(Adds Eurobat, Clarios comment, details)
By Foo Yun Chee
BRUSSELS, Nov 30 (Reuters) - A group of automotive starter battery makers, trade body Eurobat and its service provider Kellen were accused by EU antitrust regulators on Thursday for breaching antitrust laws by operating a cartel to fix battery prices.
"The five starter batteries manufacturers created, published and agreed to use new indices in their price negotiations with car producers (the so-called 'Eurobat Premium System')," the European Commission said in a statement.
The five manufacturers are Banner, Clarios, Exide, Elettra and Rombat. They make 12-volt lead batteries which are currently used to start most combustion engine cars. The batteries are used for basic back-up functions in cars such as lighting and centralized locks.
The Commission said it had sent a statement of objections to the group, saying the cartel, which ran between 2004 and 2017, aimed to fix an important element of the final battery price.
The EU competition enforcer said Eurobat and its service provider Kellen were aware of the alleged conduct and actively contributed to it by assisting the battery manufacturers in creating and running the Eurobat premium system.
Clarios declined to comment on ongoing investigations and legal proceedings.
"But we do not believe that we are exposed to any material risk. We are co-operating with the authorities in their investigations," the German company said.
The other manufacturers could not be immediately reached for comment.
Eurobat said it has seen the Commission's press statement but not the official document.
"We have not received nor studied the official statement of objections yet, so we cannot make any comment at this point," a spokesperson said.
Companies face fines of as much as 10% of their global turnover for breaching EU antitrust rules. The Commission has in previous years penalised nearly a dozen cartels in the car industry, among them suppliers of automotive bearings, car seats and braking systems. (Reporting by Foo Yun Chee, additional reporting by Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt and Gilles Guillaume in Paris; Editing by Susan Fenton)