By Foo Yun Chee
BRUSSELS, Aug 20 (Reuters) - German industrial gases group Linde and U.S. rival Praxair secured conditional EU antitrust approval on Monday for their $82 billion merger but still have to clear a major hurdle with U.S. enforcers.
The deal, announced in June last year, would put the merged entity ahead of French competitor Air Liquide in gas distribution. The companies' industrial gases such as oxygen and helium are used in hospitals, MRI scanners and steel production.
The European Commission said the companies' pledge to sell assets to reinforce a Japanese rival in Europe and other concessions addressed its concerns that the deal may lead to price hikes and hurt competition, confirming a Reuters story on July 12.
"With this decision, we make sure that the merger of Praxair and Linde will not result in further concentration in Europe and that customers will continue to benefit from competition in these markets," European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.
The EU watchdog said Praxair will sell its entire gas business in the 28-country bloc, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. It will also transfer its stake in an Italian joint venture in central and eastern Europe to partner Flow Fin.
The companies will also sell additional helium sourcing contracts to one or more buyers.
Praxair has already done a deal to sell its industrial gases businesses in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Britain to Taiyo Nippon Sanso Corp for 5 billion euros.
The companies however are facing more onerous demands from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which wants more asset sales, possibly exceeding the companies' agreed threshold, and wants the buyers to meet certain requirements.
Last month, Linde said it was in advanced talks to sell a majority of its gases business in North America and certain Linde and Praxair assets in South America to a consortium of German gases firm Messer and buyout group CVC. (Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Adrian Croft)