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Last Updated: Friday, 3 March 2006, 13:50 GMT
Protectionist stakes rise in Europe
By John Moylan
BBC Europe business correspondent

Energy and steel have traditionally been the driving force behind industrial economies.

Insulators operated by Italian energy firm Enel
Enel's planned deal has led to a row between Paris and Rome

The European Union - supposedly the standard-bearer for a single, unfettered market - itself was born as a Coal and Steel Community, after all.

But although other businesses - cars and communications, for instance - may now have a higher profile, power and steel are back at the heart of the news as a series of mergers have created deep divisions between the EU's member states.

They are even raising questions about whether countries are now actively flouting EU law.

The road to protectionism

This year began with the French government setting out its protectionist stall, approving a decree which imposed conditions on foreign takeovers in 11 key industries.

Its move followed the furore over Italian bank takeovers which occupied much of the latter half of 2005 - an affair which had cost Antonio Fazio, former head of Italy's central bank and a keen proponent of keeping Italy's financial sector in Italian hands, his job.

If France was hoping to scare off foreign firms, it did not work.

On 27 January, Netherlands-based Mittal Steel launched an 18.6bn euro ($22.4bn; 12.7bn) takeover bid for Europe's biggest steelmaker, Arcelor.

If the (European) Commission does not act, my advice would be for it to close down because of a failure to meet its mandate
Giulio Tremonti
Italian Economy Minister

The bid immediately triggered a multi-national political outcry, as Arcelor - created four years ago in a merger of steel firms in France, Spain and Luxembourg - sought, and won, voluble support from all three governments.

The dust had hardly settled when in late February, Italian electricity giant Enel indicated it was interested in expanding abroad. It singled out the French firm Suez, although no bid was actually tabled.

By the weekend, however, it appeared that any chance of a deal had been scuppered. France's Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin announced plans to create a new national energy giant by merging Suez with the country's main gas distributor, Gaz de France.

Anger

Unsurprisingly, Rome was up in arms, with Italian Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti taking Enel's case to Brussels.

"If the (European) Commission does not act, my advice would be for it to close down because of a failure to meet its mandate," he told reporters after a series of meetings with Commission officials.

Mr Tremonti, and Enel, believe France's actions break EU rules. The single market allows for the free movement of people, goods, services and capital - and on the face of it, blocking a cross-border takeover amounts to a restraint on the free movement of capital.

Jose Manuel Barroso
Mr Barroso is worried about nationalism hurting free trade

But as Commission officials have pointed out, there is a slight problem with this proposition: there is, as yet, no takeover to block. It has not actually been launched yet.

Spreading disease

With France, Luxembourg and Italy already in the frame for alleged protectionism, much of the rest of Europe appears to be following suit.

In Spain - aside from the Arcelor issue - the government is trying to prevent Germany's second-largest power firm, E.On, from taking over Spanish electricity group Endesa.

In Poland, the authorities have been accused of trying to prevent a merger in the banking sector.

And Germany has long faced criticism for a law which effectively protects the carmaker Volkswagen from being bought up.

So now all eyes are on Brussels.

Enel has provided the Commission with a dossier on the events surrounding the Suez takeover, which the Italian government hopes will provide sufficient evidence for the Commission to act.

There are other reasons why a Gaz de France-Suez merger could come under scrutiny.

The EU's Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes has warned that Europe's energy markets are malfunctioning, and many observers believe she has the concentration of big national energy firms in her sights.

Meanwhile the President of the Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, has called for politicians to avoid nationalistic rhetoric.

He warned Europe would not meet the challenges it faces by taking a nationalistic approach.

So the next big deadline is 23-24 March, at which time Mr Barroso promises he will take up the issue at a summit with member states' leaders.

Unless, of course, another cross-border bid - and the row which would inevitably accompany it - takes place before then.


SEE ALSO:
French deal creates energy giant
27 Feb 06 |  Business
French energy deal irks Italians
26 Feb 06 |  Business
E.ON in $35bn Endesa takeover bid
21 Feb 06 |  Business
Arcelor payout to woo investors
16 Feb 06 |  Business
France to privatise energy firms
08 Feb 05 |  Business
Price freeze hits Gaz de France
20 Dec 05 |  Business


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