Juncker: EU’s Not Blind, Stupid, Stubborn on Big Rail Deal

(Bloomberg) -- Jean-Claude Juncker hit back at German and French critics of European Union competition policy as his top antitrust official prepares to veto a high-profile rail merger between Siemens AG and Alstom SA.

The president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said its antitrust approach lets strong companies emerge in Europe. In the almost 30 years since the first European merger rules were put in place, the commission has approved more than 6,000 deals and blocked fewer than 30, he said.

“This is a message for those who are saying that the commission is composed of blind, stupid, stubborn technocrats,” Juncker told a conference on Tuesday in Brussels. “We believe in competition as long as it is fair for all. We’ll never play politics or play favorites when it comes to ensuring a level playing field.”

A few hours later, the chief executive officer of Alstom said that the European antitrust regulator would probably block the planned combination, while putting pressure on top officials at the commission to overrule the decision.

‘Dictated by Ideology’

“It’s likely that the commission, its services, propose to ban the operation,” Henri Poupart-Lafarge told French daily Le Figaro. “Such a decision, which the college of commissioners can overrule, doesn’t result from the application of competition rules, even strict ones. It’s dictated by ideology.”

The latest flurry of comments symbolizes how politically charged the commission’s scrutiny of the Siemens-Alstom deal has been in recent months. Public rumblings of any kind are unusual in such vetting procedures, with the commission’s antitrust officials usually operating out of the spotlight and free of political meddling.

In the Figaro interview, Poupart-Lafarge defended the rationale for the deal, while saying that Alstom would fare well by itself. Challenging the EU commission’s decision in court “won’t be a priority,” the CEO said, and the companies don’t plan on giving the combination a second try.

The Alstom chief also reiterated that Chinese rival CRRC would be a serious rival in the future. He added that Alstom’s customers didn’t raise major objections to the deal, except in the signaling business, where the companies offered “powerful” solutions, known as “remedies” in EU jargon, representing half of Alstom’s revenue in Europe.

Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser said last week he was looking forward to seeing “if the future of mobility in Europe will be determined by backward-looking technocrats or by future-oriented Europeans,” a tacit sign that he didn’t think an approval of the merger was likely.

EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager may rule as soon as Wednesday on the Siemens-Alstom tie-up, which is meant to create a European champion able to compete with an expansive Chinese competitor.

“We will always allow competition that is fair for business and ultimately fair for the consumer,” Juncker said on Tuesday.

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