Commissioner stresses zero tolerance of cartels

Visiting European Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes yesterday reiterated that Brussels would show zero tolerance to cartels and state support to enterprises, which adulterate competition. «I will fight cartels as if they were the devil – the most destructive form of abusive behavior against consumers,» she told a Greek parliamentary committee on the second day of her visit, which also included contacts with ministers. Speaking at a press briefing later, Kroes noted Greek banks have a relatively low profit margin in their services as a whole but their credit card charges were about double the European Union average – 126 euros in revenues per customer against 64 euros. Earlier, she described as «unacceptable and inconceivable» differences of as much as 400 percent in credit card interest rates among member states. Responding to questions at a press briefing after a meeting with Development Minister Dimitris Sioufas, she said that the Greek Competition Commission was playing a constructive role and she did not want to make any negative comments because one of its staff had been involved in a judicial investigation for corruption, in connection with allegations of a cartel in the milk industry. «In my country, the Competition Commission is 100 percent independent,» she responded. Sioufas said he briefed Kroes on the present government’s efforts to deregulate the electricity and natural gas markets, the incorporation of directives regarding the production of biofuels and the new legislation on renewable energy sources. «We focused on the new legislation on competition which incorporated the directives and has been in force since August 2005, the law on commerce and generally the efforts to have the markets function according to rules. For a free market does not mean a reckless market. The checks we are making are in order to implement these rules, to protect the citizen/consumer,» the development minister said. ‘Not rosy’ But Kroes took a dim view of competition in the energy sector. «I am sorry to say that things in Greece are not rosy,» she said. She also made it clear that Brussels would show zero tolerance regarding the issue of the illegal state support which past governments had given to Olympic Airways and which it has ruled must be returned. «When a government simply protects its carrier, this is not in line with competition policy. The consumer is not interested in paying more to preserve a national precious stone… We are awaiting explanations from the Greek government,» Kroes said. Furthermore, she said her department was studying the concession of 4 percent of OTE telecoms utility to the staff union as part of a voluntary retirement deal. «Whoever the shareholder is, the rules of competition must be respected. I am impressed by what is taking place. To put it diplomatically, we have European issues related to state support… but there are countries which do not behave so badly.» Asked to comment on a recent reference by the Federation of Greek Industries to a «state cartel» Kroes said, «I did not ask for details but this agency should give any data it possesses to the commission.» Finally, she said it was necessary that financial support to small and medium-size enterprises be correctly targeted. «Whenever there is abusive behavior, be it by a private or public enterprise, a private citizen or the prime minister, a small or a large country, the ax must fall heavily,» she said.