European commissioner attacks BSkyB alliance with BT

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The Independent Online
The European Commission has hit out at two alliances between media companies which could cause "serious" concern.

It said yesterday that it had "serious doubts" about the pounds 18bn merger of the publishers Reed Elsevier and Wolters Kluwer and had decided to open an in-depth investigation into the deal. In a statement, the EC said there were "very significant overlaps between the activities of both parties in several areas (for example in the areas of legal and tax publishing), where the position of either one or both of the parties seems already strong at the moment". The EC has four months to announce a final decision on the deal.

Mark Armour, chief financial officer of Reed, said yesterday: "It's premature to speculate where the European Commission will focus particularly. There will be an enormous amount of communication between us and the EC over the coming months."

The market did not appear to be concerned by the announcement, and Reed shares closed up 19p to 619p. Analysts said it was possible the EC could ask Reed and Wolters to make some disposals in order to get clearance for the deal.

In a separate move, Karel Van Miert, the European competition commissioner, attacked BSkyB's alliance with BT, saying "it risks creating a monopoly". The pair are partners in British Interactive Broadcasting (BIB), which is also backed by Matsushita Electric and Midland Bank. BSkyB's shares dropped 13p to 428p on the news. The EC is presently investigating BIB, which is to provide interactive services for digital television.

Mr Van Miert said the anticipation of a European single currency was the catalyst for an explosion in the number of mergers. He added that the EC would have been notified of around 150 mergers and takeovers by the end of 1997, an increase of 15 per cent on the previous year.