BRUSSELS (Financial Times) -- After years spent battling big tech companies and challenging multinational tax avoidance, the EU's antitrust enforcer has a new mission: making sure Hello Kitty can roam free across Europe's single market.
Margrethe Vestager on Tuesday fined Japanese company Sanrio 6.2m euros for abusing its ownership of the popular cartoon character. The EU competition commissioner said companies that had bought licences to put the Hello Kitty brand on products such as bags and clothes had been illegally prevented from making cross-border sales in the bloc.
The commission said Sanrio had banned licence holders from selling outside of their individual EU country, and had taken more indirect measures such as restricting the languages that could be used on the products. The commission said that the illegal curbs, which flout single market rules, were in place from 2008-18.
Ms Vestager said that the decision "confirms that merchants who sell products under licence cannot be prevented from selling in another country".
She added: "When consumers buy a Hello Kitty mug, or a Chococat toy, they can from now on fully reap the benefits of one of the main advantages of the single market."
The decision is part of a broader probe by Brussels into cross-border licensing. The commission in March fined Nike 12.5m euros for illegal restrictions it imposed on licence holders that wanted to sell outside their home country. The antitrust enforcer is also investigating Universal Studios.
The Brussels department has vowed to ramp up enforcement of single market rules in an era when online shopping has vastly increased the potential for cross-border commerce.
Other actions it has taken include successfully pressuring Disneyland Paris to allow customers to decide which national website they wanted to buy their tickets from.
Brussels said that Sanrio had fully co-operated with the investigation and had "explicitly recognised" the breaches of EU competition rules. This led the commission to reduce the fine by 40 per cent, leaving 6.2m euros to pay.
Ms Vestager, a former Danish finance minister, has become one of Europe's most prominent politicians since becoming EU competition commissioner in 2014.
Her time at the helm has been dominated by high-profile cases against US tech groups, including a ruling that Apple had received illegal tax breaks from the Irish government and a 997m euro fine against Qualcomm for abuse of market dominance.
She is set to become one of two senior vice-presidents in the next European Commission, following a deal on top jobs that EU leaders reached last week.