bottlenecks—in key areas of economic activity even if this positioning might not make sense from a conventional price-cost perspective. However, it might make sense in order to build capabilities and the expectation of absolute competitive advantage that may lead to higher evaluation of their assets/stocks by financial markets. I think this is an aspect of competition law that will need to be revisited soon.

The DMA is a way to deal indirectly with ecosystems—of course from an ex ante regulatory perspective; it is not ex post competition law. At the same time you have a number of Member States in the European Union that have put in place specific provisions. Although they don’t use the word “ecosystem,” I think this concept, this field of competition is present in the design of the law. I refer in particular to Article 19(a) of the German Competition Act. We have also a number of competition laws in Europe that have provisions concerning abuse of economic dependency or relative power, which we don’t. We had that in our law until 2011, but then it was moved to unfair competition law.

From my perspective this shows that, compared to other Member States, we might have a gap in our legislation, in particular in order to deal with the ecosystems that will not be regulated by the DMA. Of course, we need to see how the DMA will work and how many platforms will be regulated by the DMA; will these be the platforms that we have been interested in somehow being able to enforce the law? Then we will need to reconsider this issue in the future.

The e-commerce inquiry is looking to products, so it hasn’t focused so much on services, although right now we are also considering expanding the analysis to look at online travel agencies because of the importance of tourism for the economy in Greece.

Antitrust Magazine Online: You mentioned the DMA and other recent developments. What do you foresee as potential challenges in the short and medium term for antitrust agencies, including the Greek competition authority in digital antitrust.

Ioannis Lianos: The DMA will be enforced by the European Commission. There has been an important debate about the role of national competition authorities in the enforcement of the DMA. From my perspective, I think the Commission is best placed to enforce the DMA. But at the same time, Member States should keep some flexibility with regards to developing their own ex post competition law provisions with regards to unilateral practices, and some Member States, as I mentioned before, have done this.

I think for the DMA to work one of the major issues I would say will be enforcement and, in particular, the capabilities of the institution that will actually enforce the Act.

The DMA Impact Assessment predicts that there will be around eighty people working to enforce the DMA. I’m not entirely sure this will be enough, to be honest. I think we need to probably think of a larger number of staff, but also of the possibility of having a flexible, contractual basis type of recruitment for economists and software engineers that certainly will be needed to make this work.

Competition authorities of course will have to be very careful in terms of avoiding potential double jeopardy issues. You are probably familiar with the recent cases of the Court of Justice in BPost, etc., which raise some interesting questions about the interaction between regulatory and competition law sanctions and the way the Court has defined the conditions for double jeopardy to work. This is obviously something we are looking at very carefully because the same issues that we have in the context of the digital economy we also face in the context our interaction with sector-specific regulators, for instance in the energy or the telecom sectors. So it’s something we need to think about carefully.

I think the balance, let’s say the institutional equilibrium, of the interaction between the DMA and competition law hasn’t yet been reached. I think we are now in the phase of considering how this will evolve, so I cannot make any prediction about these institutional aspects. Let’s not forget that there will not just be public enforcement but also private enforcement.

In terms of the substance, of course these are issues that have been discussed now for a few years. The provisions of the DMA will need somehow to be specified in the decision-making, and of course there will be some kind of challenges for compliance for the technology firms as well. So this is obviously something we are all concerned about.

Antitrust Magazine Online: Following up on some of your previous comments, I understand that during the pandemic you also set up in the agency a Covid-19 Competition Task Force, and I think you previously mentioned potential competition concerns regarding price signaling as one of the key issues and focus recently for the authority. You also ran a sector inquiry into basic consumer goods, basically supermarkets. Could you describe some of the key results of this work?

Ioannis Lianos: Yes. The supermarket inquiry, as I said, started a few years ago and concerned 11 categories of basic consumer goods. For us it was important to get an idea about the concentration level in these markets, and in particular to understand the bargaining power relation between suppliers and the supermarkets. For that reason, we developed a specific index of bargaining power that we use, that employs the concept of positional power, using advanced social network analysis metrics. The result was presented at the OECD and an article explaining our methodology was published in a peer-reviewed journal. I think that was quite an interesting innovation of the specific sector inquiry. On the basis of that metric, we put in place a supermarket task force with the objective of monitoring the developments in the sector and to revisit the process again in two years.

