The European Commission has conditionally approved Hutchison Whampoa's acquisition of a controlling interest in Europe's premier container handling facility at the port of Rotterdam. Subsidiary Hutchison Port Holdings notified the commission last month of its intention to increase its 35 per cent stake in European Combined Terminals, but approval was delayed due to anti-competition concerns. 'They didn't want Hutchison to control all of northern Europe's deep-water ports,' said an analyst. Hutchison Port owns 90 per cent of the container terminals at Felixstowe and Thamesport in Britain, both of which are capable of handling the largest box-ships. As Europe has limited deep-water facilities, the commission delayed approval to investigate whether Hutchison Port's control of the terminal would lead to a domination of northern Europe's intercontinental container volumes. The initial and latest stakes were approved pending the divestiture of the 33.3 per cent stake of European Combined's partners in the Maersk Delta terminal at the port, a move that has yet to be completed. The latest stake acquisition, which calls for an estimated investment of US$52 million, will increase Hutchison Port's shareholding in the terminal to 60 per cent. Hutchison Port executives have always said terminals in Britain serve a different market from Rotterdam. They have argued, for instance, that shippers do not transport a car bound for Bonn through Felixstowe. Brussels has not always agreed with that assertion. 'The commission accepted our position and we are now in a better position to discuss with management how the company can move forward,' said John Meredith, Hutchison Port group managing director. 'We have always seen [European Combined] as having fantastic potential. It gives us an opportunity to go into a new market - the north continent,' Mr Meredith said. 'We are interested in expanding the role of the terminal inland, sourcing cargo throughout the northern continent and funnelling it through European Combined Terminals. 'There is a lot that can be done, which is why we have been interested in the port for some time.' The announcement has generally met approval, even from Hutchison Port's closest competitors such as P&O Ports, operator of the world's third-busiest terminal. 'The decision is in line with our interpretation of the competitive market in northern Europe,' said P&O Ports assistant managing director, Alisdair Baillie. 'The market runs from Le Harve to Hamburg, and this decision supports that.' Hutchison Port had wanted to take a controlling stake in European Combined in 1999, but was only able to gain joint control with Rotterdam Municipal Port Management.