EC moves towards 'open' mergers policy

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The Independent Online
THE EUROPEAN Community's merger task force is to hold a meeting with national competition authorities on Monday to discuss a controversial review of the EC merger regulation.

Reforms will focus on making the EC's procedures more open to scrutiny, according to Philip Lowe, the task force's director.

He told two seminars yesterday that draft decisions by the task force in the first, investigatory, phase of competition inquiries should be published, allowing national administrations and third parties to comment.

This would include releasing details of any undertakings made by the companies under investigation to modify the merger in response to commission objections.

Deadlines for mergers could also be extended by one month to allow for reactions under the proposed reforms. Many cases never go beyond the first phase, as the commission decides the merger is compatible with its rules.

The proposed changes would also explicitly allow for companies to make such undertakings in the first phase. Revision of the merger regulation would be required for these steps.

In the second, and more detailed, phase of the process the commission also proposes to publish undertakings from companies, again with a possible one-month extension. In both cases the aim is to open up the EC's work to greater scrutiny and assist third parties in commenting on proposed action by the companies involved.

There is still no decision on whether to raise the thresholds above which the EC examines mergers, officials say. The commission is still believed to be considering ways in which they can be raised, but at the same time cases can be easily sent back to national authorities.

This is because many national competition bodies believe that lowering the thresholds would simply transfer power upwards in the community. An increase in transparency may help to win over opinion.

'It would also help stimulate public debate on cases and strengthen public acceptance of the final decision,' Mr Lowe told the American Chamber of Commerce in Brussels.

He was not in favour of an independent agency to examine mergers as proposed by some national authorities. The principles upon which an agency would depend were not clear.

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