We finalized this sector inquiry during the Covid-19 period and we saw an important change in the way people shop in Greece. We saw an explosion in e-shopping for groceries, etc., that we had not observed before, so we saw the development of some potential players in the digital space, most recently we even had a merger that went to phase II (Delivery Hero—eFood/eTable) that was finally approved because it enabled the development of “electronic” supermarkets that could compete with the more traditional supermarket chains which also become increasingly omni-retail.

Of course, you know a sector inquiry is not really like a market investigation. You don’t end up adopting remedies, but that could be followed by some kind of market investigation, as we have also witnessed an important increase in economic concentration and a new wave of mergers the last two years. We thought it was more important to wait and see how this sector will evolve.

In particular, we have seen also some form of merger and acquisition activity going on, not so much increasing concentration—of course concentration will increase—but it’s mostly some geographical expansion, let’s say, of various chains that operate in different parts of the country. That affects the supermarkets inquiry.

But again, Covid-19 was an opportunity—I’m sorry to say this—for change, as I mentioned before, because it enabled us to put in place a new platform at the agency, the HCC Data Analytics & Economic Intelligence Platform. Basically, this platform now collects prices and quantities daily for a little more than 2000 products by a number of supermarkets as well as the central market for fruits and vegetables, the various gas stations across the country etc.

It helps us to monitor better what is going on, in particular enhancing our possibility to understand patterns of collusion or concerted practice, and it helps us target better our investigations. This is something that would not have been possible otherwise, because also the supermarkets wanted to provide information for an app that the Ministry of Development created in order for people to be able to make price comparisons when they were shopping online or in order to select the cheaper supermarket when the Covid-19 restrictions were in place. We actually were able to get access to this data and to create this data platform, which is now expanding to various other products. I think it has been a quite important tool for our activity and our technological transformation.

Antitrust Magazine Online: I wanted to turn to the topic of sustainability and competition enforcement. I know that this is a topic that the agency really has been at the forefront of under your leadership.

I understand that the agency commissioned a joint report as well with the Dutch authority on these issues. Your OECD submission last year noted that the agency also adopted an understanding of sustainability that encompasses both environmental and social sustainability issues. Could you tell us about these developments?

Also, I think there is another important item that we would love to hear about is the regulatory sandbox or sustainability sandbox that you have been developing.

Ioannis Lianos: Yes. As you mentioned before, sustainability is a broad concept. I think you have basically the United Nations’ seventeen goals, and of course they include environmental sustainability as well as social sustainability.

The debate about sustainability was launched, at least in Greece, with a conference in September of 2020, including officials from the European Commission and a number of other Member States’ heads of authorities, with the aim of starting to consider how sustainability concerns (both environmental and social) might be integrated into competition analysis.

I think one of the issues that some companies have—at least there has been a lot of discussion about this a few surveys as well—about engaging in these sustainability projects is the high risk that cooperation with some of their competitors could potentially be considered as a competition law infringement. So there was some fear of legal uncertainty, which might have probably affected some very valuable projects.

In Greece this is very important because we have, I would say, two specificities.

The first one is that, because of the economic crisis that we had during the last ten years, and in particular the problems that we had in the banking system, there is not so much capital that could be invested in the transition to the green economy, and therefore, the regulatory risk might have a much more important effect of limiting incentives for investors.

The second thing is that the Greek companies are mostly small and medium firms, so on their own they will not have the possibility to make this green transition, and therefore we need to somehow put in place clusters where potentially small and medium firms could cooperate with larger firms in order to make the necessary investments constituting industrial ecosystems to a certain extent.

For this reason we thought it was important to put in place a clear legal framework, and we participated in this discussion on the Horizontal Cooperation Guidelines at the EU level that was going on at the same time.

The European Commission’s draft Guidelines were published a few weeks ago. We see a major development there with a new section on sustainability agreements. I think this is very positive. The Commission is more open to sustainability arguments, and I think we also have a little bit more discretion to develop more sustainability-friendly type of approaches also in the way we enforce competition law at the national level.

