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UPDATE 1-EU "closely following" Lactalis' Parmalat bid
* EU assessing if case can be reviewed under merger rules
* Almunia: EU rules ensure no unjustified obstacles to merger
* On Google, need to leave door open for new entrants
(Adds details, comments on Google)
By Foo Yun Chee
BRUSSELS, April 8 (Reuters) - EU regulators are "closely following" Italy's efforts to stop French dairy company Lactalis from taking control of Parmalat, to ensure they comply with the bloc's merger rules, the EU's antitrust chief said on Friday.
Last month, Italy's centre-right government cleared a special decree allowing Parmalat (PLT.MI) to postpone a shareholders' meeting until June, giving the country's biggest listed food group time to find domestic investors.
The meeting, originally scheduled for April 12-14, would have allowed world No. 3 Lactalis to take control of Parmalat. Italy also plans to set up an ad hoc sovereign fund to invest in strategic companies. [ID:nLDE7301C1]
EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said he was determined to use EU merger rules against national authorities that put up unjustified obstacles to cross-border mergers.
"When it comes to cross-border transactions, we see that we must prevent protectionist temptations in the internal market," he said in the text of a speech at a St Gallen competition forum in Switzerland.
"That is why I am closely following the developments of Lactalis's acquisition of a stake in Parmalat. We are examining whether the case is reviewable under EU merger control," Almunia said.
Merger cases are reviewed by the European Commission and not national regulators when they meet certain turnover criteria.
On rising concerns about foreign bids for strategic EU assets and calls by two of his fellow commissioners for a centralised body to be set up to review such offers, Almunia said EU merger rules were an effective tool in ensuring fair competition.
"I remain firmly convinced that EU merger control must remain anchored to its own rules and purposes at all times, irrespective of the nationality of the companies concerned," he said.
"Article 21 of the Merger Regulation allows member states to take into account legitimate public interests such as media plurality, public security, and prudential rules."
Referring to the Commission's ongoing investigation into world No. 1 Internet search engine Google (GOOG.O) -- following several complaints about anti-competitive business practices -- Almunia said he wanted room for new players.
"We also need to be vigilant in other important sectors for the economy, such as pharmaceuticals... and the ICT industry, where we are facing network effects conducive to extremely large market shares - Google is an example that comes to my mind," he said.
"In all these sectors, we need to make every effort to leave the door wide open for new competitive companies to enter the market and be able to challenge the established players on the merits." (Editing by Charlie Dunmore and Sophie Walker)
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