The European Union yesterday gave the go-ahead to Vodafone AirTouch's £105bn takeover of Mannesmann after gaining assurances that the enlarged group would dispose of Orange, the German group's UK mobile subsidiary, and allow rival operators access to its pan-European network.
Chris Gent, Vodafone chief executive, welcomed the decision, which was expected. He said: "After what has been, quite appropriately, an extremely thorough investigation, I am pleased that we have been able to satisfy all the issues that were raised by the EU Commission and third parties in phase 1." Vodafone shares closed down 0.5p at 312.5p.
Although the EU is thought to favour the option of a delisting of Orange, which has already been placed in a blind trust, the announcement is expected to trigger a flurry of approaches from rivals eager to snap up the UK's third-ranked operator. A Vodafone spokesman said yesterday that the company had already had "one or two" calls from potential buyers. The front runners are likely to be France Telecom, Spain's Telefonica or Holland's KPN Telecom.
Hans Snook, Orange chief executive, said he was looking forward to returning to the stock market as an independent. He said: "This is great news... Orange has the potential to be one of the truly global mobile brands." The group hopes to relist in London in June, when its shares are expected to soar.
The Commission said it had received "a significant number of complaints" from mobile groups fearing that the world's biggest corporate takeover would give Vodafone too much dominance in Europe. The merger will create a colossus spanning 25 countries and serving 54 million customers. The competition body insisted that the merged group open up access to its inter-operator roaming tariffs and wholesale services for three years.
Vodafone confirmed that the group would now seek the speedy disposal of Atecs, Mannesmann's non-telecoms unit.