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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 April, 2005, 13:21 GMT 14:21 UK
Euro cartel fight 'needs reform'
European Union Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes
Neelie Kroes says Europe's cartel-busters need to bulk up
Europe's fight against cartels needs to raise its game to avoid becoming a victim of its own success, the European Commission's competition chief says.

In a speech to German lawyers, Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes said the number of cases being tackled was stretching resources.

Plea-bargains and better co-operation with the US were part of the solution, she said.

Europe has fined 31 cartels almost 4bn euros ($5.2bn; 2.8bn) since mid-2001.


The Commission risks becoming a victim of its own cartel-busting success
Neelie Kroes, Competition Commissioner

The flood of new cases - the 31 she mentioned amounted to a third of the overall total since 1969 - was a sign that the Commission was taking its responsibilities to European consumers seriously, Ms Kroes said.

"For the perpetrators of cartels, globalisation is really working - to the detriment of the consumers who suffer at (their) hands," she told a Brussels conference on competition law.

"The long-term eradication of cartels is therefore essential."

But the size of the caseload brought its own problems.

"My growing conviction is that the Commission... risks becoming a victim of its own cartel-busting success," Ms Kroes warned.

Every case brought three or four lawsuits as firms challenged the verdicts, she pointed out.


As well as the creation of a dedicated anti-cartel unit, already under way, Ms Kroes advocated the benefits of allowing investigators to offer plea-bargains as is the custom in the US.

She also suggested that applications for leniency should be made once for the whole EU, and indicated that the applications could be made not to the Commission but to national anti-trust authorities.

Fine structures, she said, might be too rigid, since often small and medium-sized firms were being hurt much more seriously than large ones.

But she decried the suggestions from some quarters that fine levels needed to be more predictable.

"I cannot see how allowing potential infringers to calculate the likely cost-benefit ratio of a cartel in advance will somehow contribute to a sustained policy of deterrence and zero tolerance," she said.

Ms Kroes was the subject of some controversy when she was nominated for the competition portfolio.

Some critics said her business career before joining the Commission might lead to conflicts of interest.

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