Vestager the digital chief in name, but Goulard in practice

Following the new hearing, Macron's pick will need a 50% majority from members of the internal market and industry committees to be confirmed. [EPA-EFE/FLORIAN WIESER]

The EU’s Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager received broad support on Tuesday (10 September) following her nomination as the Commission’s Executive Vice President for Digital.

But a closer look at the revamped structure of Directorates-General reveals that Frenchwoman Sylvie Goulard will in fact have significantly more influence on tech policy.

Although Goulard was allocated the Internal Market portfolio, the competences of the post have broadened substantially, with DG Connect – the Commission department responsible for developing the digital single market – coming under her control.

Moreover, incoming Commission President Von der Leyen’s mission letter to Goulard details a range of competences important to the future of the EU’s global standing in the technology arena.

The former deputy governor of France’s central bank has been tasked with jointly defining standards for 5G networks and new generation technologies, devising an Artificial Intelligence strategy, and leading efforts in the implementation of the EU’s Digital Services Act – a far-reaching and ambitious regulatory framework that seeks to govern the online ecosystem.

Von der Leyen also makes reference to Goulard overseeing Europe’s future in the realm of cybersecurity in addition to leading a new DG for Defence Industry and Space.

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The office of the French President applauded Goulard’s appointment on Tuesday, saying that she will help to “make Europe truly sovereign.”

Meanwhile, in terms of policy, Vestager’s competences in digital affairs are likely to be concentrated to the competition arena – continuing her leadership of a portfolio in which she has been able to build a reputable profile. Moreover, there are two important additions to DG Competition –  with two units dealing with state aid moving from DG AGRI and DG MARE.

However, Vestager will have some input in areas also allocated to Goulard, including on the Digital Services Act. Within the first 100 days of the Commission’s new mandate, staring on November 1, Vestager will also coordinate work on a European approach to artificial intelligence, including its ethical implications.

In addition, Vestager has been tasked with the ‘poisoned chalice’ of digital taxation – Von der Leyen expects the Dane to find a consensus at international level by the end of 2020 or to propose a fair European tax – a challenging task considering that a coalition of member states banded together to block the plans earlier this year, and an agreement in the OECD is unlikely.

It’s not surprising that Vestager has obtained authority in this field – as the signs have been there for many months that she had wanted to impose her political influence on the digital tax plans. In April, she told told France Inter radio that “we are becoming an increasingly digital world and it will be a huge problem if we do not find a way to raise (digital) taxes.”

Regardless of the fact that Vestager’s portfolio has been placed under the ‘digital’ remit, it remains unclear how much influence she will have in the technology sphere outside the  fields of competition and taxation. This was a view echoed by a number of analysts in Brussels, including Paul Butcher from the European Policy Centre think-tank, who criticised the lack of clarity in Vestager’s appointment.

“Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager may have oversight under the heading ‘a Europe fit for the digital age’, but is unlikely to have the time to devote serious energy to it alongside so many other responsibilities,” Butcher said.

“This does not bode well for the prospects of a more focused approach to what is after all a pressing threat to EU democracy.”

Vestager's grand plan for regulating the digital economy

The EU should be “ready to act” should social values such as “privacy, freedom and fairness” be under threat from expanding digital monopolies, the bloc’s Competition Chief Margrethe Vestager said on Monday (3 April).

Nevertheless, Vestager has been priming herself for greater influence in the tech industry for some months. In June, EURACTIV revealed that she had begun considering a strategy to break up monopolies and nurture a vibrant EU startup culture.

“The biggest threat to competition and innovation, comes from platforms that are not just a single business, but the centre of large empires,” Vestager told an OECD conference in June, adding that that the EU needs “to preserve the opportunity for smaller rivals to break into the market.”

And indeed, as part of her new role at the Commission, she has been given the responsibility of a “new SME strategy” – supporting small businesses, entrepreneurs and start-ups and “reducing the regulatory burden and enabling them to make the most of digitisation.”

Elsewhere, data protection competences will be dealt with by incoming Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders, disinformation is an area to be taken up by new Vice-President-designate for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, and Bulgarian Mariya Gabriel is set to oversee science and education as part of her new portfolio, dubbed ‘Innovation and Youth,’ overseeing the €94.1 billion Horizon Europe research programme.

While Vestager’s new job title may give the impression of a dramatically expanded portfolio, the reality is that she may play more of a symbolic role in Europe’s future digital society.

She may also soon face the ire of transatlantic counterparts, with US President Donald Trump, recently saying that Vestager “hates” the US.

Regardless, Vestager herself is under no illusions. “I have no intention of even trying to do the work on myself, on the contrary,” she said on Tuesday. “The task is to make a sufficiently strong team among commissioners to make sure we can make things happen.”

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US President Donald Trump on Wednesday (26 June) suggested the European Union was out of line in “suing” US technology companies like Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google, saying legal action against those firms should be the purview of the United States.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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