Trust-buster of Brussels

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AS EUROPE'S chief anti-trust enforcer, Karel Van Miert performs a tough global balancing act as he arbitrates transatlantic struggles among companies vying for market domination.

Mr Van Miert, a Socialist convert to the free market, says he is neither pro-American nor pro-European, but pro-competition. His opposition to US plane maker Boeing's purchase of McDonnell Douglas led to charges he was sparking a trade war. European critics now say he is pro-American, paving the way for US supremacy by opposing rival European alliances.

That reasoning is lost on the EU 55-year-old Competition Commissioner. "People usually argue very loudly against monopolies," he says. "Now, they tend to forget their arguments and argue in favour of a private monopoly, pointing to the US and saying: 'That's the way to take them on.' I'm not convinced."

Mr Van Miert's views matter. Accountants Ernst & Young and KPMG Peat Marwick last month scrapped plans to merge, citing EU regulatory concerns. Anglo-Dutch publisher Reed Elsevier and Dutch firm Wolters Kluwer gave the same explanation for abandoning their $9bn (pounds 5.3bn) merger.

When Mr Van Miert succeeded British free-marketeer Sir Leon Brittan as Competition Commissioner in 1993, there were fears that his 10 years as head of the Flemish Socialist Party might lead him to favour Europe's state-owned companies. His early EU days revealed a bent for state intervention: as transport commissioner before taking over at competition in 1993, he backed subsidies for Air France and Iberia. But he has since fought subsidies, ruling against aid to Alitalia and Volkswagen.

The consensus in Brussels now is that Mr Van Miert is a free-market convert. He has opposed both public and private monopolies, cartels and unfair state subsidies, taking on companies as big as Volkswagen and Telecom Italia in the process.

Few dispute that he pursues the opening of markets with even-handed toughness. Even critics concede that his application of EU competition law is balanced. One board member at a company fined by Mr Van Miert, who had criticised the decision as political, concedes that "Van Miert approaches competition at a real global level. If you come up with convincing arguments - and he always has an open ear - you always have a chance of getting your case through."

Stephen Kinsella, an EU anti-trust lawyer at Herbert Smith in Brussels, has criticised Mr Van Miert for applying EU competition rules without considering the circumstances of industries. His resistance to mergers in Germany's national digital TV market, critics say, is stunting growth and clearing the way for American rivals. "He can be too rigid in the way he applies the law," Mr Kinsella says, but he praises Mr Van Miert's integrity.

The global scope of his powers is growing as mergers and acquisitions sweep most industries and new markets such as the internet and digital telecoms are scrutinised.

In January, he said there would be over 200 big mergers and acquisitions this year. He urged greater co-operation between anti-trust authorities to "develop a culture worldwide that national competition authorities are global competition authorities". The former socialist has come a long way.

Copyright: IOS & Bloomberg