Commission wipes slate clean over aid received by Sernam
By Sophie Mosca | Wednesday 04 April 2012
The smoke is clearing for French transport and logistics firm Sernam, currently in receivership, following a 4 April decision by the European Commission to accept that it will not be reimbursed by a potential buyer for Sernam for €642 million of public aid paid to the failedcompany over the last ten years.
On 9 March, the Commission’s Competition Directorate-General judged that these subsidies were illegal and called for the French state to be reimbursed for the aid (see
Europolitics4382). However, Géodis - the only company interested in buying Sernam - did not want to pay back this sum. Its proposal to buy out Sernam was based on the condition that it would not have to take on this retrocession and that the company should be viable.
The commercial court of Nanterre, France, decided to prolong the period of observation of Sernam until 10 April in order to allow the Commission to give an opinion on the first condition stated by Géodis. The Director-General of Géodis, Pierre Blayau, highlighted, on 27 March, that he hoped for a “rapid and definitive assurance” from the Commission “if possible within the next week” – which he has indeed received.
DISCONTINUATION OF ACTIVITIES
In order to be able to clear this debt, meaning effectively that it would be considered as part of Sernam’s past history and therefore abandoned within the context of its receivership, it was necessary to prove that there was no economic continuation of Sernam’s activities by Géodis.
For Paris, the very fact that a liquidation procedure had begun signified, under French law, such a discontinuation of activity. However, this was not enough for the Commission, as Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia explained, on 28 March, based on the court’s case law: “Above all, we must proceed to a sale under market conditions; to a transparent, non-discriminatory and unconditional call for tender. The economic strategy of the buyer should be different to that of the original company and should substantially reduce its capacities”.
These conditions were examined by Almunia’s services and have led to the disappearance of Sernam as a company; meaning its brand, its network, its fleet and its commerical connections, as well as the fact that only part of its activities will be resumed by Géodis. According to the Commission, this shows that a new economic strategy is being used. There are also no links between Sernam and Géodis’ shareholders, which shows that Géodis’ resumption of activities is not just a means of continuing activities under another name, while circumnavigating the problem of Sernam’s debt. Moreover, says the Commission, Sernam’s assets have been the subject of an open, transparent and non-discriminatory call for tender within the framework of the legal procedure, and the French authorities have agreed to provide a report on the implementation of the sales procedure.