The European Union is insistent on the supremacy of the rule of law.

So Peter Mandelson's early bid for notoriety - with his remarks this week that the European Commission should confront member states on state aid abuses - won immediate endorsement from the Commission as a restatement of the Commission's duty to act in the interests of European Union and to ensure that EU rules are followed.

The same theme underlay the Commission's response to questions about the suitability of the Croatian foreign minister as a partner in accession negotiations, in light of renewed corruption allegations. While the Commission declined to involve itself in domestic political matters, it reiterated the general principle that member states - and candidate countries - are expected to operate according to the rule of law.

Deep dismay is therefore sweeping through the Commission's competition services at the prospect of the rule of law being subverted in the high-profile Microsoft case.

The US software giant has been judged by the Commission to be guilty of serious abuse of the market dominance it enjoys with its Windows operating system. Now it is perceived to be trying to buy its way out of the penalties imposed on it in March this year - and notably requirements to provide competitors with wider access to its system.

Microsoft's legal appeal for interim relief is still pending. But it is progressively assuaging the...

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