Vestager wins Parliament support after smooth-sailing hearing

Executive Vice President-designate, Europe fit for the Digital Age, Margrethe Vestager during her hearing before the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, 08 October 2019. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager obtained the seal of approval from European Parliamentarians on Tuesday evening (8 October), after a hearing in front of MEPs in which she rallied the importance of improving the EU’s digital transformation as well as the bloc’s green initiatives.

“Five years ago the European Parliament confirmed me as a Commissioner for competition. that was once of the proudest moments of my life,” Vestager said in her opening statement.

“I have always worked for a fair and just society where people can make their own choices, following their own dreams without affecting others,” she added, pledging “not to make Europe more like China or the US, but more like itself”, with strong values and where markets work for people.

Following the three hour hearing [full wrap up here], MEPs from Parliament’s industry, internal market and economic affairs committees convened to examine Vestager’s suitability for the role she has been offered in the new Commission, as vice president for making Europe ‘fit for the Digital age.’

MEP Christel Schaldemose disclosed that “All the groups except Identity and Democracy supported her,” in talks, but an official confirmation letter is still to be sent. Parliament officials also confirmed to EURACTIV that Vestager had received broad backing from MEPs.

Vestager was grilled on a number of pressing digital concerns during Tuesday’s hearing, including on rights for platform workers, Artificial Intelligence and Ethics, and data protection standards.

“There has been quite a lot of frustration among those who work at digital platforms,” Vestager said.

Platform workers should be allowed the opportunity to unionise, she added, saying that this “is a pan-European question.”

Interestingly, on the EU’s high data protection standards, Vestager conceded that the rather tough regulatory framework that the EU yields as a mark of quality, may come to hinder the development of innovative technologies in the future.

“Data can work as an asset for innovation but also as a barrier to entering,” Vestager said in response to a question from Greek MEP Eva Kaili, adding that in particular, “this is critical to when it comes to AI.”

ECR MEP Evžen Tošenovský pressed Vestager on the balanced rollout of innovative technologies across the bloc.

“This is one of my worries, that everyone can be part of these developments,” Vestager responded.

“My colleagues Commissioners have a number of good ideas but one of them is to have this network of innovation hubs because that allows people from all across Europe to be part of scientific projects,” she added.

Moreover, within the first 100 days of the Commission’s new mandate, starting on 1 November, Vestager will also coordinate work on a European approach to artificial intelligence, including its ethical implications.

On Wednesday, Vestager admitted that this objective was “ambitious” but that “if we want to build trust then you have to listen,” adding that the EU “is in a hurry” when it comes to AI development.

The Dane also rallied the importance of introducing reforms to the tax environment to make sure that digital giants pay their way fairly, following a series of written answers to MEPs from Commissioners-delegates, published recently.

“If no effective agreement can be reached by the end of 2020, the EU should be willing to act alone” on a digital tax, said Vestager.

Vestager has been assigned the ‘poisoned chalice’ of digital taxation – incoming Commission President Ursula 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 – 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 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.”

In addition, in 2020 the Commission is to present sweeping reforms to age-old eCommerce rules, dubbed the Digital Services Act – a far-reaching and ambitious regulatory framework that seeks to govern the online ecosystem.

On the controversial Copyright directive, adopted by the EU earlier this year, Vestager made clear that she would not want to see the EU institutions reopen the debate, though she recognises that the debate had been divisive. She also supported plans to present a Digital Services Act to upgrade liability and safety rules for digital platforms.

Based on the committees’ recommendations, the Conference of Presidents will decide on 17 October if Parliament has received sufficient information to declare the hearing process closed. Should  the Conference of Presidents agree, Vestager’s nomination will go to a final vote in Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg on 23 October.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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