Commentary: The popular face of competition

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The Independent Online
The new face of European competition policy is Belgian. Karel van Miert, formerly in charge of transport policy, will succeed Sir Leon Brittan as the commissioner responsible for competition in the new European Commission announced yesterday.

This is one of the rare occasions when the job has gone to a socialist, although, in the context of the Flemish party he represents, this is unlikely to herald a new era of Brussels dirigisme. Not that commissioners, of course, are allowed to defend a national interest.

As with many Belgians, Mr van Miert's strongest political allegiance is to Europe. Remember that his new portfolio was the gift of Jacques Delors, the French Commission President, and although it would be unfair to suggest any ulterior motive, Sir Leon's stewardship was not popular with the French. At the very least, Mr Delors is likely to have chosen someone with a different outlook to replace him.

Just how different remains to be seen. Mr van Miert's record is perhaps a useful pointer. His efforts to liberalise the skies, open US routes to European carriers and deal with the politically sticky problem of road cabotage could certainly not be criticised as protectionist.

In a commission where decisions are taken collegially, it is interesting to note that he casts his vote more often with the free-marketeers than with the interventionists. When Sir Leon stirred the wrath of France in 1991, ruling against Aerospatiale's proposed takeover of de Havilland, Mr van Miert backed him.

In this context it will be interesting to watch the alliance he forms with the German commissioner newly responsible for industrial affairs, Martin Bangemann. Mr Bangemann has a long-cherished dream of creating a European-style Miti to promote European rather than national excellence. It is not an idea popular with French car makers, though the French do favour the interventionism that such a policy implies.

The shape of competition policy to come will to some extent be conditioned by Mr van Miert's hitherto undisclosed feelings on the future of European industry.

There are likely to be limits to which the man will not go. His reluctance to contemplate the speedy break-up of energy and telecoms monopolies - reportedly the next target in Sir Leon's sights - has been publicly recorded.

He is widely popular, enthusiastic about the job and highly competent - an attribute not to be lightly dismissed in one in charge of a technically complex portfolio. Competition is one of the most strictly regulated areas of Community law, and as one insider suggested yesterday: 'Whatever plans he has, his room for manoeuvre will be largely dictated by the rules.'

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