THE RAIDERS FROM BRUSSELS STRUCK AT DAWN

THE RAIDERS FROM BRUSSELS STRUCK AT DAWN

There's a globally recognized picture of the English city gent that depicts a man decked out in a bowler hat and a pin-striped suit carrying a rolled umbrella and a briefcase.

There's a television advertisement this side of the pond that portrays our man as a representative of the Inland Revenue, keen to help us taxpayers understand that the British government doesn't really want all our money, just enough to ensure that we remain poor for the rest of our working lives.But our man in the bowler hat apparently doesn't have a lot of clout in the business of shipping. He has his rights, of course, but nowhere near the level of the investigators of the European Commission.

While this may be warm news to the man in the street, it can cause traumas to those blessed with the everyday task of running a shipping company, particularly one involved in the trans-Atlantic container trades.

Mondays are never good days. If the week starts wrong, it can only get worse. If the week starts on a high note, chances are it will be downhill from then on. It's a recognized philosophy in life - it's certainly my philosophy in life.

So when the investigators from Brussels began their dawn raids on the European headquarters of the major non-Trans Atlantic Conference Agreement shipping lines last Monday, it was going to be a bad week.

It's true we're not talking about a raid by SAS commandos in military ski masks and the like. But the raiders from the European Commission, the executive agency of the European Union, were on a mission just the same.

They had a clear objective. They were investigating allegations of major malpractices in the business leading up to the introduction last September of the so-called Equipment Repositioning Surcharge by lines that belong to TACA and by lines that are outside the conference.

It seems, according to my sources, that the men from Brussels - together with their colleagues from the Office of Fair Trading in London and their counterparts in Hamburg and Bremen - were probing ''alleged discussions of the implementation of this surcharge between both TACA and non-TACA lines well before the September implementation.''

Now any such discussions are totally forbidden under European competition law. If the alleged misdeeds did take place - and that's something we will not know for many months - this could be a major can of worms.

Lawyers from near and far will be working on this one. The notion of even a whisper between conference lines on one side of the fence, and their non-conference colleagues on the other, about what could be jointly accepted surcharges will generate a wave of questions - questions about what really does go on behind the scenes on this trade lane, and presumably others as well.

But investigators are ruthless people. The men with the mission from Brussels may be on the right track. Equally, they may be on the wrong track. Who knows?

But when they press to see and photocopy paperwork, who knows what might come out? What was confidential is suddenly public - well, European Commission knowledge, anyway.

The investigators, we are told, pounced on the European headquarters offices in Hamburg of Hanjin, Yangming and China Ocean Shipping Co.

In Bremen, they hit DSR-Senator.

In London, they disturbed the milk delivery when they marched on Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha (''K'' Line) and Hyundai.

They were given full access, we understand, to all documents that may, or may not, pertain to the investigation in progress.

They were given complete cooperation in their investigation. No one would think the shipping lines would do otherwise.

But what a development. The whole meaning of confidentiality could become a subject of public debate. Very public debate.

If there is some truth in these allegations, and if TACA and non-TACA lines do have a service dialogue that overflows into the forbidden field, then the raids in London and the German port centers are just the beginning.

Personally, I'll keep my views to myself for once. It's safer that way.

This has only begun to rumble. There's a lot more yet.