EU competition chief ends dispute over 'conflict' cases

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The European Union's new Competition Commissioner, Neelie Kroes, is to stand aside from five cases or policy decisions - four of which involve British companies - because of conflicts of interest, it emerged yesterday.

The European Union's new Competition Commissioner, Neelie Kroes, is to stand aside from five cases or policy decisions - four of which involve British companies - because of conflicts of interest, it emerged yesterday.

After a political row over Ms Kroes's links with 30 companies during the past decade, the Dutch businesswoman agreed to disqualify herself for one year from any case involving a company for which she worked as a board member.

The commission said yesterday that, of the investigations which have been made public, Ms Kroes would be handing over responsibility for five decisions. One is an inquiry into roaming charges for mobile phones involving Britain's mmO2, on whose non-executive board Ms Kroes sat. The telecoms company is being investigated for abuse of a dominant market position.

But three more decisions involve Royal P&O Nedlloyd, the freight group part-owned by P&O, on whose supervisory board the commissioner also sat. The most urgent decision facing the commission is whether to allow the company and Europe Container Terminals to take joint ownership of Euromax Beheer, a business which is developing and would operate a terminal at the port of Rotterdam.

An ongoing case dates back to September 2003, when EU officials raided P&O, Denmark's Scandlines, its Swedish rival Stena, and the Anglo-French Eurotunnel for evidence of a suspected cartel. P&O's interest are also at stake in a more general inquiry into whether to end an exemption from normal EU competition rules given to freight shipping lines. The fifth decision involves accusations of price fixing against Ballast Nedam - another of the companies on whose board Ms Kroes sat.

Under the special rules laid down for Ms Kroes, the director general for competition policy, Philip Lowe, will make formal recommendations to the commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, on cases with potential clashes of interest. Mr Barroso will then either decide himself or allocate the work to another of his commissioners who will rule on the recommendations of Mr Lowe and his officials. Mr Barroso said he was still awaiting formal notification of the cases involved.

Ms Kroes's spokesman, Jonathan Todd, said the number of cases was "a drop in the ocean" compared with the 1,300 ongoing cases. He added: "Neelie Kroes is determined to demonstrate that she will avoid all potential conflicts of interest in her job as Competition Commissioner." Ms Kroes has severed all her business ties, placed her £1.3m stock portfolio in a blind trust, and promised not to work in the private sector when she completes her job in Brussels.

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