Lowe Backs Antitrust Speed and Openness

Article excerpt

Byline: Patrick Blum in Brussels

Mere mortals would think twice before taking on the job that Philip Lowe is due to start on September 1. But the European Commission veteran is undaunted by the tasks ahead of him.

As the commission's new director-general for competition, and second only to Commissioner Mario Monti, he will face tough scrutiny from the business community and critics who have accused the competition authorities of being out of touch with business realities. Lowe, who has a reputation for outspokenness, takes up his appointment at a time when the EU's competition authorities face mounting pressure from critics and when it is going through a thorough reappraisal of its work.In a quietly spoken manner, Lowe concedes that the methods and the quality of the competition authority's work can be improved, but he staunchly defends its record.

"The commission is learning by doing. The merger regulations have been a fantastic success, and that has been recognised on both sides of the Atlantic, if not elsewhere. We have made a large number of decisions within tight deadlines and we have delivered legal certainty in 99.9% of cases," he says.

Perhaps, but the commission has been on the defensive recently with the European Court overturning an important merger decision and grilling officials in two other cases with unusually tough questioning.

In June, the court overturned a commission veto of a merger by UK travel company Airtours in 1999, in a ruling that was cheered by critics who said it showed how the commission could get things wrong. They said it also demonstrated that the appeals procedure takes far too long to be meaningful. The court's ruling came three years after the commission's original veto.

Lowe, however, says not too much should be read into the court's decision. "We don't see the Airtours ruling as a trend. It was just an individual case."

That did not mean, of course, that the commission gets all the answers right, he says. That is why the directorate's work is currently going through a "very thorough and comprehensive" review. When officials return in September from their summer break, clear proposals for reform will be outlined.

But while improvements can be made, he insists that these cannot detract from "the fundamental responsibility of the commission to act as an administrative authority which reaches politically deliverable and legally certain decisions."

The commission's authority must be preserved while allowing firms to have redress if they believe it has made a wrong decision or overstepped its powers. "It's a very delicate balance," he says.

Lowe says he hopes member states and the court will soon agree on means to speed up the appeals process "so that a court decision would still be relevant to the business transaction concerned".

In answer to critics, he says the European antitrust system offers rigorous deadlines and a transparent process. Some of the criticism gives a distorted view of the overall work being done. "You don't hear from the parties that have their merger cleared. You only hear from those who don't," he says.

As part of its current review, the commission is looking at how it assesses competition issues, in particular whether to continue with the current substantive test based on establishing a threat of collective dominance or move to the US model which aims to identify a significant lessening of competition. …