The last time the economy plunged into darkness, Microsoft broke free from the shackles of its U.S. antitrust case.

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The last time the economy plunged into darkness, Microsoft broke free from the shackles of its U.S. antitrust case.

It was just after the 9/11 attacks. The country was reeling, markets were down and haggling over the case was dragging on.

Economic concerns broke the logjam. The presiding judge said, in effect, that Microsoft and the tech industry were too important to be mired in the uncertainties of an endless lawsuit during a time of crisis. She ordered the parties to settle the case and move on.

After seeing Chief Executive Steve Ballmer’s performance during his European road-trip last week, I wonder if Microsoft’s playing the same cards.

Remember, the company is still appealing a $1.4 billion fine, based on a 2004 European Commission ruling that the company abused its market dominance. It’s also being scrutinized for its Office software, and it is finishing a new version of Windows that soon will face the regulatory gauntlet.

Ballmer went to Europe last week for many reasons, mostly to drum up business, apparently.

But consider the backdrop and the tone of his announcements.

Like the U.S., Europe is hurting, and Ballmer came across as the Henry Paulson of the tech industry, promising big investments bringing stability, growth and jobs.

Maybe Warren Buffett is a better comparison: Ballmer also was using some of Microsoft’s dry powder, making smart moves when everyone’s scared.

Here’s how it played out on the surface. Who knows what happened behind the scenes.

Talking with the British Broadcasting Corp., Ballmer said Microsoft is trailing behind the market-dominating search provider. He even said Microsoft is David to the Goliath Google.

Then he ended up in Paris, announcing the creation of Microsoft’s “European Search Technology Centre,” with facilities in Paris, Munich and London.

From the news release, headlined “Microsoft Announces Continued Investment in European Research and Development”:

“By increasing its existing investments and tapping into the best and brightest engineers in Europe, Microsoft expects to foster growth and innovation for both the partner community and the European knowledge economy.”

Microsoft said it already employs a lot of people in Europe — more there than any other region outside the U.S., including 2,000 researchers and engineers. So much for India and China getting all the jobs.

In case anyone missed the headline, the news release used the words “invest” and “investment” 11 times.

“Every year, Microsoft invests more than $600 million (U.S.) in research and development in Europe, and this investment is growing,” it noted.

Overjoyed politicians were quoted, including José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, which has been at Microsoft’s throat.

“The public sector can make a real contribution, but only in partnership with the private sector. That’s why I am delighted to welcome Microsoft’s decision to open new R&D facilities in three member states,” he said in the release.

“For such a key global player as Microsoft to increase its R&D investments so substantially is a real vote of confidence in Europe and in European research excellence.”

France’s minister of finance, Christine Lagarde, also cheered.

“Microsoft’s decision to create an important R&D centre dedicated to search in Europe, with a strong presence in France, is a first which we salute,” she said in the release. “This is good news for the European Union, which decided long ago, with the Lisbon strategy, to go down the road of the knowledge-based economy.”

With the global economy suffering and Europe counting on technology to drive future growth, regulators couldn’t possibly keep the brakes on a supportive partner like Microsoft, now, could they?

At the very least, Microsoft will be on the minds of European leaders convening next week during a big council meeting where they’ll discuss improving financial stability.

Microsoft is also on the minds of people around here, especially after Friday’s disclosure that the company may trim hiring because of the downturn. Ballmer still has a bunch of new buildings to fill in Redmond.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or