BRUSSELS - The European Commission has alerted automakers that the block exemption granting carmakers exclusive control of their retail networks could be swept away sooner than 2002.
The commission issued its warning after charging Opel with trying to stop its Dutch dealers from selling cars to customers from other EU countries.
The block exemption is due to expire on 30 September 2002.
But at the end of April the EC was given new powers by the Council of Ministers to review competition rules and make changes as early as next year.
The EC said specifically it will re-examine the exemption granted the car industry in 1985. The special rule was renewed in 1995 in exchange for a promise that automakers would not hinder cross-border shopping.
A spokesman for DGIV, the EC's competition division, said this could mean block exemption could be eliminated before 2002.
The move comes after a series of high-profile cases in which the EC has accused carmakers of trying to prevent cross-border trading.
Large differences in pretax prices across Europe have meant increasing numbers of buyers from more expensive countries like the UK and Germany try to buy their cars in cheaper countries.
The EC formally charged Opel on 21 April, according to a spokesman. The charges came after a three-year investigation, and the seizure of documents from Opel offices in Holland and Germany.
The EC has a similar complaint pending against DaimlerChrysler. Renault is also investigation for allegedly trying to stop cross-border shopping.
Last year VW was fined $109 million for stopping its Italian dealers from selling cars to Austrian buyers.
Automakers' border controls, Page 3