Who will succeed Mario Monti? That's one of the big questions circulating around the corridors of power in Brussels and in the executive suites of European and multinational companies. Along with the rest of the European Commission, the European Union's activist competition czar is due to step down when his five-year term ends in October. Executives who have been affected by Monti's rulings, from Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT ) William H. Gates III to France Telecom's Thierry Breton, will be watching to see whether his successor carries on the strong-willed trustbusting policies that earned the 61-year-old Italian economist the moniker Super Mario.
The betting in Brussels is that Monti's successor will continue his program of tough enforcement. Monti will leave behind a staff of some 700 lawyers and civil servants, as well as the agency's director general, British economist Philip Lowe. Together they have forged landmark changes to Europe's merger review process, despite a handful of embarrassing legal reversals. Monti has also beefed up the directorate's economic analysis, streamlined procedures, and devolved antitrust authority to national agencies -- leaving the big cases to Brussels. He caused waves by scuppering deals such as the $42 billion merger of General Electric (GE ) and Honeywell International (HON ) and by fining Microsoft more than $600 million. "Monti has been a tower of strength and reinforced the role of Europe in antitrust enforcement," says Alec Burnside, a partner at British law firm Linklaters. The commissioner recently revived a probe into allegations that Intel Corp. (INTC ) has engaged in anticompetitive behavior by using marketing incentives to keep PC makers from switching to rivals' chips. Intel says that its behavior is legal.
Monti has said he might accept a third EC term. But he won't likely return as competition commissioner, so names of possible successors are swirling. Rumored contenders include Greek economist Stavros C. Dimas, currently commissioner for employment and social affairs, and H. Onno Ruding, a former Dutch Finance Minister. The highest-profile possibility is Internal Market Commissioner Fritz Bolkestein, an outspoken former Royal Dutch/Shell Group exec who has publicly criticized French and German plans to promote European industrial champions. Monti, too, has voiced dismay over reinvigorated dirigisme. Brussels watchers see Bolkestein's attack as a sign he has his eye on Monti's position.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, EU governments are lobbying to fill the job with one of their own. France "wants it badly," says one EC official, and could push for Jacques Barrot, the new commissioner for regional affairs. Paris faces potentially sensitive competition cases, including disputes over Finance Minister Nicholas Sarkozy's bailout of Alstom (ALS ).
The decision on Monti's successor could drag out at least through July. The 25 EU heads of state will gather in Brussels on June 17-18 to discuss who the new President should be, and negotiations over commissioners will start after that. As Europe hunkers down for a summer of debate over its leadership, Monti will be making his last moves to boost competition in the EU.
By John Rossant and Andy Reinhardt in Paris
Edited by Rose Brady