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Nicholson makes his point about mergers

In the legal equivalent of "the operation was a success, but the patient died," U.K. lawyer Malcolm Nicholson has persuaded a European court to overturn the European Commission's veto of a merger between his client, Airtours, and a rival British tour operator, First Choice Holidays.

In the legal equivalent of "the operation was a success, but the patient died," U.K. lawyer Malcolm Nicholson has persuaded a European court to overturn the European Commission's veto of a merger between his client, Airtours, and a rival British tour operator, First Choice Holidays. This is the first such defeat for the commission.

The catch is that the appeal took two and a half years - so long that Airtours, now named MyTravel Group, and First Choice have abandoned their marriage plans (and apparently are in no rush to revive them).

Nevertheless, Nicholson, 53, a partner at City law firm Slaughter and May, welcomes the belated verdict, contending that it could spur reform of Brussels, imperious merger review process. In its 66-page ruling last month, the European Court of First Instance took the commission to task for not buttressing its argument that the merger would have stifled competition. "It was put in more judicious language, but the broad implication was that the com- mission was sloppy," says Nicholson.

No fan of what he calls the commission,s "judge-jury-executioner" role, Nicholson would like to see the organization have to go to court to kill a deal, as in the U.S. system. That requires "a greater standard of proof," he notes. Meanwhile, he says his phone is "red-hot" with companies seeking sound M&A advice up front.

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