Part of that discussion, both at the EU level but also in Greece was also to think of a way to provide legal certainty to firms. This is why in the new Greek law we have a specific provision on no-action enforcement letters. This enables the head of the authority, after a proposal by the Directorate General, to issue a no-action enforcement letter for some conduct that could potentially fall under the scope of competition law. For instance, a specific agreement, although the tool may also be used for unilateral practices, which may appear after examination that it does not really infringe competition or it could possibly enter into the exemption requirements for Article 101(3) or the Greek equivalent. Right now, as the EU system is based on self-assessment, companies incur the legal risk as they need to assess how their practices may be compatible with competition law. This legal risk may create disincentives for investing in new cooperative projects, in particular if these involve some of their competitors, as for instance would be the case for mandatory industry wide agreements developing green standards or protecting freelancers in the food delivery sector (social sustainability) for instance. We think that this will enable possibly more projects and companies to come forward and promote this form of cooperation that becomes extremely important in the Greek context. Of course, we need to be extremely vigilant and avoid greenwashing. For this reason, this approach requires a more active involvement of the competition authority not only to intervene ex post in order to “correct” a market imperfection but also to design ex ante more competitive markets at the first place.

Of course, changing the law to provide more opportunities is something that will provide incentives to firms, but maybe it’s not enough. For this reason we also launched the sandbox as well. The idea is for the competition authority to be at the table when these projects are first framed. Costs are going to be quite important if the competition authority comes in after these investments have been made and costs have been incurred and says, “This is problematic; there is an infringement of competition law.” It is better to be proactive and avoid these problems from happening in the first place.

The objective of the sandbox is to follow a number of projects, and for human resources capability reasons—obviously there will be a selection of projects that could be in the “gray zone”—we could possibly discuss with the companies ways that they can achieve what they want in a more competitive way so as to avoid problems in the future. That will help us also to understand their business model, what exactly will happen in these markets, because sometimes you don’t have the specific knowledge in particular about the impact of new technologies. So we see a lot of opportunities in this tool to enhance the learning capabilities of the competition authority as well. Possibly, if we see that this potentially will have positive effects for the environment and sustainable development and at the same time will not irreversibly impact on competition, then we would be able to accept these types of proposals to move forward under some continuous supervision from our part for some time. That’s a little bit the ambition of the sandbox.

Antitrust Magazine Online: I wonder if you can highlight some key recent matters on the competition enforcement side.

Ioannis Lianos: One of the cases that we are still working on, which I think is an interesting case, concerns bank charges. We have invested significant resources in this case and I think it has changed the way the competition authority works as we have used a number of advanced technological tools (including artificial intelligence) in order to assess the important amount of data collected in a relatively short period of time. Although the investigation is now two and a half years old, we have made significant progress and I think it will be completed very soon and in any case below the average time needed for such complex investigations in the EU.

We have, as I mentioned before, a number of cartel cases. Most recently we issued a decision concerning a cartel for the catering for refugees. This is an example of the type of cases we are focusing on—cases that affect the most vulnerable in our society.

We have a number of abuse of dominance cases currently under examination, some of which are now public, such as in the gaming business sector or in the agro-chemicals sector. I am also open to explore cases in which we will apply the concept of collective dominance, in particular in oligopolistic industries. I think it is a pity we do not see many cases using this concept in the EU, and recent learning in economics may help us to be more successful in such cases. Of course, we are also active in the common ownership front. The Hellenic Competition Commission is using theories of harm based on work on common ownership, in two market investigations, that on the construction sector and the one on press distribution. We will probably use the common ownership theories of harm in order to investigate family ties that may lead to similar results, in particular in some sectors of the economy where we think there is no sufficient dynamic competition.

Also, we were able to develop our first digital economy cases with a number of e-minimum resale price maintenance (RPM) and minimum advertised price (MAP) type of case law. We had a number of decisions in 2021 and there are a number of investigations ongoing right now; as well as an investigation on most-favored nation clauses (MFNs), and platform bans or restrictions on some platforms which I think will be quite interesting in the future.

And of course, two other areas that we are looking at very closely are healthcare and recycling/waste management.

We started a market investigation for healthcare and insurance, and I think by the end of the year we will be able to complete the interim report. This is an interesting sector, I think, because of the importance of data in the way insurance and healthcare are merging in common value chains and present greater opportunities to offer personalized services to consumers but also harvest a lot of data and personal information—this also raises issues of personalized pricing and possibilities of abuse, in particular, as there are some large players active in this sector.

