Europe to expand its powers over takeovers

Peter Rodgers has a rare interview with the EC's mergers man

Karel Van Miert, the European Commission competition commissioner, has been set the task of producing draft proposals for an early increase in the number of takeover and merger cases vetted by Brussels rather than national bodies such as Britain's Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Mr Van Miert said yesterday in an interview with the Independent that he hoped to be ready with a draft of the new proposals by the end of the year. His decision to raise the issue again, after the Commission's earlier unsuccessful attempts to push through an increase, is bound to annoy the British Government at a time of high political sensitivity over encroachments by Brussels.

Mr Van Miert, a Belgian socialist, acknowledged he could run into political problems over a larger role for the commission. He said: "Some governments are reluctant to enter the debate because, almost immediately, it will be transferred into a debate about rendering additional sovereign rights to Brussels."

But he refused to point the finger at the UK and said he had already had "very good discussions with Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, about all this". In return for an increased role for Brussels, Mr Van Miert promised to beef up the existing procedures for referring Brussels merger cases back to national competition authorities, where appropriate, as well as other improvements such as greater transparency. The commission also plans to introduce similar referral back procedures for cartel investigations.

The key move proposed by Mr Van Miert is to reduce the size threshold at which mergers and takeovers become the responsibility of the European competition authorities rather than national bodies. He claimed widespread backing from European industry for a move to extend the so called one- stop shop in which, once a case falls within Brussels' remit, it cannot be tackled at the same time by the national authority.

Mr Van Miert said: "We, and a considerable part of industry, would like the threshold lower." The one-stop shop, introduced in 1989, gave legal certainty to a company once it was accepted that a case fell within the commission's remit, "so you don't have trouble with the national authorities any more," he said.

Nine out of ten cases were cleared within a month. New data from the commission shows that last year it handled a record number of merger control cases, up to 95 from 48 in 1993 - although competition officials concede resources are now stretched. Mr Van Miert said if the debate was only about the merits of "lowering the threshold on the one hand and beefing up the procedure to refer back to the national authority on the other, I think we could convince most of the governments".

However, he acknowledged the political difficulty and admitted further sounding out of governments is needed. He also refused to put numbers on the new threshold because he first had to find out what ministers would regard as acceptable.

The commission is responsible for vetting mergers if the worldwide combined turnover is more than five billion ecu and if turnover within the union is more than 250 million ecu. There is a let out if more than two thirds of turnover is within a single member state.

Among measures to improve transparency of procedures, Mr Van Miert suggested that companies offering a concession to the commission in order to get a deal approved should announce the proposals at least one month before the end of the vetting timetable. He cited a case involving Procter & Gamble in which the company came up with concessions just before the deadline for the commission to take a final decision. An earlier deadline would allow other interested parties to express their opinions, he said. Although Mr Van Miert wants to extend the commission's influence over merger controls, he came down strongly against a German-influenced plan to create a separate European cartel office outside the commission itself. He said he understood the German view, based on its successful experience with a national cartel office, but added "can you imagine 15 governments sitting around a table talking about the creation of a European cartel office?" Rather than producing a race horse "you are going to have a dromedary," he added.

Turning to the commission's powers to block illegal state aid, Mr Van Miert gave a clear hint of a softening of the commission's line over a controversial Irish government plan to rescue Cork-based Irish Steel with a IR£50m support package. He said: "It was understood in the past that countries like Portugal, Greece and Ireland, where there is just one small steel company, should be looked at with some flexibility."

British Steel is strongly opposed to a bail out and is thought to be backed by the Government, whose position is however complicated by the possible effect on Anglo-Irish relations at a sensitive time in the peace talks.

Mr Van Miert said that before he could make a decision he had to await a consultants' report on whether Irish Steel would return to viability as a result of the aid package. The Irish government is seeking a private sector investor to help allay Brussels' concerns.

The commission's as yet unpublished 1994 competition policy report reveals that new measures are planned to recover illegally disbursed state aid.

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