France’s European Commissioner-designate Thierry Breton will appear before members of the European Parliament this afternoon, in an attempt to assuage concerns over alleged conflicts of interest from his previous leadership of the global IT firm, Atos.
An EU Parliament official informed EURACTIV on Wednesday evening that a second hearing for Breton is ‘likely’, judging the current sentiment among political groups. In today’s sitting, the Frenchman will field questions from MEPs in the internal market and industry committees. He will require the support of coordinators representing at least two thirds of committee members.
Current expectations for Breton are low. The Greens and the left-wing GUE are set to vote the Frenchman down, with the Socialists also broadly against him. However, Renew and the EPP will most likely back his bid for the Commission’s Internal Market portfolio.
Concerns amongst MEPs are largely concentrated on Breton’s former business interests: he had been CEO of the global IT company Atos until last month, and many Parliamentarians feel aggrieved that they have not been addressed thoroughly enough in his written responses to questions from members.
Earlier this week, Breton narrowly obtained the seal of approval from Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee on his financial declaration, by 12 votes to 11 – with the Socialists, the Greens, and GUE failing to solicit further responses from Breton on the specifics as to how he would avoid a potential conflict on interest.
Commissioners’ code of conduct
Tiemo Wölken, S&D coordinator for the legal affairs committee, told EURACTIV that the alliance formed by the EPP and Renew had obstructed MEPs from conducting a thorough scrutiny of Breton’s potential conflict of interest.
“It is very regrettable, that thanks to liberals and conservatives, the JURI committee could not proceed to do its job and ask further questions to the French Commissioner-designate Thierry Breton,” he said.
Wölken added that under the Commissioners’ code of conduct Article 4, the President of the Commission is able to decide whether or not it is necessary to reallocate a file to another Commissioner or a responsible Vice-President, should it be necessary in order to guarantee the absence of any conflict of interest.
S&D’s Jackie Jones, who sits in the JURI committee, echoed these concerns. “There are questions for him to answer in relation to his current, past and future relationship with Atos,” she told EURACTIV. “Atos is a company which deals with many of the areas that directly intersect his future portfolio.”
Atos EU funding
Recent research conducted by the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), based on data taken from the European Commission’s Financial Transparency System, found that in 2018, Atos received nearly €107 million from the EU Commission and its agencies. Moreover, the company has also been active on the lobbying front, having had 24 meetings with EU Commission officials since November 2014.
Others further to the left of the political spectrum in the European Parliament have been just as scathing on Breton’s Atos links. Manon Aubry, MEP for GUE and a member of la France Insoumise told EURACTIV that Breton “isn’t fit for the job” and that Atos “is a key player in all parts of his portfolio,” adding that his appointment “would not be in the general interest of European citizens.”
However, there have been those that have come to Breton’s defence. Renew’s Danish MEP Morten Løkkegaard called upon Parliament’s political parties to cease the infighting and unite to support the Frenchman.
“Based on Breton’s excellent experience and his performance during his meeting with Renew, I assume he will be approved by the committee today,” Løkkegaard told EURACTIV. “The only issue is whether the left-wing parties will accept him.”
Løkkegaard added that Breton’s disclosure earlier this week that he has sold all of his shares in Atos, alongside his commitment to distance himself from Commission decisions which may involve his former company and thereby encroach upon his independence, should be sufficient for assuaging concerns amongst MEPs on the left.
Breton resigned from his post at the head of Atos position on 31 October 2019. Previously, he had served as vice-chairman and CEO of Groupe Bull, chairman and CEO of Thomson-RCA, and chairman and CEO of France Télécom (now Orange).
Between 2005 to 2007, he was French Minister of Economy, Finance and Industry, before later becoming a professor at Harvard Business School. He is the author of several books about cyberspace, including the technothriller novel Softwar – La Guerre Douce.
Last month MEPs in the internal market and industry committees rejected France’s first choice, Sylvie Goulard for the Internal Market portfolio, following two heated hearings in which she was pressed over contracting work for a US-based think tank, as well as ongoing judicial investigations in France and at the European Anti-fraud Office (OLAF) related to the potential misuse of funds in the employment of a parliamentary assistant from her time as an MEP.
Despite the concerns over Breton’s appointment, one EPP official informed EURACTIV that splinters within the Socialist front could work in his favour. Nonetheless, he said that the Frenchman is prone to ‘gaffes’ which could work against him.
Meanwhile, German Green MEP Sergey Lagodinsky believes that Breton’s greatest obstacle during today’s hearing will be his ability to build trust with MEPs.
“The central issue with Breton is whether he will be able to convince the Parliament that he should be the one to regulate the high tech industry after having been Mr. High Tech Industry himself,” he told EURACTIV.
(Edited by Benjamin Fox)