Secondly, the waste management/recycling market investigation is of interest for our focus on sustainability and in view of the organization of the specific sector where we see a number of exclusivity clauses limiting competition and also innovation, which also has effects on sustainability. We even had a case a few months ago imposing a fine for exclusivity in a specific waste management system.

Antitrust Magazine Online: I wanted to also turn to cooperation, which I think has been a focus of the agency, both within Greece and internationally. Could you tell us a bit about these cooperative activities and some of these developments?

Ioannis Lianos: Yes. What we tried to do at the beginning of our mandate was to develop links with the various stakeholders and develop a holistic strategy, with regard to competition advocacy and competition compliance.

We started with consumer associations. We signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with the main consumer associations in Greece. We invested also in a number of resources for training programs, some of them in cooperation with the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), with which we put in place a common training program—not only for consumer associations in Greece but also with other countries of the EU. I think that worked very well. I think the consumer associations saw us as an ally, which I think is important for a competition authority, and I hope these links may develop further in the future.

Similarly, we reached out to the Association of Small and Medium Firms. Although we haven’t signed an MOU with them, we have been cooperating quite closely, in particular with regards to the digital economy in view of the ecosystems provision, but also more generally in some of the investigations we started. They have also been quite active with our sustainable development initiative and I think we will establish further links with them as we plan to associate them closely in our sandbox initiative. I think this is definitely something that we want to promote.

With the Greek Confederation of Industries we try to involve the business community by organizing a number of public consultations for the various market investigations and sector inquiries we do with their participation. We try to listen to what they say, and we definitely take that into account in our policy. We also think they can play an important role in our recent initiatives regarding the sandbox.

We try also to develop links with sector-specific regulators and other regulators. We have very good cooperation with the equivalent of the Financial Conduct Authority. We have signed MOUs with a number of sector-specific regulators, such as the energy regulator, the public procurement regulator, and the regulator of the ports.

 One of the proposals that the Law Commission made, although it unfortunately did not go through, was to create a network of regulators and the competition authority, that would have been more institutionalized than similar initiatives in soft law that have been tried in other jurisdictions and would have been more constraining on the authorities in terms of their active participation to the network. We are now moving to a “soft law” type of approach by having some form of MOU between us, and I hope this could be concluded in the next few weeks. I think this is important because we all have very few resources and I think we need to pool our resources in order to be able to make a difference in particular in the current difficult context, for instance in the energy sector.

The ambition of this institutional cooperation is to create a public ecosystem for the protection of competition. I think this is quite important in Greece in view of the important progress we need to accomplish as a country in this area.

Similarly, we reached out to a number of academic institutions that were interested in competition law and policy in order to create a partnership with research institutes, and from that perspective we will be able to compensate for the lack of specialized staff by also having input and insights from fellow researchers.

And also, we reach out to institutions outside the competition law framework. In particular try to reach to the young generation of entrepreneurs and creators. We started a cooperation with the marketing department at the Economic University of Athens to launch a survey for understanding how people between eighteen and forty-five perceive the authority, what the issues are that they want us to be interested in. The development of our competition advocacy campaign is also the main theme of a course in the marketing department, with eight teams (more than 40 students) competing in a prize competition we established in cooperation with the University, the prize-winning team being offered the possibility to design our competition advocacy campaign for 2022-2023.

Also, we launched an art and competition competition in order reach a different crowd because I think it’s quite important for the general public, even those that are not in business, to understand the value of competition and what the competition authority does, but also what it cannot do. I think it is very important to explain very well what the limits of our actions are.

This is with regard to the public ecosystem in Greece.

At the same time, as I mentioned before, we need to develop also international links and a global ecosystem for the protection of competition. I think from that perspective institutions like the ICN, OECD, and UNCTAD could be very helpful.

Of course we have the ECN in Europe. I’m happy to announce that the next meeting of the ECN heads of competition authorities (the so-called DG meeting) will take place in Athens. For the first time an ECN DG meeting will take place outside Brussels. I think it is a great opportunity, if that works well and the Commission likes it, to do that in other Member States as well in the future.

