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Rising foreign investment fuels EU vetting debate

Rising foreign investment fuels EU vetting debate

Top EU officials request committee to vet foreign bids; EU states, diplomats indicate they will oppose plan; Emerging southern economies gain weight on FDI stage.

March 9, 2011 12:17 by

A wave of overseas acquisitions of European assets has triggered a call in the European Union for foreign bids to be vetted, but opposition to such a move is strong and new controls will be hard to sell.

Many EU diplomats and senior officials have dismissed a written proposal by two European Commissioners to set up a high-level board with powers to reject bids by foreign companies or investment funds looking to buy EU companies or other assets.

Italy’s Antonio Tajani and France’s Michel Barnier suggest the EU consider creating a centralised committee — like those in the United States, Canada, Japan, China and Australia — to vet foreign bids on strategic grounds.

Such a body would replace Europe’s existing patchwork of national oversight bodies, creating a more unified vetting process, they wrote in a letter to EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, sources who have seen the letter said.

The proposals from the commissioners in charge of industry and the single market underline concern among some senior EU officials about unchecked foreign investment, particularly from China, India, Russia and Brazil.

But the pushback against their ideas also shows how deep the differences are among European policymakers over managing foreign investment flows, and whether critical sectors such as banking, telecoms, automobiles and steel should be protected.

“We see no benefits for Europe in trying to restrict inward investment, which promotes the availability of risk capital and employment in Europe,” said Joakim Reiter, head of trade policy at Sweden’s embassy to the EU in Brussels.

National authorities in the Netherlands, Britain and Scandinavia are traditionally open to foreign investment, mergers and acquisitions while French and Italian authorities have at times moved to protect national interests.

Critics of foreign direct investment warn that Europe risks giving up precious technical know-how and sectors of strategic importance to unknown investors. Advocates defend it as critical to Europe’s ability to emerge stronger from financial crisis.

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