EU antitrust regulators have carried out "unannounced inspections" on energy companies in six EU countries on suspicion of abusing their market power, the European Commission said Wednesday.
Germany's 20 million households using gas have seen their bill double over 10 years
The raids, which were made Tuesday by EU officials and relevant national regulators, targeted gas groups in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and Italy and electricity firms in Hungary.
"The commission has reason to believe that the companies concerned may have violated (EU) antitrust rules that prohibit restrictive business practices and/or abuse of a dominant market position," it said in a statement.
Inspections do not signal guilt
E.ON imports about half of Germany's gas
The EU executive did not name the firms that had been visited. German utilities RWE and Eon, Austrian energy firm OMV, Belgian gas groups Fluxys and Distrigas, French state-controlled Gaz de France, Italian energy group ENI and Hungarian state-owned power supplier MVM, however, all confirmed they had received inspectors.
Spokespeople from both the German companies said they were working closing with the regulators but would not give additional details, according to the Associated Press. Eon-Ruhrgas imports nearly half of the gas used in Germany.
Commission spokesman Jonathan Todd stressed that the raids, which mark the first steps in probes into suspected anti-competitive practices, did not necessarily mean that the companies were guilty of breaking EU law.
Inspectors were looking for evidence that the gas companies had restricted access to pipelines and storage facilities and agreed to divide the market, he said.
Inspections welcomed by consumer groups
An extra cold German winter boosted gas revenues
"It is obvious that there is no competition in the gas market," Holger Krawinkel of Germany's Federal Association for Consumer Protection told the Tagesspiegel newspaper on Thursday.
Brussels has long complained about a lack of competition among EU energy companies and earlier this year warned that it would use its antitrust powers to crack down on companies it considered to be blocking competition.
"The commission has made greater competition in the energy sector a priority but it is finding that prices aren't moving," added Jean-Francois Bellis, of the Brussels' Free University. "So it's normal that it takes action."
Several months are likely to be needed before the EU regulators decide to lodge formal charges against the companies targeted by the raids.