AS DEADLINE NEARS, TRANS-ATLANTIC LINES REQUEST MORE TIME TO APPEAL EU RULING

AS DEADLINE NEARS, TRANS-ATLANTIC LINES REQUEST MORE TIME TO APPEAL EU RULING

Lawyers representing the 16 members of the Trans-Atlantic Conference Agreement are seeking more time in which to respond to the European

Commission's threat of fines.

The shipping lines were originally given until next week to submit written objections to the commission's claim that the TACA is an illegal agreement, and to request an oral hearing.But the carriers argue that there is no sense replying to the statement of objections issued by the commission against the TACA in June until the outcome of a court case involving a related agreement is known.

The TACA lines are currently in discussion with the commission's hearing officer about whether the deadline for replying to the commission's statement of objections can be extended. The lines want to wait until the European Court has heard an appeal case that is critical to TACA's legal position.

Earlier this year, members of the Trans-Atlantic Agreement, which preceded the TACA, won a court order suspending the commission's ban while the full appeal case is waiting to be heard. The commission, which claims the TAA breached European Union antitrust law, is challenging this ruling. But the case is unlikely to come to court until late summer.

If Brussels loses the appeal and the suspension is upheld, then the whole substance of the commission's case against the TACA is greatly weakened, TACA lawyers said.

Karel Van Miert, the EU's competition commissioner, last month said the TACA lines were acting unlawfully by collectively setting inland freight rates, and that they would no longer be immune from fines. Traditionally, no company that is appealing a Brussels decision is exposed to fines while the case is still before the courts.

The carriers could be fined up to 10 percent of the previous year's revenue if found guilty of breaching EU antitrust rules.

An oral hearing could be held at the lines' request if they wish to present their arguments personally to commission officials, and a date of August 16 has been offered.

But John Pheasant, the TACA's Brussels' attorney, has written to the

commission explaining that a hearing would be premature until the European Court's has decided whether to uphold or overturn the lower court ruling that the commission was wrong to ban the TAA.