New Commission: Commissioner-elect Breton expected to push for European digital champions

By Francine Cunningham

11-2019

In a bold move that aims to bring together the world of business and digital policy making, President Emmanuel Macron of France has proposed Thierry Breton, CEO of the French multinational information technology company Atos, as the next European 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 France's initial choice, former MEP Sylvie Goulard. Breton will still have to win acceptance from the European Parliament during a Hearing expected to take place at the end of November, where he is likely to be quizzed on any possible conflicts between his new role and his previous high profile positions in industry.

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. This position 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.

Meanwhile, Vestager had a relatively smooth road to acceptance by Members of the European Parliament during her Hearing on 8 October.  Her track record as a star performer of the outgoing Juncker Commission no doubt helped to persuade MEPs of her suitability for this challenging position. She has, nevertheless, faced questions about how she will avoid conflicts of interest in her future dual role as digital law maker and competition chief.

While Breton is due to have the day to day responsibility for specific digital economy issues in the new Commission, Vestager's Hearing in the European Parliament provided some specific insights into how she will oversee digital priorities.

New rules for Artificial Intelligence

Vestager will coordinate work on a European approach to artificial intelligence, with a legislative proposal due to be presented in the first 100 days of the new Commission. During her Hearing, she emphasised the need to develop AI built according to "trust by design", as well as retaining human oversight of such systems. The Executive Vice President-designate also spoke of the need to address the risk that automated decision-making could cement inequalities. 

Proposed Digital Services Act 

Vestager will oversee work on a new legislative proposal −"Digital Services Act" – that would include "upgrading our liability and safety rules on digital platforms, services and products." This Act is expected to review aspects of the e-Commerce Directive which dates from the year 2000 and includes a "hosting defence" protecting online platforms from certain forms of liability. Vestager also stated that the Act may need to regulate the way that companies use and share data. In addition, the proposal would address the working conditions of platform workers in the collaborative economy. 

Digital corporate taxation

The Executive Vice President-designate has undertaken to coordinate the Commission's work on digital taxation, in order to find a consensus at international level by the end of 2020. She noted that the OECD is currently working towards finding a global consensus on this issue. If such an agreement is not reached by the end of 2020, then the Commission is prepared to propose "a fair European digital tax".  

Remedies beyond competition tools

In response to questions from MEPs about fighting the "monopoly power" of tech giants, Vestager stated that breaking up companies 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, with possible further delays until early 2020.

Francine Cunningham, Senior Public Affairs Manager, talks about digital themes and priorities for the incoming College of Commissioners.


Subscribe to our events, legal updates and news here.