But the tentacles of government are far more entwined in business than these figures suggest. France offers perhaps the best example. It has had three big waves of privatisation, but the state still owns stakes in numerous companies, many of which are listed on the stockmarket. The stakes include The French state also owns large non-listed companies across a wide array of industrial sectors, from chemicals to transport to energy.
The biggest is EDF , already one of Europe's most controversial companies because it has expanded so aggressively outside France it is now the fourth-biggest electricity company in Britain, for instance even while remaining a protected monopoly at home. It has been at the centre of rows over the fair deregulation of Europe's energy markets. The rows are intimately linked with privatisation. Economists and observers are divided as to whether privatisation has been less crucial to European structural reform than the gradual deregulation of such businesses as telecoms and energy, with the ensuing push this gave to competition.
In Italy, which was slow to adopt privatisation, but then became an enthusiastic proponent in the mids, the effects of deregulation were further boosted by a restructuring of the banking system. State-owned banks were sold so as to sever much of the link between the state's finances and loans to industries. Officials at the treasury say this was a vital precursor to privatisation. But the introduction of competition causes problems for state-owned companies that are due to be sold. EDF and the French government, its owner, would be happy for its domestic market to stay closed to competitors for as long as possible, in defiance of European rules.
That way it can use its monopoly profits to cement an unassailable pan-European position. Already its forays into Spain and Italy have aroused strong opposition in those countries; and France's reluctance to liberalise its electricity market has been a source of friction with its European neighbours.
In continental Europe, privatisation has too often been a phrase that has disguised economic reality. Critics say the Italian government failed in to combine privatisation with coherent deregulation of the electricity market. In Britain, the two were done together and the industry was broken into component parts that were designed to compete with each other.
Enel remained an integrated company and, although it is selling some generating capacity as part of a belated and limited deregulation, it is well entrenched as the dominant force within Italy.
Arguably, only Britain has accepted the true retreat of the state from its biggest industries. Even there, this was done initially with caution. Golden shares were widely used, for example, to block the threat of rapid takeovers in the utilities sectors. Governments have raised money, either for their own coffers or to boost the balance sheets of state-owned companies.
But they have rarely forfeited control and have remained inclined to meddle. Viewed positively, this leaves plenty of scope for future improvement. Governments have lots of room, as well as the budgetary necessity, to reduce further their interests in big companies. In time they might even give up control and leave companies to fend for themselves in emerging pan-European markets. The problem is that this is unlikely to happen quickly. Healthier stockmarkets are one prerequisite. But more urgently required is a political willingness to accept that, if it is to yield its fullest benefits, privatisation has to imply loss of control as well.
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