Karel Van Miert: Eurocrat who took on big business as Competition Commissioner

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Karel Van Miert was best known for his work as European competition commissioner from 1993 to 1999, a role in which he took on some of the biggest names in business. During his career he moved from being a Belgian radical socialist and a pacifist to being a much sought-after adviser welcomed in boardrooms worldwide in a career that encompassed academe, politics, the European Commission and business.

Karel Van Miert was born in Oud- Turnhout, the eldest of nine children of a Flemish farming family. From 1962 to 1966, he studied at Ghent University gaining a degree in diplomatic sciences.

From 1968 to 1970, he worked for the Belgian National Scientific Research Fund, and lectured in international law at the Free Universityof Brussels from 1971 to 1973. He served as assistant to Henri Simonet, vicepresident of the European Commission from 1973 to 1975, and was a parttime lecturer on European institutions at Vrije University, Brussels, from 1978 to 1994.

In 1976 he was elected national secretary of the Belgian socialist party.

When the Socialists split along linguistic lines, in 1978, he took over as chairman of the Flemish socialist party, until 1988. He also served as a member of the European parliament (1979-85) and a Belgian MP (1985-89), and was a vice president of the Socialist International for six years, from 1986-1992.

In 1989, Van Miert was appointed European commissioner responsible for transport, credit, investment and consumer policy. In 1992 the environment was added to his responsibilities.

From 1993 until 1999 he served as vicechairman of the European Commission and was responsible for competition policy. He trod in the footsteps of Sir Leon Brittan, the Conservative free-marketeer with whom he had clashed earlier by supporting state subsidies for transportation. For this reason, and because of his socialist origins, some doubted Van Miert’s commitment to the free-market cause.

He was not afraid of making enemies. He infuriated the German chancellor Helmut Kohl by vetoing a proposed digital television joint venture between the Munich-based Kirch Group and the huge media company Bertelsmann AG. He caused anger in Paris by forcing the French government to sell off assets worth $113bn of the failing bank Credit Lyonnais in exchange for his approval of Paris’s expensive effort to salvage the bank in preparation for privatisation in 1999.

He also managed to annoy Americans, including President Clinton, when he objected to Boeing’s purchase of McDonnell-Douglas, which finally took place in 1997. And then in 1998 he alienated some of his German colleagues when he imposed a record fine on Volkswagen for requiring its Italian dealers not to sell their cheaper products to German or Austrian customers.

Just as he had surprised some when he became a commissioner, he shocked others when he retired. The European Socialist Party President Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, commented on his death, “Karel Van Miert will be remembered as a great socialist politician who campaigned relentlessly to promote social democratic values in Belgium and in Europe.”

Some of his old comrades were not convinced. When he left the Commission he joined the boards of 15 organisations across 10 industries, among them Anglo-American plc, Philips Lighting BV, Vivendi Universal, RWE, Agfa-Gevaert NV, and Goldman Sachs. He also he taught at Nijenrode University, the major Netherlands business school.

A football enthusiast, Van Miert spent many hours with his local club.

He was also a keen gardener. He is survived by his life partner, the fellow socialist politician, Carla Galle.

David Childs

Karel Van Miert, politician: born Oud- Turnhout, Belgium 17 January 1942; died Beersel, Belgium 22 June 2009.