EU countries should blame themselves rather than Brussels for the Continent’s failure to forge pan-European industrial champions, former European Competition Commissioner Mario Monti has said.
In an interview with POLITICO, the former Italian prime minister added it is “disrespectful” of Paris, Berlin, Rome and Warsaw to send a letter last week pushing Brussels to accelerate competition law reforms that they hope will lead to the creation of more European industrial heavyweights.
Angered by the EU’s veto of a mega merger in the rail sector between Alstom and Siemens last year, France and Germany are arguing that the merger rule book needs to be relaxed if Europe is to bulk up its industries to pose a credible counterweight to China and the U.S.
But Monti, who spent 10 years at the Commission and was also internal market chief, was unimpressed and said it would be “suicidal” to undermine the bloc’s competition rules. Instead, he stressed that protectionist EU member countries had failed to embrace moves to make a more effective single market, whose scale would accelerate the creation of champions.
Monti also pointed out that countries should be more cautious about wading into competition policy, which is an exclusive competence of the Commission.
According to the Italian veteran, the four countries don’t seem to be “aware of the structure of competencies in Europe” and their move “denotes little knowledge of the substance of these issues and of the complexities.”
These are Monti’s main thoughts on the debate about the division of powers between member countries and the Commission:
1. Member countries could have done more to bolster the internal market
“It is unrealistic to blame merger control as a significant cause of aborted European champions.
“The reasons why we don’t have a sufficient number of very large and competitive EU-based companies has to do very much with the behavior of member countries and the corporate world itself.
“I have been in charge of the internal market so I know … how many violations of those rules are put in place by member states when they try to preserve the national interest and therefore to have the market less single and more fragmented.
“It is a bit hypocritical to put the blame at the level of EU competition policy when in many cases, over recent decades, the obstacles have been created by national governments, often at the request of their own companies.
“The more progress that is achieved by Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton in rigorously enforcing single market rules against obstacles erected by member states (not least those of the four ministers), the greater the incentive for companies to merge cross-border. Also, this will make it possible for [European Competition Commissioner] Margrethe Vestager to widen the geographic definition of the relevant market from national to EU-wide, without penalising consumers.”
2. The EU quartet takes the wrong tone
“Everybody can always ask something but I must say that even the tone of this letter sounds to me as not really being aware of the structure of the competencies in Europe. It’s basically disrespectful of what are the competencies given by member states, not taken by the Commission of its own will, in the treaties and then in the merger regulation.”
3. Vestager should lay down a clear marker of who holds the reins
“If I were the commissioner, I would first of all call the attention of the four countries to the principles about who is responsible of what in Europe … and I would explain … why it may be counterproductive to go down the road they propose.”
4.Europe could lose credibility if it goes soft on mergers
“The accusation that it is tainted by protectionist intents would impair the Commission’s ability to project EU antitrust power where it matters most!
“Looking ahead, given the huge importance that the regulation of digital platforms is going to have for the global economy, the European economy and also for the preservation of democracy, it would be almost suicidal to erode the credibility of competition policy.”
5.The rest of the world could also hit back
“The ministers seem to call for a benevolent treatment by the Commission for those mergers which would give birth to a European champion. The merged entity would need to be authorized also, say, in the U.S., Japan, China if it wants to compete globally. But these competition authorities are unlikely to apply a favored treatment to a European company. So the champion would hardly hit the ground on other continents. Just as GE and Honeywell in 2002 canceled their merger altogether, when the Commission blocked it in spite of prior green light by the U.S. Justice Department.”
6. French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire’s proposal for the introduction of a retroactive merger control looks messy
“If I understand it correctly, it is more or less the elimination of merger control itself because it’s in the nature of merger control to be an ex ante intervention.
“It is in the interest of companies themselves to have the ex ante merger control. You can imagine how intricate it would be to dismantle a company which has been united out of two merging companies without prior merger control.”
7. Italy has no real industrial advantage from joining the French and Germans
“I do not see, from an industrial policy perspective, the advantages for Italy.
“Italy normally had benefits from a strong competition control exercised by Brussels, able to do rigorous enforcement even vis-à-vis France and Germany so there are maybe broader political considerations.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This article is part of POLITICO’s new coverage of competition, antitrust, cartel and state aid issues. This coverage includes the Fair Play newsletter every Monday morning. Email email@example.com to request a complimentary trial.
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