European Comment: Europe's best and worst of 2004

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As New Year beckons it is time for European Comment to hand out its first Prix sans Frontières for best and worst performances of 2004. No glittering ceremony - just a promise that judging will be subjective, undemocratic and at the editor's whim. To avoid charges of negativity our most prestigious award, for achievement, heads the list.

The Europa Free Market Trophy goes to Mario Monti, former European competition commissioner. The Court of First Instance's decision to uphold his sanctions against Microsoft underlines what a steadfast antitrust guardian was lost when he stepped down. The loss of three merger cases in 2002 may have taken some gloss off his record, but Mr Monti was notable for his tough stance on state aid rules and commitment to liberalising markets. Silvio Berlusconi showed rare foresight in his first short-lived stint as Italian prime minister 10 years ago when he appointed Mr Monti a commissioner, and complete lack of it this year in refusing him a third term.

This column has a penchant for pioneers who break national barriers, so the Chocks Away award goes to Jean-Cyril Spinetta, head of Air France-KLM. In achieving the first takeover of a European flag-carrier, he defied sceptics who said the Franco-Dutch combination would be grounded before it had a chance to fly. Now market share is increasing and savings are being achieved more quickly than expected.

The Cross-Border Medallion for Vaulting Ambition goes to Emilio Botn, chairman of Spain's Santander Central Hispano, whose takeover of the UK's Abbey National fulfils his pledge to take SCH into the world's top 10 banks by market value. The combination has strategic logic - now he just has to make it pay.

Runner-up is Jean- François Dehecq for Sanofi-Synthélabo's hostile takeover of Franco-German Aventis to create the world's number three drugmaker - although he benefited from Paris's ham-fisted interference, and still faces cost-saving and patent protection challenges. Daniel Vasella, chief executive of Switzerland's Novartis, voted most influential business figure of the past 25 years by FT readers, gets a special mention for achieving above-average growth despite losing the Aventis battle.

The Hearts and Flowers vase goes to Deutsche Börse's Werner Seifert for relentless wooing of the London Stock Exchange. Heinrich von Pierer, outgoing head of Siemens, wins the Softly Softly Catchee Monkey lifetime medal for transforming the German electrical giant, even if he leaves more to be done. Stefan Persson, chairman of Sweden's Hennes & Mauritz, and Amancio Ortega Gaona, founder of Spain's Inditex/Zara, share the Style on a Budget ribbon. Most Ambitious Makeover goes to Philips's Gerard Kleisterlee for efforts to turn the flat-footed Dutch consumer electronics group into a high-tech lifestyle company

No award is given to Nicolas Sarkozy, former French finance minister, who needs no further publicity. Instead, the Me First prize for self-promotion goes to Airbus's Noël Forgeard, who has manoeuvred himself into joint top slot at parent company EADS.

Sadly, the Eye Off the Ball trophy is won by Nokia's Jorma Ollila for failing to spot trends in mobile phone design - he is fighting back, though, and his overall record in turning a struggling conglomerate into the number one mobile phone maker ensures his place in the Pantheon.

The Forlorn Hope Shield goes to shareholders of Eurotunnel, who hoped to improve their fortunes by turfing out the old Anglo-French management but have seen problems worsen. Adecco, the Swiss temporary employment group, wins the Most Unnecessary Scandal award for its alarmist warning about minor accounting problems.

The Useful Fool prize goes to Hans Eichel, the hapless German finance minister, forced by financial and political constraints into ridiculous measures to balance the books. Another German, Ernst Welteke, former Bundesbank president, wins a magnum of champagne for most inappropriate freeloading.

Among contenders for brickbats it is hard to beat Royal/Dutch Shell, where an oil reserves scandal revealed lying, duplicity, vicious in-fighting, smugness and incompetence at the top. But for breathtaking audacity in digging a €14bn accounting hole over decades, and doing more than anyone else to bring European business into disrepute - step forward Parmalat founder Calisto Tanzi.

european.comment@ft.com

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