Brussels 'will block' Government's intervention in AstraZeneca deal, competition lawyers warn

Competition lawyers have warned Brussels will stop ministers from intervening in Pfizer’s £63 billion takeover bid for AstraZeneca,

David Cameron has demanded further commitments from Pfizer over what would be Britain’s largest foreign takeover, and bosses from both the US pharmaceuticals giant and Astra face a grilling in Parliament next week, while Business Secretary Vince Cable has proposed that the takeover could be subjected to a “public interest test”.

But the European Commission allows intervention by national governments only in exceptional cases — and lawyers warned that this was unlikely to be one of them.

“It’s going to be very hard for the Government to intervene,” Anthony Woolich, a competition partner at the law firm Holman Fenwick Willan, told Reuters. “The whole point about the European Commission is that where you have big mergers they should be regulated centrally, and individual member states should not be able to intervene except on exceptional grounds.”

Across the Atlantic, Pfizer — which has had two approaches rebuffed by Astra — is also facing a growing body of opposition as US politicians begin voicing concerns over jobs and taxes.

Senior Democratic senators Carl Levin and Ron Wyden said they were investigating quick ways to close the loophole whereby US companies can avoid local corporation taxes by basing their tax domiciles in low-tax jurisdictions like Britain. Pfizer admits moving its tax address to the UK is a key motivation for the deal.

Today it emerged that two US governors have written to Pfizer chief executive Ian Read expressing “deep concern” about the potential impact of the takeover on “good, family-sustaining jobs”, particularly in the light of Read’s pledge to safeguard a percentage of UK roles.

Governors Martin O’Malley and Jack Markell said the company has yet to make similar pledges to workers in the states of Maryland and Delaware, where Astra employs 3,100 and 2,600  people respectively.

Shares in Astra today dipped 1 per cent to 4663p, having risen yesterday on speculation Pfizer could make a third approach, worth more than 5300p a share.

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