Also we wanted to develop bilateral cooperation with a number of jurisdictions in our neighborhood that are not members of the European Union. This is why we started a process of cooperation by signing MOUs with Armenia, Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Morocco, and Serbia. We are now in the process of signing an MOU with Israel and Egypt.

The idea is to somehow develop links with other Mediterranean countries because we have sometimes similar challenges. For instance, when we were preparing our fintech inquiry, we had very interesting and insightful meetings with the Israeli competition authority to discuss their experience and valuable work in this area.

We had very interesting meetings also with the Armenian competition authority when we were thinking about our e-commerce inquiry because they have also done things in this area.

This is something that I would like to promote more in the future. There has been a discussion of having a sort of network of North and South Mediterranean countries, which is an idea put forward by the Egyptian competition authority that we support.

Finally, we try to be more present in the ECN and OECD meetings by putting forward a number of proposals. We were part of a training program with the Polish authority and the Italian authority in Morocco, which I think was a quite interesting venture, and we were very happy to cooperate with the Competition Council of Morocco.

I think this is something that potentially could have interesting implications not only in the area of competition but more generally for cooperation in the Mediterranean region. We are very happy to promote that.

Antitrust Magazine Online: One of your largest neighbors is Turkey, with which Greece has had issues at the geopolitical level in the past. How is your relationship with the Turkish Competition Authority?

Ioannis Lianos: Very good actually. We participate through the Balkan initiative they put in place. I participated in the Istanbul Competition Forum back in 2019, in the good times before Covid-19. We would be very interested to sign an MOU with Turkey as well and cooperate. I know very good colleagues in Turkey. I think definitely this is something that we would be very much interested in.

Antitrust Magazine Online: Many agencies have perceived a need to transform themselves into more technologically sophisticated bodies. Can you tell us about what implications that has for international cooperation?

Ioannis Lianos: This cooperation is even more important in the current context, in particular with the possibilities offered for competition law authorities to use modern data analytics techniques. When you think about the transformation that competition authorities need to undergo—even the technological transformation, trying to use artificial intelligence (AI) more in our investigations, one realizes the need for competition authorities to move towards computational competition law and economics, which is also another area in which we have been investing a lot.

The Greek authority in the last few months has finalized the recruitment of a chief technology officer, and a team of data scientists. As I mentioned before, we have created the HCC Data Analytics & Economic Intelligence Platform and we would like to expand it by using deep learning and machine learning in order to be able to supervise better marketplaces in real time, in particular in the digital sector.

But I think one authority with the resources that it has can do only so much. Hence, in this area I think it is very important to develop consortia of competition authorities, in particular smaller competition authorities, in order to pool resources because you may have the budget but you might not necessarily have the data analysts and AI specialists. It’s a very scarce resource having good data scientists, having people who work with AI.

I think there is a lot of potential there for international cooperation. That’s true in particular in the Mediterranean region I would say, but also more broadly. This is definitely something we would like to follow up.

We have been thinking also of different ways to attract the attention of the software engineer and AI community in competition law enforcement. One of the things that we will probably put in place in the next few months is a Hakaton to create interest for computational competition law and economics because basically we engage communities that haven’t thought about competition law enforcement as an applied area for AI to come in and invest there and develop new capabilities for competition authorities. This is the R&D that competition authorities should invest in now and we at the Hellenic Competition Commission have put forward a quite ambitious strategy in this area. I think this is the way forward right now.

Antitrust Magazine Online: Can you tell us something about the authority’s whistleblower initiative?

Ioannis Lianos: This is something that from a cultural perspective was very difficult to do because usually the way the media—not most of the media, but I would say a number of media outlets—perceived this whistleblower initiative that we promoted in a negative way. We had people, including policymakers in parliament commenting: “oh, the commission authority is now delegating the task of doing their job to whistleblowers,” and generally in Greece the whistleblower culture wasn’t really very positively perceived. Hence, we needed to also create a whistleblower culture. I remark that the competition authority was the first among all public authorities in Greece that actively promoted this tool. We established a whistleblower platform, promoted a public campaign and we are in the process of establishing now a bid rigging whistleblower platform for public authorities and officials involved in public contracting.

