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In the ever-evolving landscape of European politics, recent developments within the European Commission have set the stage for potential shifts in leadership and priorities. With Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s longstanding antitrust czar, announcing her candidacy for the presidency of the European Investment Bank (EIB), a series of interconnected decisions and appointments are now in motion. Additionally, the possible reshuffling of key positions within the Commission, including the Directorate General for Competition Policy (DG COMP), further adds complexity to the situation.
Margrethe Vestager, a prominent figure in the European Union, has taken a leave of absence from her role as the EU’s antitrust chief to focus on her candidacy for the presidency of the European Investment Bank (EIB). The next EIB president is set to assume office in January 2024, with the decision expected to be made in mid-September by EU finance ministers who represent EIB shareholders. Vestager’s candidacy represents a significant departure from her current role, and her decision to pursue this opportunity was met with certain expectations and conditions set by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. These conditions aimed to ensure Vestager’s full compliance with the Code of Conduct, especially in relation to conflicts of interest or perceived conflicts of interest. The Danish government also pledged to propose an alternative candidate for the Commission president should Vestager secure the EIB presidency. This move by Vestager marks the latest in a series of high-ranking Commission officials departing their roles prematurely. Vice President Frans Timmermans returned to Dutch national politics, while former Commissioner Mariya Gabriel did the same in Bulgaria. Vestager’s decision leaves a significant void in her wake, particularly within the DG COMP.
The future of DG COMP
A Hotbed of Speculation DG COMP is currently one of the most influential portfolios in the European Commission, given its role in enforcing competition policies and regulations. With Vestager’s departure, speculation abounds regarding her potential successor. Among the names being circulated, Johannes Hahn, the Austrian Commissioner responsible for budgetary and HR matters, has emerged as a strong contender. Hahn’s reputation for maintaining fiscal discipline has garnered support from the so-called ‘frugal’ countries within the EU. Valdis Dombrovskis, who is already in charge of trade affairs, is another name in the mix, though his current responsibilities might hinder his chances. Thierry Breton, the Commissioner for the Internal Market, is believed to be disinterested in the DG COMP role due to his controversial stance on allowing large European companies to consolidate for global competitiveness, a view not shared by all EU member states. Leaving the position vacant is another option under consideration, which would consolidate more power in the hands of Olivier Guersent, the current Director General of DG COMP. Guersent would de facto become the Competition Commissioner if this scenario unfolds. The fate of Vestager’s cabinet remains uncertain. While she is on leave, her cabinet members will continue to advise the caretaker, but formal dissolution may occur if she resigns. However, retaining experienced cabinet members, especially within DG COMP, is seen as prudent by many observers. Several high-profile competition cases are still pending, including investigations into Google’s advertising business and the Orange-MasMovil merger in Spain, which has significant implications for the telecom market.
A broader reshuffle in the European Commission
Beyond the immediate changes related to Vestager’s departure and the potential reshuffling of DG COMP, there are other key positions to consider within the European Commission. One such position is that of Executive Vice-President for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age, a role currently held by Vestager herself. Thierry Breton, who has expressed interest in the competition portfolio, might be deemed too controversial due to his involvement in multiple Commission departments. A potential candidate to replace Vestager in this role is Věra Jourová, who has previous experience with digital matters from the previous Commission mandate. Gender balance considerations may also influence this decision, as Vestager is the only female Executive Vice-President. The political affiliation of the candidates is another factor to consider, as it plays a crucial role in the distribution of top EU seats. The centre-right European People’s Party may seek to claim Vestager’s Vice-Presidency, with various potential candidates emerging. Additionally, Denmark’s choice for a new Commissioner will significantly impact the overall balance within the Commission.
Written by: Nenad Stekić