European competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, best known in these parts for presiding over a decision in 2016 that Apple received €13 billion of illegal State aid from the Republic over the course of a decade, has fired another shot in the direction of Dublin days before European elections and the current commission becomes something of a lame duck.
At 11:53am Brussels times, the European Commission sent out a press release announcing in the name of Vestager that it had opened a formal antitrust investigation into whether Insurance Ireland, an industry body, has made it difficult for companies seeking to enter the insurance market to have access to a key database.
Insurance Link, up and running since 1988, captures the name and addresses of individuals or companies that have made insurance claims as well as the type of claim involved. As such, it is an important tool used by companies in the sector when considering offering a quote.
It’s not clear what party made the initial complaint that led to European Commission officials carrying out a dawn raid of Insurance Ireland’s offices in Dublin, but Vestager’s team are clearly convinced there’s a case to be answered.
Insurance Ireland has come out fighting. In a statement to The Irish Times, the body's chief executive Kevin Thompson insisted that any insurer, domestic or foreign, can access Insurance Link and that its effectiveness is only enhanced by having as many entities as possible that provide coverage to punch information into the database.
The database is also open to large companies that self insure as well as some large county councils.
The wheels of anti-trust investigations turn slowly and this case could take years before any decision is reached.
Just look at the Competition and Consumer Protection Committee (CCPC), which launched an investigation in September 2016 into whether motor insurers were essentially engaging in price fixing by pre-announcing planned premium price movements.
Almost three years’ later there’s still no outcome, though the CCPC said on Tuesday that it was in the “latter stages” of the process.
The fear, however, is that the noise around the European Commission’s formal investigation of Insurance Ireland could take the political focus in Ireland off necessary reforms of the sector.
For instance, the Judicial Council Bill, unveiled in 2017, that would allow judges to recalibrate guidelines for personal injury compensation, still hasn't worked its way through the Oireachtas. The need for a more sensible approach to award was underscored by a Personal Injuries Commission report last year that found the average compensation award for whiplash in Ireland is almost four-and-a-half-times higher than in the UK.
As Brussels has its job to do, so, too, do the authorities here.