Outlook: When Brussels knows best

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The Independent Online
On 1 March another slice of decision-making power will be taken away from the European Union's individual member states and handed over to Brussels. From that date, the EC will assume the authority for vetting all mergers involving companies with a combined turnover of more than 2.5bn ecus (pounds 1.6bn). The previous threshold was 5bn ecus.

Ordinarily, such a flow of power away from national authorities into the labyrinthe of the Berlaymont building would be a cause for concern. For one thing, it runs directly counter to the principle of subsidiarity - the idea that decision making is best devolved to member states wherever possible.

On this occasion, however, there will be dancing in the streets of the City, even among its not inconsiderable corps of Europhobes. The reason is that decisions on a great many more mergers will be taken out of the UK political arena and judged solely on their impact on competition within the single European market.

Margaret Beckett, the President of the Board of Trade, has pledged publicly that competition will continue to be the overriding consideration driving mergers policy. But it is not for nothing that she is now known as Mrs Blockit. The suspicion is that a great many other factors are privately taken into account - such as jobs, regional policy and the origins of the bidder. The decison to refer PacifiCorp's bid for Energy Group, for instance, had nothing to do with competition issues.

The number of bids that already escape UK scrutiny may be small but they are also the biggest. Mr Beckett would dearly have loved to get her hands on Guinness-GrandMet but was powerless. Likewise she will have to sit by while Glaxo-SmithKline goes to the EC's mergers task force. From 1 March, the trickle will turn into a river, if not a flood, since pounds 1.6bn of combined sales is scarcely a demanding hurdle these days. It irks to see Brussels subsuming more and more power but it surely cannot be a bad thing if it stops meddling, self-interested politicians from pursuing unsafe policy.