EU antitrust czar nears end of term with dragons to slay

Mon Feb 3, 2014 4:36am EST
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By Paul Taylor

PARIS (Reuters) - The clock is ticking for the European Union's antitrust czar, whose extensive powers put him in the front line of battles with some of the titans of the global economy.

European Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia aims to take landmark decisions on the alleged abuse of dominant market positions by U.S. search engine king Google and Russian gas monopoly Gazprom in his remaining time.

His term officially ends in November, but Brussels insiders say the Spanish socialist may be sidetracked by extra duties when some of his European Commission colleagues step down in April to contest the European Parliament election.

So Almunia, in office since 2009, has a few weeks in which either to reach settlements with the Internet giant and the energy provider in exchange for commitments to change their business practices, or to send them formal charge sheets.

Despite deep misgivings among software rivals, he seems poised to strike a deal with Google after having rejected the company's first two rounds of concessions, a senior EU official said. He was speaking on condition of anonymity because of the confidentiality of competition regulation.

But barring a change of heart in Moscow, Almunia is likely to lay formal charges against Gazprom for discriminating among European customers over the price at which it sells gas, the official said. That would leave a final decision to his successor, who the Kremlin may hope will be more emollient.

The euro zone crisis has diminished Europe's political clout and weakened the EU executive's sway in global negotiations on trade and climate change, but the competition commissioner's authority remains unchallenged.

Almunia is arguably the most powerful official in Brussels and the strongest antitrust watchdog in the world.   Continued...

European Union Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia speaks during a news conference at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels December 18, 2013. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir