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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 May 2006, 06:41 GMT 07:41 UK
Toll road groups confirm merger
Vito Gamberale, left, and fellow Autostrade and Abertis directors when the merger was first announced on  24 April
Vito Gamberale, left, was happy with the deal when it was first unveiled
The board of Italian toll road firm Autostrade has approved its merger with Spain's Abertis, despite last minute opposition from its chief executive.

Autostrade announced that in addition to rubber stamping the deal, it had stripped chief executive Vito Gamberale of his powers.

Mr Gamberale had backed the deal when it was first unveiled on 24 April, but then changed his mind in past days.

A number of Italian politicians have strongly opposed the deal.

They dispute Autostrade's claim that it is "a merger of equals" and instead say Autostrade is being swallowed up by its Spanish rival.

World's largest operator

Mr Gamberale added his voice to the outcry last Friday, when he wrote in a letter to the Italian news agency Ansa that he was no longer convinced by some of the terms of the deal.

Autostrade said its chairman Gian Maria Gros-Pietro would now be given the responsibility for overseeing the company's operations ahead of its merger with Abertis, expected by the end of the year.

Together they will create the world's largest toll road operator, with its headquarters in Barcelona and an Italian office in Rome.

It is not yet known what future, if any, Mr Gamberale will have at the business.

Rising protectionism?

Italian opposition to the merger has once again raised the issue of national protectionism within the European Union.

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.

Then came Netherlands-based Mittal Steel's bid for Arcelor, which stoked up a wave of opposition in France and Belgium.

Meanwhile, the Spanish government has objected to a plan by Germany's Eon to buy Endesa.

And at the end of 2005 - prior to an Abertis-led consortium taking control of Sanef, which operates motorways in the north and east of France - there was a threatened political backlash over the deal.

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