French ministers blocked Suez deal, claims Enel

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The Independent Online

Italy's Enel stepped up its campaign yesterday against the merger designed to keep it out of France's energy market, lodging with the European Commission documents that claim the French government prevented an Italian bid for Suez.

The authorities in Brussels promised to study the complaint, which was sent after days of argument over the €73bn (£51bn) merger of Gaz de France and Suez, amid fears of a new wave of protectionist takeovers.

The planned French tie-up, which will create one of Europe's largest energy companies, was made public on Saturday after it had emerged that Enel was planning a bid for Suez. According to the document, Enel had been in talks with French water company Veolia since 18 November 2005 about making a joint purchase of Suez.

On 22 February, Veolia's chief executive, Henri Proglio, told his counterpart at Enel, Fulvio Conti, that he had been "invited" to drop the negotiations with the Italian utility giant, the paper said. That call was made after the French President, Jacques Chirac, told the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, that any bid for Suez from Enel would be considered hostile, the Italian company said.

The document is significant because the Commission said this week that it requires evidence before it could act against any potential breach of EU rules on free movement of capital, which bar discrimination on grounds of nationality. Oliver Drewes, the spokesman for the Internal Market commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, said he welcomed receipt of a document containing "factual information", adding: "On the basis of that document we might be able to do an analysis on a more factual basis."

The French merger, and a likely tie-up between Spain's Endesa with the Barcelona-based Gas Natural, has raised fears of a wave of protectionism in the European energy sector. The Commission's president, José Manuel Barroso, has appealed to countries to avoid "nationalist rhetoric".

Italy's Economy minister, Giulio Tremonti, said: "The problem is not whether... there was an offer from Enel, the problem is that there is a government operation, that the government is saying 'let's do this merger'."

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