Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Will EU see the light?

Peter Mandelson, never far from controversy if he can help it, is at the centre of a jolly little row ... over energy-saving light bulbs.

The EU has decreed that Europeans should switch from common incandescent bulbs by 2020 as the latest as part of its "world-beating" campaign against climate change and the European Lamp Companies Federation has pledged that it will phase them out by 2015, reducing CO2 emissions by 60% or 23 megatonnes and giving consumers a €7bn (£4.7bn) windfall by saving 63,000 gigawatt-hours of juice - and 27 fewer power stations.

But there's a snag, and it's not just Greenpeace, which says they can be done away with by 2010. ("When products become trendy, markets can move very quickly to meet demand," says its Sharon Becker, pointing to digital mobile phone cameras and iPods.)

The lamp-makers are falling out over Mandy's plans to end anti-dumping duties on Chinese bulbs which push up prices by as much as two-thirds.

Osram, part of Siemens, complained to a meeting of trade officials this week about Mandy's plans to eliminate the tariffs; its fellow federation member, Philips, wants them removed. So no decision until after the summer break.

But what lies behind this spat?

The Dutch group, Europe's biggest producer, happens to import a lot of energy-efficient bulbs from China, many of them its own; so does Osram but a lot less. So Mandy's snouts smell a rat: Osram wants the duties to stay because it will hit Philips even harder than itself so it's all about market-share, really.

As if that weren't enough, America's GE and Sylvania are lined up behind the Dutch. But Osram can count on Günter Verheugen, the EU's industry commissioner and German industry lobbyist within the Berlaymont, as well as Michael Glos, Germany's economy minister.

But Philips' crucial backing may come from white knight Tesco (and other retailers, including the Foreign Trade Association which has just written to consumer minister Gareth Thomas asking him to vote the Osram proposals down).

Britain's - and increasingly Europe's - biggest grocer will buy the "green" bulbs from wherever and slash prices. That too is good for market share.

If the wheels of policy-making turn slowly in Brussels...?

In the German capital's stunning new Hauptbahnhof they won't even turn at all as traindrivers vote on an all-out strike over their modest 31% pay demand. (The German economic crisis is over so, bitteschön, let's stop penny-pinching wage-cuts).

But, at least, after years of shillyshallying and backbiting, the grand coalition government has agreed a Fahrplan for part-privatisation of Deutsche Bahn, the state-owned rail and logistics company.

The timetable will see a stake "below or around 25%" worth €3bn floated off to private investors by the end of next year at the latest - if Bundestag and Bundesrat, the two parliamentary chambers, approve (not proven).

Eventually 49% could be in free float though that is in doubt, according to Wolfgang Tiefensee, transport minister. Even so, the initial IPO would be the biggest for seven years: since Deutsche Post raised €5.8bn in November 2000.

The idea has been around for almost two decades - and delayed by fears over repeating the British experience with the rushed and botched privatisation of British Rail and its division into several businesses, with services completely separated from the network of tracks, stations etc.

The German constitution or Basic Law lays down that the infrastructure must remain in state hands and it will remain heavily subsidised (€2.5bn a year) for at least 15 years while DB will stay an integrated company. Tiefensee says: "No investor will get a single kilometre of track."

But few are convinced it will work. Critics, like Michael Bauchmüller in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, says this is the worst of all worlds, bringing no competition and no benefit for travellers.

Claus Matecki of the DGB, the German TUC, says: "The central aim of rail reform, namely putting more traffic on the tracks, risks landing in the sidings." And the upper chamber, the Bundesrat, is majority opposed.

Still, the plans suggest that Germany, with its new squeaky-clean budget, could sell off further chunks of Deutsche Telekom and Deutsche Post in the coming months. As long as none of the shares ends up in the hands of the new "locusts" - the state-controlled investment or sovereign funds so beloved of Alistair Darling.

It's only a game, isn't it?

Europe's gambling industry is on the warpath against protectionist measures to expand the scope of state monopolies in the new era of online gaming and betting that sees millions watch high-powered poker tournaments on TV screens in countless bars.

It has just notched up a victory in Danish courts which could bring further legal action across Europe and the US. A Copenhagen judge has ruled that tournament poker - Texas Hold'em in this case - is a game of skill, not chance.

The Danish Poker Association, prosecuted by the police for violating the criminal code which forbids "non-licensed" gambling in public places and for commercial gain, is celebrating.

Its lawyer, Anders Hansen of Danders & More, says this is the first time anywhere in the world that the rules of poker have been scrutinised and the court has recognised that "a poker tournament played over many hours requires a range of strategic, analytical and mathematical skills".

He points out that similar cases are pending in Holland, Germany and France.

But British lawyers doubt whether prudent, po-faced Gordon Brown will support a similar EU-wide ruling on the regulation of poker clubs after his decision to ban super casinos and UK court rulings at variance with the Danes.

And the Danish casino operators, acting against the poker players through their lobby Horesta, are even sourer now...

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