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, clashing with the White House and upsetting Berlin and Paris by opposing a merger between train-makers Alstom and Siemens.
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.”
Von der Leyen said she was not seeking renewed trade clashes with the United States
Vestager told AFP that she was “very happy and humble” to have retained the competition portfolio while enlarging her field of responsibility to the digital economy.
She did not rule out more legal battles against Silicon Valley.
“That of course very much depends on the cases,” she said.
“You know we have opened a case against Amazon on the use of data and we are asking questions to follow up on Spotify complaints over Apple. We have more complaints as well.”
- Stronger together -
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.
Von der Leyen said the new EU executive would be a "geopolitical commission"
Von der Leyen gave a long news conference to introduce her nominees, partly overshadowed by two setbacks.
Several MEPs and rights organisations cried foul over the decision to put the migration and asylum portfolio under a commissioner dubbed “vice-president for the Protection of our European Way of Life”, arguing that this implies that refugees threaten European culture.
Green MEP Ska Keller called this “scary” and others said it smacked of far-right terminology, but an EU spokesman insisted commission nominee Margaritis Schinas’ brief would be wider than migration and that Europe “stands for open and democratic societies.”
Separately, the French nominee Sylvie Goulard was not in Brussels but appearing for questioning as a voluntary witness in a French police inquiry into party funding irregularities.
Von der Leyen defended the choices and her team expressed confidence that the European Parliament will approve the line-up but MEPs will seize upon both incidents as they prepare confirmation hearings.
The 27 politicians that she named to commission posts, 13 women and 14 men from every country of the EU barring Brexit-bound Britain, must now be approved by the 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.
In what will be interpreted as a firm message for London, Von der Leyen 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 trade deal with London.
- ‘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.
Phil Hogan from Ireland has been named EU trade commissioner and will have post-Brexit talks with Britain high on his agenda
“Brexit, should it happen, is not the end of something but it’s the beginning of our future relationship,” she said.
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.
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” with a planned 13-billion-euro budget to support joint defence projects, which will come under France’s Goulard.