Philip Lowe last week replaced Alexander Schaub in one of the European Commission's (EC) top competition positions
Lowe takes over as the EC's new director-general of competition at a time of political turmoil at the EC. He faces an imminent decision in the groundbreaking Schneider and Tetra Laval appeals, and is understood to be already committed to major changes, including the creation of a new chief economist position and changes to the phase two merger process. Several top competition lawyers believe that, should either Schneider or Tetra Laval go against the EC, the effects of the watershed Airtours appeal will be compounded. A source close to the EC said: "There's increasing political heat on competition. The department's position within the EC is declining and the appeals could chasten the EC institutionally." However, a Brussels lawyer who works closely with the EC warned: "It's not like heads will roll at the EC - there has to be theft on a grand scale before people leave." The decision on the two appeals is expected next month as both are being heard by the Court of First Instance under the new fast-track appeal process. Of the two, the EC is under more pressure over its decision to turn down the Tetra Laval merger. Trevor Soames, managing partner of Howrey Simon Arnold & White's Brussels office, said: "The EC was totally right in prohibiting that merger." The problem, he added, was that "the EC focused on bundling in its reasoning, which was a subsidiary issue". The EC was also criticised for its lack of rigour in the Airtours case and has set up an internal review of its procedures. The creation of a separate economic function would move the EC closer to the position at the US Department of Justice and is supported by top competition lawyers. However, the crucial question of the chief economist's reporting line and whether they will have their own department is still up in the air.