Bush hates him, Brown hates him and EMI hates him. So what's Mr Monti doing right?

A protectionist control-freak or a principled academic? The theories surrounding Europe's Competition Commissioner
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The Independent Online

Mario Monti has inspired two different theories. The first is that the silver-haired Italian is a fastidious academic, obsessed with detail and on a mission to ensure that big business behaves itself. The second, more conspiratorial view, is that beneath his slight exterior is a man hell-bent on European empire building; craving power and surrounding himself with brilliant aides to make his department a feared force in world commerce.

The Brussels office of Europe's Competition Commissioner, and one of the most influential forces in international business, reflects these contradictions. Vast in size, grand in décor with one of the best views of the city, the office reminds the few visitors that are granted entrance that they are meeting a powerful man. Inside, clues suggest that the office belongs to a pernickety person: papers lie on his desk in numerous piles as neatly as the pictures lined up on the wall.

A recent visitor to Mr Monti's office was Jack Welch, the boss of General Electric, the world's largest company. He may well visit Mr Monti again this week, but it won't be a social call.

Mr Monti is threatening to scupper one of the biggest ever corporate deals: GE's proposed take over of Honeywell. In a sign that Mr Welch senses defeat, he is rewriting a chapter in his forthcoming autobiography this weekend to gloss over the affair.

Mr Monti has already endured the wrath of US President George Bush, who has accused the commissioner of meddling. But it's not just the American political élite that has been riled by "Super Mario". Britain's Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has lashed out over delays to state aid approval and Stephen Byers, a former secretary of state for trade, was irreparably wounded by Mr Monti's rejection of a £152m aid package to the Longbridge car plant that forced BMW's sale of Rover.

And mention Mr Monti to Eric Nicoli, the chairman of EMI, and you are likely to get a terse response as the competition commission has twice sunk the company's merger plans.

Mr Monti is a silent but deadly force in Europe, able to cut down political and business reputations in a stroke.

Born in Varese, Lombardy, he spent most of his working life as a university lecturer, latterly as professor of economics at the prestigious Bocconi University in Milan. The Commission beckoned to him in 1987 and he landed a job as member of the team drafting the Competition Act, a law that he rules today with a rod of iron. In 1995 he became the internal market commissioner, where he is widely thought to have done a solid but unremarkable job.

Whiter than white, he survived the 1999 European Commission bloodbath in which 20 commissioners resigned over allegations of corruption and he was promoted to head the competition department.

Now, as Europe's competition supremo, he has found his niche. He was recently courted by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister, with the offer of becoming his country's foreign minister, but Mr Monti swiftly rebuffed the media tycoon. His term as competition commissioner ends in 2004 and sources close to Mr Monti say that he intends to stand for a second term.

People who have dealings with him are struck by his polite, understated manner. "I have actually never heard a bad word said against Mario Monti," says Diana Wallis, a Liberal Democrat MEP. "And don't forget that he has to be quite nasty to be effective in his job." Keith Boyfield, a British economist and writer, says: "I am actually rather fond of him. He's a bit of an Anglophile; quite dapper, with a very dry sense of humour."

But the overriding sense people have of Mr Monti, is of his intellect and obsession with doing things by the book. This can be incredibly frustrating or helpful, depending on whether you are standing on the same side of the fence as Mr Monti. Says one competition lawyer, who recently had dealings with the commissioner: "It was bloody frustrating, to be honest. It seemed like everything was banned unless he explicitly said it wasn't."

Others like the fact that they know what they are getting when dealing with Mr Monti. Michael Reynolds, a partner at Allen & Overy, a City law firm, represented Sprint in its planned £80bn merger with MCI WorldCom before it was blocked by the commissioner. "Mr Monti is very methodical and is incredibly well briefed," Mr Reynolds says. "You know where you stand with him. You know that he will not go sideways on an issue because of lobbying or political pressure."

Often to be found sporting a Prince of Wales check suit, Mr Monti has a more uptight manner than his more flamboyant Belgian predecessor, Karel van Miert. One source who has duelled with both men on competition issues says: "With Van Miert, you would could go into his office, fling back in an easy chair and chat. The chairs in Mr Monti's office are upright and uncomfortable."

Mr Monti has gathered around him a close circle of bright, loyal advisers. They include two official spokesmen and five experts in economics and law. According to commission sources, he commands the upmost respect from his advisers and delegates power to them in return.

So, what motivates him? Is he just a brilliant but mild-mannered academic or does he have a power-hungry alter ego? Certainly, plenty of Americans believe the latter.

Incensed by Mr Monti's decision to impose strict conditions on the GE-Honeywell deal while the US regulators let it go scott-free, some American commentators believe that he and his close ally, the European Commission President, Romano Prodi, are plotting to protect European business interests. "The cynical view is that Monti and his department are promoting and building their own powers," says Mr Boyfield. "By taking on the biggest company in the world, Mr Monti is flexing his muscles."

This was the sentiment in a strongly worded letter sent by US Senator John "Jay" Rockefeller to the commission last week. It says: "My concern is that we don't end up having bad policies imposed on us as Europeans try to protect themselves when they have lost the competitive edge."

Similarly, Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, the chairman of the US Senate commerce committee, accused Mr Monti of using competition policy to promote European business. In a letter to the European Trade Commissioner, Pascal Lamy, Mr Hollings accused Mr Monti of applying an "apparent double standard" by swiftly approving mergers involving European firms while holding up deals involving US companies.

GE refuses to comment openly about the case, but executives are understood to be miffed by the fact that they have little redress on decisions made by Mr Monti. If they were to appeal, it would take years for the case to be heard, because of the legalistic European system.

Mr Monti has said he came down hard on the GE-Honeywell deal because he feared that the enlarged group would be able to dominate the market by "bundling" the sale of aircraft engines, components and services to customers at a discount. According to economists, this case is the first test of his new policy stance on conglomerates, known in Brussels as the "range effect" or "portfolio doctrine".

If Mr Monti stands his ground this week with GE – and there is every sign that he will – then the decision has to be ratified by the EU member states. Mr Monti needs 11 votes out of 20 to win and there are few signs that voting will go against him. If he wins, it will have far reaching implications for future deals as Mr Monti's "range effect" would have to be factored into every new merger proposal.

"If the GE-Honeywell deal doesn't go through then, boy, will this lead to more friction," says Mr Boyfield. "It will act as a huge barrier and disincentive to future international mergers."

But the American argument that Mr Monti is motivated by a strong desire to protect domestic European interests may be a little simplistic. Mr Monti has knocked back many European companies' plans, too. Notably, he forced Unilever to sell brands as a condition for approving the acquisition of Best Foods. And he lashed out earlier this month at Electricitè de France (EdF), the state owned utility that has been buying up European counterparts, including London Electricity.

Mr Monti is incensed at what he sees as double standards. While EdF has been romping around Europe, the French Government has kept is own electricity market firmly shut to foreign competition.

So, back to the two theories about Mr Monti. Which one is it to be? A serious, principled, academic with the hide of a Rhino, or power hungry control freak. The answer is probably the former with just a hint of the latter.