The European Commission fined 17 steel producers a total of 518 million euros (US$635 million) on June 30 for running a price-fixing cartel, with industry giant ArcelorMittal hit the hardest.
The European Union's competition watchdog said the companies ran a cartel that lasted 18 years to fix the prices of prestressing steel, the long, curled steel wires used in construction to make foundations, balconies or bridges.
The cartel operated in every member of the European Union except Britain, Ireland and Greece between 1984 and 2002, the commission said. It was also in Norway.
ArcelorMittal was handed a fine of 276.5 million euros, which includes a 20% reduction for cooperating with the commission's investigation.
"It is amazing how such a significant number of companies abused nearly the entire European construction market for such a long time and for such a vital product," said EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia.
"This was almost as if they were acting in a planned economy, " he said, warning that the commission would have "no sympathy for cartelists" and that "recidivists" would face more fines.
The cartel broke up in 2002 after German company DWK/Saarstahl revealed its existence under an EU leniency program which was introduced that year. The company was spared a fine for being the first to come clean.
In addition to Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal and DWK/Saarstahl, the cartel included companies from Spain, Portugal, Austria, Italy and Scandinavia.
The cartel held more than 550 meetings since its first gathering in Zurich, the commission said. "The companies involved usually met in the margin of official trade meetings in hotels all over Europe," it said.
The 17 companies fixed individual quotas and prices, allocated clients and exchanged sensitive commercial information, it said. "In addition, they monitored price, client and quota arrangements through a system of national co-ordinators and bilateral contacts."
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010