The ICN’s Annual Conference was held this year in Marrakech, Morocco between 22-25th April 2014. I am cursed with a tendency to view events through the lens of metaphor and I have been attempting to find a suitable one for the events of last month. I will admit my understanding of Marrakesh and Morocco prior to arrival was rather limited; from the ‘of its time’/casually racist Road to Morocco (Anthony Quinn as a Sheik?) to the Tangier haven for the Beat Poets of Paul Bowles, Allan Ginsburg and William Burroughs and the Marrakesh home of Yves-Sant Laurent it was clear that Marrakesh was unlikely to be capable of easy stereotyping. The travel writing of Paul Bowles and his translation of works by local authors like Mohammed Mrabet certainly gave a sense of the country; although less of Marrakesh itself.
I am thus left with three themes for my note from Marrakesh; two from Paul Bowles and one from the Naked Gun. First, to Bowles: “In 1931, without any preconceived notion of what I should find there, I paid a visit to Morocco. Two months, I thought, would suffice for seeing the place. And so they would have if what I saw had not awakened a wish to see more, a wish which seemed to grow even as it was being satisfied. At first it expressed itself as a desire to wander over the surface of the land … After the War I returned to Morocco and bought a home there. This time I became aware of the fact that it was not the landscape I wanted to know, but the people.”
To borrow from Bowles; the ICN is, above all things, about the people, not the places. This is particularly apposite this year as the poor Irish Competition Authority was unfairly attacked in its national media for disappearing off on a ‘junket’ to the ICN! One of the most heartening developments at the ICN over the years is how well the working relationships are evolving across borders. To meet up with colleagues from, for example, the Portuguese competition authority who are seconded into the Brazilian authority with regularity, is to see a community more at ease within itself and more open to sharing approaches and lessons. It is also the case that one of the weaknesses of the ICN in the past, namely the dominance of the large developed world authorities, has lessened a good deal of late. The authorities from the developing world have staked more ground and gained more credibility’ largely through just doing their job – enforcing competition law. The focus this year on the development of a competition culture also forced the larger agencies to recognise the scale of the task that some agencies in developing countries face in countering often well entrenched anti-competitive forces. Having more conference sessions in French, with presentations in Arabic (with translation naturally!) was also an element that added to a more inclusive meeting. The gender balance is still heavily male, but there were certainly more women in evidence on panels and on plenary sessons than in the past, which is definitely a positive development.
The main conference sessions were centred on State Owned Enterprises and the need to discipline them in their many interactions with the market; the culture of competition; and the usual range of issues under the rubrics of advocacy, cartel enforcement. merger investigation and unilateral conduct. The latter produced the Naked Gun reference alluded to above. In that modern movie great there is a wonderful scene when Lt Frank Drebin (played brilliantly by the late, great Canadian Leslie Neilsen) chases a suspect through the streets. The suspect ends up being blwon up in ever more ridiculous ways, culminating in his crashing into a firework factory on a missile. Lt Drebin stands in front of the resulting spectacular firework show waving away spectators saying ‘nothing to see here, nothing to see here, move along, move along’.
There is the perennial feeling at ICN that the private bar is the Lt Drebin of the competition world, standing in front of authorities considering unilateral conduct cases waving their arms telling them that ‘there is nothing to see here, move along, move along.’ Of course, after Microsoft, Intel, Google et al, the competition community is well aware that the firework show is worth watching – but it is always entertaining to see the private bar try to divert attention away from an entire area of enforcement. In the end the sessons on unilateral conduct were remarkably dull; which may well have been the plan. What is an interesting and exciting topic, and least of all topical, never quite lived up to its billing.
My final observation on the ICN at Morocco comes again from Paul Bowles. I would recommend anyone interested in travel or existential literature to give Bowles a try. His travel writing, in particular, is well paced and observed. In his most famous work, The Sheltering Sky (turned into a rather disappointing film by Bernardo Bertolucci) he drew an interesting distinction between the tourist and traveller. This distinction has always seemed important to me given the stinging criticism an old, and dearly missed, boss of mine used to make of’consumer tourists’ – those who travelled the world attending pointless conferences. Bowles argues that: ‘another important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.’
I would argue that in the early years of the ICN the main competition bodies were in significant part ‘competition tourists’ at ICN meeting accepting entirely their own competition culture without question. However, of late the continual interactions at ICN has made many of those’competition tourists’ into ‘competition travellers’ which is good news for us all. The competition travellers who attended ICN Morocco were more willing than ever to compare and contrast the different approaches to competition law and policy and reject those pieces that they did not favour; rather than simply assuming that they knew best. Given the remit of the ICN this is progress indeed.
On a lighter note I like to pick out a couple of small anecdotes to provide a flavour of the meeting. The conference was held in a Golf Resort just outside Marrakech and the many ICN delegates mixed with a rather bemused looking bunch of tourists who were trying to get away on an Easter break. The surprise on the face of tourists surrounded by people in suits was nothing on the surprise on the faces of many delegates when they discovered (thinking of providing flavour) the main dinner reception was not only dry (a real shock for many delegates!) – but involved a dish of sheep brains. Authentic Moroccan certainly, but a bit of a shock for some delegates given there was no menu explaining what all the dishes were. Spare also a thought for the South African delegates who were popular not just for their winning personalities, or competition work; but for updates on the Oscar Pistorius trial!
So to conclude ICN is certainly developing in a positive direction. The desire to keep a lid on dissent or serious debate is still strong and perhaps decreasingly warranted. The natural reaction to the heat generated by past ICN debates on ‘fair’ trading and unilateral conduct has rather run its course and I suspect that future meetings would be more capable of dealing with what disharmony and dispute there is without undermining the functioning of the body itself. The long standing nature of many of the participants and increasingly close working relationships between many makes significant conflict less likely to cause significant rifts. The Morocco ICN meeting thus helped remind us that the ICN is all about the people, rather than the places, and that we should consider ourselves competition travellers rather than competition tourists. It also reminded us to be wary of people stood in front of firework displays telling us that there is nothing to look at!