By John S. McClenahen In about 18 months, on May 1, 2004, the European Union (EU) could be operating under a new set of merger rules. The European Commission, the EU's executive branch, has approved reforms that include liberalizing the time frames for notifying the Commission of a proposed merger and for the conduct of merger investigations, appointing a peer-review panel for "in-depth" merger investigations, giving companies earlier access to the third-party comments on a proposed merger, and adding a chief competition economist to the merger investigation team. The proposed reforms require approval by EU ministers. The Commission has also just issued a draft notice on how it expects to deal with so-called horizontal mergers, those between competing companies. Notably it includes a list of conditions -- including buyer power, ease of market entry, efficiencies, and close down of a company -- that might mitigate an initial finding of harm to competition. The draft is open for public comment until the end of March 2003.