Hopes fade for fast-track appeals on EU mergers


A senior judge yesterday threw cold water on EU Competition Commissioner Mr Mario Monti's hopes that the European Court of Justice could expedite enough competition cases to silence a growing chorus of complaints.

Mr Monti suggested the court could check the veto power of the European Commission, on which he served, by handling appeals against its rejections of proposed mergers faster. Companies and lawyers have been demanding reforms to balance what they see as sometimes arbitrary decisions by the European Union executive to block mergers.

But Mr Monti's optimism, in a speech to the British Chamber of Commerce, was doused by the presiding judge of the European Court of Justice's Court of First Instance in Luxembourg in rare public comments about the Commission and his own court.

Judge Bo Vesterdorf raised plaintiffs' hopes earlier this year by granting "fast-track" status to two firms - privately held Tetra Laval and Schneider Electric - that had appealed against Commission merger vetoes. But he said Mr Monti and the public should steel themselves for disappointment because, unless EU leaders unexpectedly provided additional judges, the court was likely to be overwhelmed.

"We will have to turn down a majority" of applicants for fast-track, Mr Vesterdorf said, anticipating a rash of new appeals once his court rules with unprecedented swiftness in October, less than eight months after the Schneider and Tetra Laval cases were filed. The rulings will be quick enough to permit the companies to complete their deals if they win in court.

Mr Vesterdorf rejected criticism that the Commission acted as judge, jury and executioner because its competition decisions usually cannot be appealed in a timely way.

"They can't be the judge because there is a judge," the Danish jurist snapped. He endorsed the EU's administrative system for deciding on mergers, noting that "decisions have to be made by somebody".

The judge also rejected the notion that the Commission makes up its mind before it has considered all the evidence.

"I'm not convinced," Mr Vesterdorf said. "It's not my view that the Commission could be accused of such behaviour."

He said the way the 60-member Commission merger task force handled vast amounts of material in a limited time of four or five months was "fairly impressive".

Mr Vesterdorf said he had been able to give the Tetra Laval and Schneider appeals fast-track status because the companies had agreed to streamline their complaints to essentials.

"If you want a quick decision, concentrate on the essentials," he said, urging lawyers not to make procedural arguments that slowed down a case.

The comments were a welcome respite for Mr Monti, who used his speech to respond to months of written suggestions from industry, lobbyists, lawyers and governments on how to improve the EU's merger control system.

He promised to provide long-sought guidelines permitting companies to defend proposed mergers on the grounds that they increase efficiencies that will benefit consumers.

He also said he may move to further strengthen the role of the "hearing officer", an EU official who conducts hearings at which companies involved in mergers, customers and rivals can respond to Commission objections to a proposed deal. - ( Reuters)