After a decade of trying to legislate Europe's gas and electric suppliers into a single competitive market, the European Commission last week laid out its tool kit, ready to dismantle the faulty parts. The E.C.'s competition director general Philip Lowe announced that an investigation into Europe's energy markets would begin next month. Their goal: to find out why liberalization laws have done little to lower prices or loosen the grip of many incumbent operators across the Continent. Industrial customers, in theory, have the right to choose their supplier, and by 2007 all consumers should be able to do the same. But in reality, some state-backed energy companies like Italy's Eni and France's EdF have steadfastly clung to their dominant market position. Urging the Commission to act is Britain, which has led the way on liberalizing its energy markets but claims it is falling victim to price fixing and is routinely denied access to the pipelines and grids it needs. And although 10 member states are now threatened with court action for
With some brand-new power tools in his bag, however, Lowe's task of rewiring the E.U. could be easier this time round. Competition investigators now have the right to conduct public hearings, compel companies to hand over documents, take statements and carry out onsite searches, including unannounced raids. The elephants need not fear the hunters just yet, but "they really are going to put a lot of effort and resources into this," says Louise Mills, a senior associate of international-law firm Norton Rose, who advises companies on competition issues. "Everything that happens over the next few months is going to be noted, and for those companies that are up to something that is not strictly within the rules, they'd be well advised to stop and maybe even own up. Saying sorry might earn them some goodwill." Perhaps, but elephants rarely apologize.
Yo, Ho, Ho and 35 bucks
Are booze drinkers already accustomed to upscale whiskey and "sipping tequila" ready for pricey rum? France's Moët Hennessy thinks so: it's launching 10 Cane, a premium rum from Trinidad, in U.S. stores this spring. The price: $35 a bottle, about three times what you'd expect to pay for Bacardi. No word yet on whether 10 Cane will reach Europe, but rum is one of the world's best-selling spirits, with annual sales in the U.S. of about $4.6 billion. And Europeans have shown a thirst for quality rum, especially Havana Club, the Cuba-produced tipple that's been the fastest-growing brand in recent years for another French firm, Pernod Ricard. (That company also said last week that it was making a $10 billion pitch, along with Fortune Brands, for the England-based Allied Domecq.) The only loser might be Coca-Cola: If you spend that much on rum, do you really want to dilute it?
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