EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is to hold a beefed-up portfolio in the incoming Commission after she was also named as an executive vice-president

Brussels (AFP) - European competition chief Margrethe Vestager, whose tough line with US tech giants has enraged Washington, won a strengthened role in the incoming EU Commission on Tuesday.

Unveiling her top team, new European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the Dane would keep the anti-trust brief and step up to be an executive vice-president.

Vestager was the star of the outgoing commission, upsetting Berlin and Paris by opposing a merger between train-makers Alstom and Siemens and clashing with the White House.

Last year, US President Donald Trump complained to outgoing commission head Jean-Claude Juncker about Vestager’s efforts to regulate big tech, and declared: “Your tax lady, she really hates the US.”

But von der Leyen, the commission’s first female leader, insisted that she was not seeking renewed trade clashes with the United States, just defending the European way of life and business.

“The only aspect that matters in assigning portfolios is quality and excellence,” von der Leyen said, describing former Danish minister Vestager’s performance at competition as “outstanding”.

“This is the team that will shape the relationship with the United States of America – although we have issues, they are our closest allies – and define our relations with a more self-assertive China,” she said.

“This commission will be a geopolitical commission, I want the European Union and thus the commission to be the guardian of multilateralism, because we know that we are stronger by doing together what we cannot do alone.”

The 27 politicians that she named to commission posts, 13 women and 14 men from every country of the EU barring Britain, must now be approved by the EU parliament before taking office on November 1.

Britain plans to leave the European Union on October 31, with or without a withdrawal deal, and will have to negotiate future trade relations with Brussels from outside the bloc.

Von der Leyen’s line-up also contained what will be interpreted as a firm message for London: she promoted Ireland’s Phil Hogan from the agriculture brief to the powerful trade portfolio.

There, he will not only have to work to stave off a trade war with the US, but will lead negotiations on a future free trade deal that London must seek once it extricates itself from the union.

- ‘Vociferous on Brexit’ -

Negotiations on a divorce deal have stalled over how to handle the border between Ireland and British-ruled Northern Ireland, with Brussels standing in solidarity with Dublin’s position.

Von der Leyen, the 60-year-old German former defence minister, described Hogan as a “fair but determined negotiator” and insisted she wants a good relationship with London in the future.

“We are still in a difficult process. I keep saying ‘the Brexit we never wanted’. But we respect decisions that are taken by our British friends, by the United Kingdom,” she said.

Phil Hogan from Ireland has been named EU trade commissioner and will have post-Brexit talks with Britain high on his agenda

“The Brexit, should it happen, is not the end of something but it’s the beginning of our future relationship.”

But in Dublin, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar was delighted, boasting that Hogan’s promotion strengthens Ireland’s hand in its Brexit debate with his British counterpart Boris Johnson’s government. Downing Street said the decision was “a matter for the EU”.

“Commissioner Hogan will of course work for Europe as a whole, but it is a definite advantage to have an Irish person in charge of this crucial brief over the next five years,” Varadkar said.

“He has proven to be vociferous on Brexit, and I am sure that this will continue in his new role.”

Under von der Leyen, Vestager and Dutch politician Frans Timmermans will have beefed up vice-presidential roles.

And, while Vestager keeps competition and adds responsibility for building a Europe “fit for a digital age”, Timmermans will have overarching responsibility for a European “green deal”.

“I want the European Green Deal to become Europe’s hallmark. At the heart of it is our commitment to becoming the world’s first climate-neutral continent,” she said.

In another new departure, the Commission set up a new “directorate general for the defence industry and space”, which will come under France’s commissioner Sylvie Goulard.

burs-dc/pdw/wai/klm