Yesterday, Margrethe Vestager was heard by the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who have to approve her appointment as European Commission Executive Vice President (EVP). She sailed through the hearing and unsurprisingly got their backing. A smooth session with the MEPs was to be expected given her popularity in the European Parliament following her first term as Commissioner over the last five years. She immediately appealed to their sense of importance by urging them to support her as they are “elected” while she is “selected”, emphasising that it’s only because of their acceptance that she will have the democratic legitimacy to do the job she has been assigned. But her real challenges now lie ahead.
The new organigramme of the European Commission arguably does not outline a very clear hierarchy – and it is quite unclear how it will work in practice. But what is certain is that Vestager, as EVP, has been given a very significant position in the von der Leyen Commission. She will continue as Competition Commissioner, whilst at the same time driving EU policy to make Europe “Fit for the Digital Age”, which will include overseeing the work of some of the portfolio Commissioners. It will be interesting to see how she is going to juggle these different responsibilities in practice.
Her double (or triple, if you count her coordination tasks as EVP separately) function did not escape the MEPs’ scrutiny. She was asked whether there isn’t a clear conflict between her responsibilities. One the one hand she has an industrial policy role, promoting European technological leadership. And on the other hand she will be enforcing competition, including in the tech space. It is also worth noting that in her Mission Letter, President-elect von der Leyen told her: “While fully preserving the confidentiality of competition procedures, you will be expected to proactively share any relevant general market knowledge within the Commission, notably in the digital sector. This will help ensure new legislative proposals contribute to fair and open competition in the single market and support evidence-based policymaking.”
In written answers to MEPs’ questions on this, Vestager stated that she envisages a “clear separation between different elements of the portfolio”. But in her hearing she didn’t give any details on how she intends to safeguard this separation. Vestager also wrote that, in relation to the EU’s digital transformation, “regulation and competition enforcement must work hand-in-hand, complement and reinforce each other”. She stressed that she “sees no trade-offs” between the two, “but rather synergies” and that she intends to “use the insight and general market knowledge” from her competition work “when designing regulatory initiatives in digital matters”.
When pushed again on the point of potential conflicts at her hearing yesterday, she admitted that it was the first question she asked herself when offered the job. She stressed the importance of due process and internal checks and balances within the European Commission. “Independence in law enforcement is non-negotiable”, she said, reassuring the MEPs that on legislative proposals, she will not herself decide on specific policy issues (if there is a conflict with competition cases). She underlined that competition decisions are always taken in collegiality with the other Commissioners, and that the involvement of the Commission’s Legal Service ensures that there is no political interference. She receives independent advice from the Commission’s Chief Economist and the lawyers in the Legal Service, will eventually have to defend cases in Court. She also referred to two judgments in 2011, “where it was looked into whether this set up, where you have the College and the collegial decisions and the Court scrutinising both on substance and the legality of the cases afterwards, was in accordance with our human rights. And that has been found to be so.”
Whichever way she will divide her time, and her portfolio, Vestager will be extremely busy. The good news is that as EVP, she will have the support of a larger personal team (Cabinet) than the portfolio Commissioners: she will rely on 10 policy advisers, while the other Commissioners only get 6. But even then she will still have less time available to devote to individual cases. It is likely that she will delegate a lot of this work to her Head of Cabinet (the very able current Danish Ambassador to the EU Kim Jørgensen) and the Members of her Cabinet - some of whom are old hands, continuing in their roles from the current term.
Vestager’s busy schedule also means that the incoming Director-General of DG Competition may need to be more hands-on in dealing with cases. This makes it especially interesting to see who will be assigned the job left vacant by Johannes Laitenberger, who left to become a judge at the EU Court on 1 September. The new appointment is expected soon after the incoming Commissioners are confirmed while Brussels is full of rumours about who this person may be.
Although many questions are still open, one thing seems clear. Vestager will likely focus on the big-ticket, political cases, and those with clear policy implications, especially in the digital field. This will certainly include a sector enquiry, which she is supposed to open soon. She is known in Brussels to be very hands-on, carefully reading her brief and quizzing even the working level staff before acting on an individual case. But we may see a bit less of that in the next five years.