March 28, 2008 / 2:01 PM / 12 years ago

EU's Kroes defends antitrust as basis for prosperity

WASHINGTON, March 28 (Reuters) - European Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes defended herself and her agency on Friday, saying she is a strong capitalist who seeks competitive markets as the basis for prosperity.

Kroes has felt the sting of criticism from the United States, where some have said she is too interventionist compared to U.S. antitrust authorities.

“I stand for a level playing field in Europe for all companies,” Kroes said in remarks prepared for delivery to the spring meeting of the American Bar Association antitrust section.

“We in Europe are not that different from you — we’re all in this together so let’s keep talking to each other and questioning each other and remembering why we believe in competition in the first place.”

The European Commission has in recent years been more active than the United States in investigating suspected abuse of dominance by software giant Microsoft (MSFT.O), chip maker Intel (INTC.O) and mobile phone maker Qualcomm (QCOM.O).

It has followed the lead of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission on software company Rambus (RMBS.O).

Brussels’ activity has attracted criticism, and Kroes, who is Dutch, focused on one critic in particular.

“If you believe what you read on the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal there’s a canal in Amsterdam that I would like to sell you,” she said.

Kroes said the reality was that she was herself a businesswoman from a young age and “probably more capitalist than most of you in this room”.

Most of those in the room were antitrust lawyers from the United States, who defend businesses rather than run them.

Unlike the United States, where antitrust enforcers sometimes fade into the background among an alphabet soup of three-lettered agencies in Washington, in Brussels competition is the European Union’s premier authority.

Competition enforcement is a key to the integration of the European Union, where Kroes said that in comparison to the United States there was an uphill battle to integrate “27 very different economies that speak 21 languages, on a consensual basis”.

Given that, she said, “We will not always tread the same path at the same pace, but we are heading in the same direction.”

Kroes acknowledged a debt to the United States for serving as a model, talking specifically about plans to bring out a policy paper soon to help make it easier to bring private antitrust lawsuits in Europe.

“We have the luxury of learning from your experiences in this area and it’s no great secret they aren’t all positive,” she said.

Kroes said that for now Europeans had no effective way to bring private actions, and that they were needed to help enforce the laws.

“We rely almost solely on public enforcement such as fines and this must change,” she said. More than 80 percent of the antitrust cases in the United States are brought by private parties and not by the government.

“We hope to develop a new way of delivering justice to the victims of competition problems. And we will partially close the gap between our two systems as we do it,” she said. (Writing by David Lawsky in Brussels; Editing by Dale Hudson)

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