European Commission presidency candidate Margrethe Vestager found a lot of common ground with German economy minister Peter Altmaier on Monday (1 April), as the Dane’s campaign appeared to gain momentum.
The EU’s competition chief, who leads the liberal ticket for the May EU elections, shared her views on industrial policy during an event at the European Policy Centre (EPC), a Brussels think-tank.
And the failed Alstom-Siemens merger did not cause any bad feelings between the two, despite Vestager’s rejection of the proposed deal, supported by France and Germany.
In a debate with German economy minister Peter Altmaier, the pair even agreed that discussions on a new industrial strategy had to be held at European level.
Altmaier and his French counterpart, Bruno Le Maire, have been leading calls to overhaul the way Brussels approaches industrial policy after Vestager shot down the Alstom-Siemens deal.
Paris and Berlin launched a joint industrial policy manifesto on the back of the failed merger, calling for EU competition rules to be changed in order to allow the creation of “European champions” able to compete against Chinese and American counterparts.
Speaking at the EPC event in Brussels, Altmaier said “there was plenty of debate in Germany before” the proposed merger was rejected. However, he admitted there had been “little answers” so far and the Franco-German proposal “was meant to fuel a controversial debate” about industrial policy in Europe.
“This cannot be done just at member state level. It must be conceived at European level and it has to be the European Commission that organises and guides the debate,” Altmaier insisted.
The German minister also warned against past failures, citing the Lisbon Strategy adopted in the early 2000s, which aimed at turning the EU into “the most competitive economy in the world” by 2010. Such notable missteps are “comparable to Brexit and other divisive topics,” and must be avoided in the future, Altmaier said.
At their recent March summit, EU heads of states called on the Commission to draft a “long-term vision” for industrial policy before the end of 2019. It is likely to be one of the last major publications of the current Commission.
Vestager, whose pursuit of the Commission presidency is now official, said her experience of competition and anti-trust cases is wholly applicable to the industrial strategy debate.
“Europe is an ecosystem. And no ecosystem can thrive if it depends on just a few big species. There’s the lesson: we should look beyond just individual companies,” Vestager said. “We must develop an industrial policy that is fit for all its members,” she added.
The Dane also agreed with Altmaier that Europe needed a flexible strategy that can be adjusted to new challenges. The digitalisation of the economy and big data will be critical in this regard, the pair concurred.
Altmaier and Vestager recently clashed over the Alstom-Siemens merger case, which she vetoed in February.
The German minister was a staunch advocate of the tie-up, as he held the viewpoint that a “European champion” in the same mold as Airbus would be needed to compete with China’s state-owned CRRC behemoth.
Vestager’s investigation concluded though that there was insufficient evidence that China would start doing business in Europe and that Alstom and Siemens are effectively already large enough to fend for themselves.
Altmaier, a lawyer by profession and a former EU official, conceded that “the merger decision was based on the existing rules and framework. I wholly welcome the Commission protecting the European market”.
However, he did add that merger rules are “not a bible” that cannot be changed. “I’m not criticising the Commission but I think we have to take into account the time dimension and the global dimension a bit more in these cases,” he argued.
In February, when it became clear that Vestager would recommend nixing the deal, EU politics observers said it would put paid to any notion that the Commissioner could succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as president.
Given that Alstom and Siemens are two of France and Germany’s industrial jewels and that the Danish official would need the support of both Paris and Berlin in her pursuit of the presidency, it seemed like Vestager’s race was run before it started.
But in early March, the European liberal party (ALDE) named her among its ‘Team Europe’ of lead candidates, who will contest the upcoming EU elections and vie for top institutional posts if the opportunity arises.
Altmaier is a close confidant of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, serving as her chief of staff for nearly five years, and his tacit support for Vestager could be a defining factor in the coming campaign if it is given.
“I enjoy working under the control of strong women, first Angela Merkel in Berlin, then Margrethe and Cecilia Malmström [the EU’s trade policy chief],” the minister quipped at the event.
The Vestager approach
When asked by the audience about the role commercial deals play in safeguarding Europe’s industry and preserving a level playing-field, Vestager praised the work of Malmström, a fellow Scandinavian Commissioner in charge of trade at the EU executive.
“Cecilia has effectively retired the old idea of trade deals. They build on relationships, standards and how things are actually done, now. I think we undervalue the trust that this actually builds,” she said.
“An industrial strategy must be global in approach, in the same way that any company must think globally to succeed. The trade deal approach, therefore, could be used in other areas,” the Commissioner added.
In another sign of what could be expected from a Vestager-led executive, she said that “all the different portfolios of the Commission must come together to make all this work”.
Although the political priorities of the next administration and its president are unknown at this stage, EU sources believe that the next Commission will include a vice-president for industrial policy, who will oversee matters like climate change and competition.
Whether Vestager actually stands a chance of taking the top job is still a matter for debate, as there are still plenty of unknowns about how the EU elections will play out, whether the EU Council will stick with the so-called Spitzenkandidat system and if Denmark will even nominate her as its representative.
Her liberal party is currently in opposition at home and barring a massive turnaround in elections due in June, will most likely stay in that role. Commissioners are normally selected from the ranks of the ruling political force.
But a new survey for Danish daily Berlingske found that 70% of respondents think Vestager should be given the nod by whichever party is in power, whether she is pursuing the Commission presidency or just for another tilt at a Commissioner job.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]