The world of business and digital policy making is expected to come together on 14 November to watch the European Parliament Hearings of France’s new candidate for the post of Internal Market Commissioner, the former tech industry leader Thierry Breton. In a bold move, President Emmanuel Macron of France proposed Breton, former CEO of the French information technology company Atos, as the next Internal Market Commissioner. The incoming European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, accepted the nomination of Breton on 29 October, following the European Parliament’s rejection of the initial candidate, Sylvie Goulard.
Breton’s public and private sector credentials appear as extensive as the broad portfolio for which he is earmarked. His mission will not only include industrial policy and internal market, including digital economy issues, but also oversight of a new directorate for defence and space. The Commissioner-elect spent most of his career in the private sector where he headed the electronics company Thomson (1997-2002) and subsequently steered the start of privatisation process of the former public telecommunications company, France Télécom, now known as Orange (2002-2005). Since 2009, he has been President of Atos, which specialises in hi-tech transactions services, including cloud, big data and cybersecurity services.
No stranger to government, Breton served as the French Minister of Finance, Economy and Industry in the government of then-President Jacques Chirac (2005-2007). Since 2015, he has acted as the President of the National Association of Research and Technology. In recent years, Breton has been outspoken about the need for Europe to have both a digital policy and a real industrial policy.
Multinational technology companies headquartered outside of the EU will not have been reassured by his recent comments about the future of the largest tech players. During an interview with French business daily, Les Echoes, Breton was quoted as saying: “My conviction is that these empires will not be able to stay as they are,” because “they capture too much value.” Breton has also talked of what he sees as the need for a new approach to EU competition law that will allow the development of major European players.
While Breton is due to have the day to day responsibility for specific digital economy issues in the new Commission, his position on Big Tech may create tensions with the incoming Commission Executive Vice President for ‘Europe fit for the Digital Age’, Margrethe Vestager, who will also continue her current role as Competition Commissioner.
During her Hearing on 8 October, Vestager had stated that breaking up tech giants is an available tool but underlined that she had an obligation to use “the least intrusive tool in order to restore fair competition”. She also acknowledged the limits of competition law, especially when applied to fast-moving digital markets and suggested that competition decisions should look at what needs to be changed in the future, rather than relying on fines in relation to past behaviours.
The new College of Commissioners can only start its work when all Commission candidates have been accepted by the European Parliament. Since France, Hungary and Romania now have to win approval for alternative candidates following rejection of their initial choices, the new Commission is not expected to begin its mandate before December at the earliest.
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