On 27 November 2009, EU Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, announced the new line up of EU Commissioners for the next five year term. This confirmed that Neelie Kroes, whilst staying on as the Dutch-nominated Commissioner, will no longer be responsible for competition policy. That honour will fall to Joaquin Almunia, a Socialist lawyer/economist from Spain. Barroso’s nominations are subject to scrutiny and approval by the European Parliament. Confirmation is expected in January 2010. If confirmed, Mr. Almunia will have the job until November 2014.
Neelie Kroes’ move to the telecommunications portfolio — her job being referred to by some as the Commissioner for the “Digital Agenda” — says more about intra- EU politics than as a comment on her performance. She will leave office with most commentators assessing her performance as “combative” in terms of style and “satisfactory” in terms of substance. Many have pointed to the impressive circa €9 billion in fines levied during her term as evidence of her effectiveness. Cynics, however, might suggest that being an assiduous revenue raiser for EU institutions is not the same as being an effective competition enforcement authority for the EU’s many needy marketplaces. Whilst the fine she imposed on Intel may have been eye-catching, it incorporated more than a hint of show-boating.
What will we get with Almunia? His reputation is as a “company man” and a person who is at home with the details of complex issues (evidenced from his role as Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs during the early days of the “credit crunch”). He is a close confidant of EU Commission President, Manual Barroso, and very much a Commission insider. On another level, his educational background in the law and economics, and his career as a political heavyweight, appear to make him an excellent fit for the antitrust dossier. To hazard a guess, therefore, he is likely to continue to pursue current Commission policy, to ropeand- tie the easy leniency-led cartel cases and occasionally bring a high-profile prosecution of a large industry-leading brand. This approach has been proven to provide the highest return in terms of fines with the least amount of effort. Not pretty, for the competition purist, but popular with the budget conscious Member States.
On the other hand, Almunia may prove to be less easily seduced than his predecessor by the limelight and, therefore, more open to pursuing obvious infractions in what might, on paper, appear to be “minor” markets. He already has gone so far as suggesting that he is not convinced by his predecessor’s private remedies initiative, which is an indication of a more workman-like and consensual style. A return to old-fashioned, technically sound policing of malfunctioning markets would be welcome. Perhaps in this way he could do more real good for consumers whilst still securing a decent income for the EU coffers. And squaring that circle would be a major achievement.