What is interesting is that the results were absolutely phenomenal. Right now, we have a number of whistleblowing messages that come to us and to a certain extent have been used for launching investigations. This really is a tool that has been used quite a lot and I think it has had some very positive results.

We have an electronic whistleblower platform, which is not even based in Greece, in order to provide absolute security for those who participate. We are now developing a second one for bid-rigging practices. We are also preparing some media coverage in order to promote this new initiative.

This is something that was difficult to put in place—not difficult technically, but in terms of mentality and cultural difficulty—but I think it has been very successful.

Antitrust Magazine Online: I’d like to look ahead and hear about your plans for the next 12 months or so. What will be the agency’s key priority in the coming year? What do you foresee as the focus or the challenges ahead?

Ioannis Lianos: We would like to finalize some of the important investigations we started a couple of years ago, in particular the banking charges investigation, but also our recent investigations in the energy sector and regarding big retail.

We have, as I mentioned before, a market investigation reference in the construction industry. I think this is very important in view of the important investments in infrastructure that will come in through the European funds in the next few years. We would like to finalize this in the next two to three months.

Similarly, with the fintech sector we are now thinking of a way to promote open banking in Greece, of course in cooperation with the Central Bank of Greece and the banking sector. I think it is very important to think of the new more open architecture of the banking system. From our perspective, the difficulties of the banking system in Greece might make things easier in terms of being open for technological transformation through open banking and later open finance.

We will also be focusing on a number of bid-rigging cases and also we expect some positive results there with the whistleblower initiative for bid rigging. Our ambition is also to expand the HCC Data Analytics and Economic Intelligence Platform to include the data from the public e-procurement database. There are some technical difficulties with this, but also political, and we hope this will move forward the next 12 months.

We have some interesting digital cases. We have now a Phase 2 merger of a major German digital platform - Delivery Hero - that is investing in Greece taking control of the main Greek food delivery platform. It’s an interesting case raising issues of conglomerate effects. The HCC did not find any horizontal unilateral effects in the online food platforms, as a result of the merger. However, the HCC’s investigation revealed that the combination of the parties’ activities in the market for online intermediation for restaurant reservations through the target’s e-table platform and in the online intermediation market for food ordering, through Delivery Hero’s online platform e-food, would give rise to conglomerate effects. Both platforms have significant market power in the respective markets in Greece. The HCC plenary found that as a result of the transaction, the merged entity would have both the ability and the incentive to bundle or tie the two services vis-à-vis their business users, thereby reducing the ability or incentive of e-table’s competitors to compete effectively on the market for online restaurant reservation services.

The HCC was also concerned that the combination of end-user data collected from e-food and e-table would allow the merged entity to implement personalized promotion strategies, thereby giving it a competitive advantage to such a degree that e-table’s competitors would no longer be able to compete effectively, but also reinforcing the preeminent position of the new entity in the online intermediation market for food ordering, because, among others, of learning effects. The “bundling”/combination of personal data sourced by gatekeepers from platform services and from any other services offered is also a concern addressed by the DMA Articles 5(a) and 6(a). The HCC let the merger to go through following the commitments of Delivery Hero not to tie the online intermediation services for food ordering with the online reservation services in restaurants (through e-table) when offered to business users (i.e., restaurants). The latter will be free to purchase each of the services separately. The company also undertook, in the Greek territory, the obligation not to provide special discounts to customers/restaurants and/or not to charge reduced commissions/fees when these customers/restaurants buy online intermediation services for food ordering (especially from e-food), as well as online restaurant reservation services (either through the e-food platform, in case the e-table service is integrated appears on it, or directly from the ­e-table). In addition, Delivery Hero took the commitment not to merge the two platforms during the first 12 months following the merger and not to use end-user data collected from the e-food platform to implement personalized promotion strategies for the e-table services, or inversely, unless end users have previously provided consent to receive personalized advertising and marketing communications, in accordance with existing data protection rules. It is also provided that if the end-users did not provide consent, they will have access to the services in a similar way as they would have in case of consent.

We have a number of online selective distribution cases in MAP, RPM, and MFN cases that will be published soon, and some of them we will focus on during the next 12 months.

We have an interesting case in the agriculture input sector against a global agro-chem firm. This is an interesting area because of the merger wave that happened a few years ago at the global level. It is important to come back and see how this specific sector has evolved.

My perception is that we need to try to bring more antitrust investigations, abuse of dominance cases and also vertical cases—I am not against vertical cases—in view also of the recent Vertical Guidelines of the European Commission.

And of course, as I mentioned before, we would like to finalize the market investigations of the healthcare sector and the recycling and waste management sector.

Another initiative that we took—and now it is possible because there is a new provision in our law—is market mapping. This is also one of the reasons we are in the process of recruiting a chief economist and a team of economists, because we would like to develop a quite detailed market mapping exercise in Greece looking not just at concentration issues but also ownership structures, etc. I think it is a major investment in terms of time, but it will pay off in terms of the sophistication of our understanding of the various sectors. This is definitely something that we would like to start in the next few months, and hopefully we will finalize a few mapping exercises for specific sectors during the next 12 months.

Launching the sandbox and adopting guidelines for the sustainability projects that we want to promote is an important challenge.

As well, in terms of transparency, we want to develop new guidelines for a new article for price signaling and invitations to collude. Hopefully, we will be interested to get the Federal Trade Commission’s insights in view of your experience with Section 5 of the FTC Act, in particular in some price signaling cases. I think this is quite interesting.

Also we will be developing a new detailed manual of procedures, which will also involve the possibility of distance dawn raids. This is something we want to explore in the future in view of our technological investments and in order to reduce the cost of dawn raids so that we can organize more each year.

In a way, we also want to promote more our policies to connect the authority with the broader public through participation in various ventures with our stakeholders and partners, and also by having a more active policy of promoting the competition authority’s enforcement action to the wider public.

These are the objectives we have for the next 12 months. Hopefully, we will be able to achieve some of them.

Antitrust Magazine Online: We’d like to close with a retrospective question. You came in to be the head of the HCC after having been for many years an academic based in the United Kingdom, away from the turmoil of Greek politics. How was it coming into the authority in that situation? Was it an advantage to have been away; was it a disadvantage?

Ioannis Lianos: I think it was an advantage, retrospectively thinking, because I came with very clear ideas about how I wanted the authority to do and this enabled me to adopt a very proactive approach. For me it was very important that the authority could catch up a little bit on the lost time of the last decade.

There had been, as I mentioned, an important crisis for ten years in Greece, not so many investments in terms of personnel, no really important changes in terms of the structure of the authority, so I wanted really to transform the authority from an institutional perspective.

The fact that I wasn’t really there and had been away for almost 25 years before coming back to Greece—for me it was a challenge to come back to my native country after 25 years away—I think was a benefit because the personnel at the authority were very open to this change. In a way, it was extremely important to convince them that we all needed to participate in this transformation effort.

Of course, you have always difficulties when you change things, it is not easy, people and vested interests react to change that unsettles bad habits and bureaucratic drift and I fully understand that. I think it would probably have been more difficult if I wasn’t an outsider. I think the fact that I was an outsider helped the reforms to be accepted and to be implemented.

As I mentioned before, I made a lot of efforts to reach out to various political groups. I think it is very important for an authority—in particular a competition authority, which is the main market regulator—to be broadly accepted or recognized, at least as an institutional player, by all the various political parties. There have been a lot of efforts on my part to communicate, to explain what we do, to be open to criticism, and I think that’s very important. The political system in Greece is unfortunately not always very open to reach political consensus on some crucial issues, there is a lot of mistrust, hence this makes the work more difficult for us

One of the things I’m quite happy about is that the new competition law at the end, although it was suggested by the government, was not opposed by the major political parties, and some provisions were supported by most of the political parties represented in Parliament. I think that was very successful for the authority because it provides the authority the political clout to be able to develop as an actor independent from politics and to emphasize its technocratic role in the Greek political and economic system.

I think this is probably one of the most important things in the end and what I hope I will be able to achieve. I think this institutional role and the fact that it is recognize broadly is key for the institutional development of the authority and competition policy in Greece. But it is an uphill battle and the lack of resources at the authority does not make it an easier task.

Antitrust Magazine Online: Thank you so much for this very thoughtful interview. It is truly impressive what you have summarized and what you have been able to achieve as the head of the agency.

Ioannis Lianos: Thank you for the opportunity and your kind words.