Belgian Competition Authority approves merger between Port of Antwerp and Port of Zeebrugge

BE Law

By decision of 7 January 2022, the Belgian Competition Authority approved the merger between the port of Antwerp and the Port of Zeebrugge. This merger deals with two important ports in Europe, in particular in the Hamburg – Le Havre range. The decision is important because it is one of the first decisions dealing with market definitions in mergers between ports.

The Port of Antwerp is one of the important ports in the Hamburg – Le Havre range in Europe. A diversity of cargo is begin handled but its focus is primarily on containers, chemical industry, bulk and to a lesser extent Ro-Ro. The Port of Zeebrugge is focusing on Ro-Ro activities but also has some other activities, such as the import of liquid gas.

An important question for the Belgian Competition Authorities to deal with was the one on market definitions. While there are many precedents dealing with mergers of transhipment companies or shipping lines, there are hardly any precedents on market definitions regarding mergers of port authorities. 

The investigation revealed that there seemed to be three main markets in which port authorities are active:

  • The offering  of land for lease (on which companies can establish all kinds of activities such as transhipment)
  • General port services (access to the port and related fees);
  • Specific port services (such as towing, supply of electricity and goods, etc.).

Another question was whether any further subdivision of these three main markets was necessary for each of the large categories of activities that are typically taking in ports: in particular container, Ro-Ro, dry bulk, liquid bulk, break bulk, cruises, ferry, etc. After an extensive investigation, the Belgian Competition Authority decided that the question of such further subdivision could be left open as in any possible scenario the remaining competition on the market (mainly in the Hamburg-Le Havre range, and sometimes even on smaller geographic markets) and the largely complementary position of the two ports implied that the merger did not lead to competition problems.

This merger also comes in a wave of mergers of ports such as the Port of Ghent, Terneuzen and Vlissingen into the new entity North Sea Port, the merger of Le Havre, Rouen and the ports of Paris region, the merger in the Rhine-Mulhouse area, etc.

This article was published in the Competition Newsletter of February 2022. Other articles in this newsletter: