Re-oligopolisation is not a word that trips easily off the tongue - even to a polysyllable-crunching German-speaker like Dieter Wolf. So when the president of Germany's Federal Cartel Office used the R-word last week to warn of the dangers in the current craze for multinational mega-mergers, and demanded regulation by a supra-national body, his international audience took him very seriously indeed. He had given a name - albeit an unpronounceable one - to that vague, but rapidly crystallising concern of competition authorities worldwide: that the new breed of giant, multinational corporation will dominate and control markets in a manner few players have had the size or power to contemplate until now. With just a few such monster organisations in every sector, they will be beyond the control of individual governments and out of reach of nationally based regulatory authorities. Speaking to an international forum of competition watchdogs and trust-busters in Berlin, Mr Wolf warned of the emergence of inter-regional oligopolies on a previously unheard-of scale. These would be powerful enough to make nonsense of previous trade policy successes. He admitted there was little evidence so far that recent mergers had led to abuses, but that could change with time. Trends must be monitored intently. The world must be prepared for the consequences of progressive concentration in every sector. National authorities working alone, within the constraints of their domestic legal systems, were ill-equipped for the job. Yet not all delegates showed equal enthusiasm for a fully fledged international competition authority. Mr Wolf's own boss, German economics minister Werner Mueller, said there was no need to panic, even if public concern was understandable. Global markets required global players, he argued. He believed there was little chance the latest round of mergers would lead to dominant positions and restriction of competition, and an international competition authority was not the answer. Others were less dismissive. The outgoing European Union Competition Commissioner, Karel van Miert, the Belgian socialist who has built himself a formidable reputation as Europe's most powerful and strong-minded cartel-cracker, agreed it was not yet time for an international monopolies and mergers body with Draconian legal powers. The EU's Brussels executive has the power to forbid mergers and co-operative ventures and can impose heavy fines for breaches of its competition laws. Nevertheless, he called on the World Trade Organisation to negotiate a treaty binding its members to establish legally enforceable competition rules at a national level and possibly establishing an international arbitration mechanism to decide if proposed mega-mergers would restrict competition. Talks should begin as early as the WTO's Seattle meeting in November, he said, at the start of the Millennium Round of trade negotiations. Meanwhile, the EU would continue working on bilateral competition agreements. It was about to sign an arrangement with Canada and was working towards a similar deal with Japan. Mr van Miert also proposed setting up a joint EU-US working committee to agree rules for transatlantic mergers, a suggestion taken up with some enthusiasm by his American counterpart, the Justice Department's antitrust chief, Joel Klein. Mr Klein was less enthusiastic about involving the WTO institutionally, arguing that it was a trade organisation, not a competition authority and was not in a position to make policy. As for an international cartels and mergers office, he explained to a Berlin newspaper after the meeting, the answer was definitely no. It could reopen too many difficult questions and lead to conflict and disagreement between governments. The US continues to argue that bilateral agreements between countries were still the best way forward for international competition controls. Proponents of a supra-national alternative, on the other hand, claim that bilateral arrangements would leave too many bases uncovered and would allow the US or the EU to divide and rule among their trade partners while protecting their own powerful multinationals. A complete network of bilateral agreements, they say - over 250 would be required among EU nations alone - would be too unwieldy to be effective. Yet without it, there would be no way to oversee, say, the 'unsettling' example cited by Mr Wolf: the merger of two large banks from Europe and Japan, who create a 'mega-bank', domiciled in Bermuda. But between those extremes there must be room not only to accommodate the concerns of regulators like Mr Wolf, but also those of the executives whose deals he oversees. Industry, after all, needs certainty and an environment of clearly established rules and requirements before it dare venture into ever larger deals with an ever smaller number of rivals. DaimlerChrysler co-chairman Juergen Schrempp, who pulled off last year's largest merger rejected a supra-national office, but called instead for closer links between national competition authorities. He demanded clearly defined and internationally agreed tests of acceptable market behaviour and closer co-operation on criteria and procedures between the US and the EU. Inevitably, those who argue for a single authority will suspect industry spokesmen of having a hidden, self-serving agenda and aiming at the lowest common denominator. But, provided strict standards are maintained, Mr Schrempp's conditions may, in the end, be easier to negotiate than any new supra-national body inside - or outside - the WTO. The world must be prepared for the consequences of progressive concentration in every sector. National authorities . . . were ill-equipped for the job.