Mittal bid shows need for ‘strong EU role’

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Europe’s leading business lobby group has claimed industrialists are crying out for stronger political leadership in the event of sensitive takeover battles, such as Mittal Steel’s hostile bid for Arcelor.

Ernest-Antoine Seillière, speaking on behalf of 20m businesses, said politicians had a duty to give a strong signal on “symbolic” industrial questions which aroused “the emotion” of the public.

Mr Seillière, head of the Unice employers’ federation, said there had been “no meaningful political answer” to the Mittal bid at a European level, only national responses from Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Spain.

Far from arguing that politicians should steer clear of corporate takeover battles, Mr Seillière said that companies would leave Europe unless they could rely on a stronger sense of political direction in such matters.

He said that the Mittal bid had exposed the “incredible vulnerability of governance” in Europe, adding that, without a stronger EU voice, “business will become less interested in what’s happening in this part of the world”.

The French business leader, who comes from a family of steelmakers in the Lorraine region, told the Financial Times that steel was a symbolic industry whose future had sparked great passion. The Mittal bid was “a symbol of globalisation against a symbol of Europeanisation”.

Mr Seillière said he did not know whether EU politicians should try to frustrate the Mittal bid, but said: “At least it would have been useful to have some kind of power centre answering the question.”

He said the moribund EU constitutional treaty would have strengthened governance at a European level, and he made comparisons with Washington’s opposition last year to the bid by CNOOC of China for Unocal, the US oil group.

Demands by Europe’s biggest business federation for more political intervention in takeover bids reflects the divergence of views in the EU over the nature of capitalism.

Alan Johnson, British trade secretary, said this week that France was being protectionist in trying to repel Mittal’s bid for Arcelor, and that protectionism “destroys what it seeks to protect”.

While Mr Seillière wants politicians to take a role in sensitive takeover battles, he fears that political wrangling could disrupt attempts to open the trade in EU services, which he views as vital to European economic recovery.

The European parliament, the European Commission and an EU summit in March will try in coming weeks to hammer out a compromise on a new directive to liberalise the cross-border trade in services, which accounts for two-thirds of the continent’s economy.

Mr Seillière said that the culmination of those efforts could lead to the situation where “you get nothing, or you get something even worse”.

Unice and European trade unions have been invited by the Austrian government, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, to add their voices to the debate, which has divided those who
want a more open European economy – including the 10 new EU member states – and those who want to curtail cut-price competition from companies and individuals in eastern Europe.

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