Sunday

4th Dec 2022

Macron ponders options for EU commissioner

  • Paris to reveal its second EU nominee by end of the week (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

French president Emmanuel Macron is preparing to name Thierry Breton, a tech CEO and former finance minister, to be EU single market commissioner.

The second choice comes after MEPs rejected his first pick, Sylvie Goulard.

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  • Thierry Breton: Élysée's new man in Brussels? (Photo: atos.net)

And the stakes are high in Macron's bid to wield influence in Brussels as well as to assert authority on the wider EU stage.

Breton, the CEO of French tech firm Atos, was Macron's "favourite" and was "well placed" to take the post, French magazine Le Canard Enchaine and British daily the Financial Times reported on Tuesday (22 October).

The 64-year old is a cybersecurity expert who also ran the French treasury back in 2007.

His job would be to push Macron's ideas on EU industrial, digital, and defence policy in Brussels.

The Élysée is to reveal its nominee by the end of the week.

But Benoît Georges Cœuré, France's governor on the European Central Bank (ECB) board, was another potential French candidate.

Smaller names in the running also included Clément Baune, Macron's 37-year old advisor on EU affairs.

And they included Laurence Boone, a French economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a wealthy nations' club in Paris.

The single market portfolio governs EU industrial and defence spending.

And Macron needed a "strong" commissioner to pursue his EU priorities, according to Eric Maurice, from the Robert Schuman Foundation, a think tank in Brussels.

The Élysée wanted a "coordinated industrial policy with less social 'dumping'," and to create "European digital and military sovereignty", Maurice said.

It also wanted a French commissioner who could play a starring role alongside the commission president, Germany's Ursula von der Leyen, Maurice added, to "relaunch the Franco-German motor" in the EU capital city.

The renomination comes after MEPs rejected Macron's first choice, Goulard, a former defence minister.

"Goulard was a perfect alter-ego to von der Leyen and will be difficult to replace in that respect," the think tank's Maurice noted.

She will also be missed in terms of von der Leyen's promise to have 13 women commissioners.

Florence Parly, the current French defence minister, had been considered for the post, but Parly said no in summer.

Ségolène Royal, a French socialist celebrity, had also been spoken of.

But Royal had a flaky past that included international gaffes, which made her less appealing.

What next?

For her part, von der Leyen is currently waiting to see who Macron will name.

She is also waiting for a new Romanian nominee after MEPs rejected Romania's first choice.

But she already has a second Hungarian candidate after MEPs knocked out Hungary's initial pick.

She must interview the new faces.

The European Parliament's (EP) legal affairs committee then vets them on conflict of interest.

And MEPs grill them on their portfolio before the EP votes on all the incoming commissioners and von der Leyen can start work.

The process could be wrapped up by 1 December if she named all her candidates by the end of October, an EP spokesperson told EUobserver.

Inauguration "all depends" on "how long [she] ... takes to let parliament know the three missing names," a commission spokesperson said.

It also depends on them surviving their EP gauntlet.

And "technically, they could [all] be rejected again", the commission spokesperson added.

The first French rejection already caused a stink, with Macron calling the Goulard case an "enormous snub" which "ridiculed France".

He also told EU leaders the EP ought to cede vetting powers to an "independent public body" by 2024 in reaction to the fiasco.

Goulard fall-out

MEPs rejected Goulard on grounds of alleged financial wrongdoing.

But they really did it to scalp Macron's liberal EP group after centre-right and centre-left groups had previously lost candidates, the Élysée believed.

And the incident prompted debate on whether MEPs had gone too far.

The Goulard decision gave "rise to serious concerns regarding the [EP's] impartiality and credibility", Ingolf Pernice, a law professor at Humboldt University in Germany, wrote in his blog earlier this week.

Some 28 others, including eminent Europeans, joined him in a letter of complaint to EP president David Sassoli.

One of them, Jean-Claude Trichet, was France's former ECB chief, raising the stakes for the renominations.

Another one was Etienne Davignon, a Belgian industrialist and former EU commissioner, who chairs Friends of Europe, a think tank in Brussels.

"One must be careful not to discredit the European Parliament," Davignon told EUobserver.

"If I voted for the European Parliament, I voted for it to check if [commission] candidates were fit and proper to take up their posts, not if those posts ought to be given to a person of one [political] colour or another," he said.

Dangling

And all that still left von der Leyen hanging around for Romania's new name amid infighting in Bucharest.

Romania had pushed an alternative candidate, a former socialist minister called Dan Nica.

But Nica's party toppled from power, prompting talk of Adina-Ioana Vălean, a Romanian centre-right MEP instead, in a decision expected no earlier than next week.

And it left Hungary's second pick, Olivér Várhelyi, its EU ambassador, dangling since September, when Hungary first unveiled his name, with von der Leyen keeping silent on Budapest's centre-right man so far.

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New commissioners clear 'conflict of interests' hurdle

The parliament's legal affairs committee narrowly gave the green light to France's Thierry Breton - with some MEPs critical of the candidate's links to IT firm Atos. Meanwhile, Brussels still waits for a UK commissioner.

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