2019 Year-End German Law Update

Author:Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher
Profession:Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher
 
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Since the end of World War II, Germany's foreign policy and economic well-being were built on three core pillars: (i) a strong transatlantic alliance and friendship, (ii) stable and influential international institutions and organizations, such as first and foremost, the EU, but also others such as the UN and GATT, and, finally, (iii) the rule of law. Each of these pillars has suffered significant cracks in the last years requiring a fundamental re-assessment of Germany's place in the world and the way the world's fourth largest economy should deal with its friends, partners, contenders and challengers. A few recent observations highlight the urgency of the issue:

The transatlantic alliance and friendship has been eroding over many years. A recent Civey study conducted for the think tank Atlantic-Brücke showed that 57.6% of Germans prefer a "greater distance" to the U.S., 84.6% of the 5,000 persons polled by Civey described the German-American relationship as negative or very negative, while only 10.4% considered the relationship as positive. The current state of many international institutions and organizations also requires substantial overhaul, to put it mildly: After Brexit has occurred, the EU will have to re-define its role for its remaining 27 member states and its (new) relationship with the UK, which is still the fifth-largest economy on a stand-alone basis. GATT was rendered de facto dysfunctional on December 10, 2019, when its Appellate Body lost its quorum to hear new appeals. New members cannot be approved because of the United States' veto against the appointment of new appeal judges. The UN is also suffering from a vacuum created by an attitude of disengagement shown by the U.S., that is now being filled by its contenders on the international stage, mainly China and Russia. Finally, the concept of the rule of law has come under pressure for some years through a combination of several trends: (i) the ever expanding body of national laws with extra-territorial effect (such as the FCPA or international sanction regulations), a rule-making trend not only favored by the U.S., but also by China, Russia, the EU and its member states alike, (ii) the trend - recently observed in some EU member states - that the political party in charge of the legislative and executive branch initiates legislative changes designed to curtail the independence of courts (e.g. Poland and Hungary), and (iii) the rise of populist parties that have enjoyed land-slide gains in many countries (including some German federal states) and promulgate simple solutions, not least by cutting corners and curtailing legal procedures and legal traditions. These fundamental challenges occur toward the end of a period of unprecedented rise in wealth and economic success of the German economy: Germany has reaped the benefits of eight decades of peace and the end of the Cold War after the decay of the Soviet Union. It regained efficiencies after ambitious structural changes to its welfare state in the early years of the millennium, and it re-emerged as a winner from the 2008 financial crisis benefiting (among others) from the short-term effects of the European Central Bank's policy of a cheap Euro that mainly benefits the powerful German export machine (at the mid- and long-term cost to German individual savers).

The robust economy that Germany enjoyed over the last decade resulted in record budgets, a reduction of public debt, a significant reduction in unemployment, and individual consumption at record levels. Therefore, the prospects of successfully addressing the above challenges are positive. However, unless straight forward and significant steps are identified and implemented to address the challenges ahead, the devil will be in the detail. The legislative changes across all practice areas covered in this year-end update are partly encouraging, partly disappointing in this respect.

It is impossible to know whether the new laws and regulations will, on balance, make Germany a stronger and more competitive economy in 2020 and beyond. Healthy professional skepticism is warranted when assessing many of the changes suggested and introduced. However, we at Gibson Dunn are determined and committed to ensuring that we utilize the opportunities created by the new laws to the best benefit of our clients, and, at the same time, helping them in their quest to limit any resulting threats to the absolute minimum.

As in prior years, in order to succeed in that, we will require your trust and confidence in our ability to support you in your most complicated and important business decisions and to help you form your views and strategies to deal with sophisticated German legal issues in times of fundamental change.

Your real-world questions and the tasks you entrust us with related to the above developments and changes help us in forming our expertise and sharpening our focus. This adds the necessary color that allows us to paint an accurate picture of the multifaceted world we are living in, and on this basis, it will allow you to make sound business decisions in the interesting times to come. In this context, we are excited about every opportunity you will provide us with to help shaping our joint future in the years to come.

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Table of Contents

Corporate, M&A Tax Financing and Restructuring Labor and Employment Real Estate Compliance and Litigation Antitrust and Merger Control Data Protection IP & Technology 1. Corporate, M&A

1.1 ARUG II - New Transparency Rules for Listed German Corporations, Institutional Investors, Asset Managers, and Proxy Advisors

In November 2019, the German parliament passed ARUG II, a long awaited piece of legislation implementing the revised European Shareholders' Rights Directive (Directive (EU) 2017/828). ARUG II is primarily aimed at listed German companies and provides changes with respect to "say on pay" provisions, as well as additional approval and disclosure requirements for related party transactions, the transmission of information between a corporation and its shareholders and additional transparency and reporting requirements for institutional investors, asset managers and proxy advisors.

"Say on pay" on remuneration of board members; remuneration policy and remuneration report

In a German stock corporation, shareholders determine the remuneration of the supervisory board members at a shareholder meeting, whereas the remuneration of the management board members is decided by the supervisory board. Under ARUG II, shareholders of German listed companies must be asked to vote on the remuneration of the board members pursuant to a prescribed procedure. First, the supervisory board will have to prepare a detailed remuneration policy (including maximum remuneration amounts) for the management board, which must be submitted to the shareholders if there are major changes to the remuneration, and in any event at least once every four years. The result of the vote on the policy will only be advisory except that the shareholders' vote to reduce the maximum remuneration amount will be binding. With respect to the remuneration of supervisory board members, the new rules require a shareholder vote at least once every four years. Second, at the annual shareholders' meeting, the shareholders will vote ex post on the remuneration report which contains the remuneration granted to the present and former members of the management board and the supervisory board in the previous financial year. Again, the shareholders' vote, however, will only be advisory. Both the remuneration report and the remuneration policy have to be made public on the company's website for at least ten years.

The changes introduced by ARUG II will not apply retroactively and will not therefore affect management board members' existing service agreements, i.e. such agreements will not have to be amended in case they do not comply with the new remuneration policy.

Related party transactions

German stock corporation law already provides for various safeguards to protect minority shareholders in transactions with major shareholders or other related parties (e.g. the capital maintenance rules and the laws relating to groups of companies). In the future, for listed companies, these mechanisms will be supplemented by a detailed set of approval and transparency requirements for related party transactions. In particular, transactions exceeding certain thresholds will require prior supervisory board approval, provided that a rejection by the supervisory board can be overruled by shareholder vote, and a listed company must publicly disclose any such material related party transaction, without undue delay over media channels providing for European-wide distribution.

Communication / Know-your-Shareholder

Listed corporations will have the right to request information on the identity of their shareholders, including the name and both a postal and electronic address, from depositary banks, thus allowing for a direct communication line, also with respect to bearer shares ("know-your-shareholder"). Furthermore, depositary banks and other intermediaries will be required to pass on important information from the corporation to the shareholders and vice versa, e.g. with respect to voting in shareholders' meetings and the exercise of subscription rights. Where there is more than one intermediary in a chain, the intermediaries are required to pass on the respective information within the chain.

Increased transparency requirements for institutional investors, asset managers and proxy advisors

Institutional investors and asset managers will be required to disclose their engagement policy (including how they monitor, influence and communicate with investee companies, exercise shareholders' rights and manage actual and potential conflicts of interests). They will also have to report annually on the implementation of their engagement...

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