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European test case gains wide support

The proposed pan-European pensions legal test case championed by Anglo-Norwegian group Kvaern-er, UK company Zeneca and Eversheds law firm, looks almost certain to get off the ground after gaining support from 20 European multinationals at a recent make or break meeting in Brussels.

Over 50 pan-European groups at-tended the confidential colloque on October 13, where representatives of Kvaerner, Zeneca and Eversheds gave presentations outlining the opportunities of a pan-European pensions regime and the backing needed to launch the test case. Following debate on the issues, 20 multinationals signalled their intention to fund the initiative and carry the process forward.

Lyn Ellis, pension fund manager at Kvaerner, says: Backing from at least 20 companies was the magic figure we had set ourselves to realistically move the issue on, although in a Utopia we would have liked about 50. But I'm delighted at the response and now we are just waiting for the hands waived at the meeting to get down to the nitty gritty of writing cheques and truly throwing their weight behind us."

A deadline of December 1 has been set for money to arrive before any concrete steps are taken by the working group. Suggested costs for the case have been put at around £500,000.

"Once the support arrives, and we are sure it will, then the real tasks of lobbying influential organisations, including the European parliament, and working out the specifics of the test case will begin," Ellis adds.

Concerns have been raised though about the choice of country and the legal focus for such a test case, in order to improve its chances of success.

Geoffrey Furlonger, head of Will-iam M Mercer's European practice, believes a case brought in Holland may be the only viable jurisdiction for a positive result. "The Bachmann case in Belgium is a classic example of the European Court ruling against proceedings on jurisdiction grounds, and following a process of elimination France, Germany, the UK and Ireland would also be similar countries to avoid for political and taxation issues. Holland with its liberal authorities, developed funded pensions system and greater openness on tax could be the softest target to avoid any legal dogfight," he says.

He also suggests that the EC itself may take steps to create a pan-European pension regime, prompted by DGXV commissioner Monti looking to achieve some concrete progression in the area before his own retirement in 2000. "Any case must be thoroughly researched though, and perhaps three individual cases are need-ed; firstly one for keeping ex-pats in their home schemes, secondly for pooling pension fund assets in one location, and thirdly for the full 'Monti', as I call it-the true pan-European scheme."

Ellis concedes that these issues need to be thoroughly examined: "Obviously we have to choose the tact for such a case very carefully, and we are looking closely at precedents such as Safir and Bachmann to see what we can learn." Hugh Wheelan"

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