By Natalia Drozdiak
BRUSSELS -- The European Union's antitrust chief said Friday that her department is reviewing a handful of recent merger clearances on suspicions companies misled investigators in securing approval.
The unusual reassessment could lead to formal charges and ultimately significant fines for the companies or -- though highly unlikely and complicated -- withdrawal of clearances.
In similar circumstances, the regulator leveled charges in December against Facebook Inc. In that case, the EU accused the social-media company of giving incorrect or misleading information to regulators reviewing its planned purchase of chat app WhatsApp in 2014. Facebook said it provided accurate information to the EU about its plans and technical capabilities.
In an interview, Margrethe Vestager said the European Commission, the EU's antitrust regulator, was scrutinizing instances in which company representatives from a range of industries intentionally or negligently misinformed regulators studying proposed mergers.
"In each and every individual case...we need correct information, in order to have the very high quality of our casework that we want to have, " Ms. Vestager said. "We have found in more than one case that there was a case of misleading information."
The EU declined to identify the companies under the microscope but indicated the cases involve merger reviews that took place within the past five years. The commissioner said the EU was still deciding whether to file formal accusations outlined in what is called a statement of objections.
If found guilty in such cases, companies face fines of up to 1% of global revenue. In an unlikely scenario, the EU could also revoke its clearance of the merger if more accurate information could have led to a different decision.
The EU has already said its case against Facebook won't affect its clearance of the WhatsApp deal, which closed in 2014.
The commission suspects Facebook inaccurately claimed during the review in 2014 that it couldn't routinely match Facebook and WhatsApp user accounts -- something the company started doing two years later when it began combining user data across the services. The antitrust regulator is currently analyzing Facebook's response to the accusations, Ms. Vestager said.
Such cases are rare in Europe given the threat of fines and other sanctions. Lawyers representing companies in the merger-review process can also be stripped of their licenses to practice law if they are found to have intentionally misled regulators. The EU said that prior to the Facebook case it hadn't pursued such action since new rules that boosted fines came into effect in 2004.
Ms. Vestager said the commission over the past year looked at several cases involving misleading information, but that they wouldn't all necessarily be formally opened or decided upon as a package.
"We have to respect the flow of each individual case, even in these areas where it's procedural concerns that we have," she said.
In the interview, the EU antitrust chief spoke about its three open cases against Alphabet Inc.'s Google, including one in which the EU has accused Google of skewing its online search results to favor its comparison-shopping service. Google rejects the EU's accusations in all three cases.
On the shopping case, Ms. Vestager said the EU was approaching "a final phase" of its investigation, adding that any decision against Google likely would involve remedies that are "future-proof" and therefore likely broader in scope.
"Instead of being specific on page design or screen design, I think it's very important [for us] to focus on how to allow competition," she said. "If you're very specific about what design, you may very quickly be caught up in time."
In a statement sent last year setting out its charges against Google in the shopping case, the EU sketched out ways Google should change its business practices to assuage the bloc's antitrust concerns.
"Remedies may require Google to position and display competitors' comparison shopping services in the same way as it positions its own comparison shopping service in general search results," the EU shopping charge sheet said.
The EU also has formally accused Google of violating the bloc's rules by abusing its dominance with its Android mobile-operating system as well as its advertising service Adsense.
Write to Natalia Drozdiak at email@example.com