A second term for Commissioner Vestager - not a surprise at all. But a second term as Competition Commissioner - that was far from expected. However, it does not come as a total surprise. Anyone in the position of the Commission president would have been expected to rely on one of the most known, respected and sometimes feared Commission members in a time of turmoil and fundamental change.
Admittedly, whether or not you agreed with Commissioner Vestager's policy line in the past, she did have one, and that cannot be said of all of her predecessors in the last 25 years. A clear line and strong technical competence; this is as good as it gets. And frankly, there was no other prominent candidate in the pipeline.
What does a quick look at President Von der Leyen's Mission Letter to Commissioner Vestager indicate for the years to come?
- The letter starts with a general part that outlines President Von der Leyen's overall agenda for the next Commission. Buzzwords include climate change, digital technologies and geopolitics, but also collegiality. The Commission will follow a “whole-of-government approach,” decide collectively, and take ownership of what is agreed. Building on President Juncker's promise of a “Political Commission,” President Von der Leyen now announces a “geopolitical Commission.”
- Three of the eight Vice-Presidents, including Commissioner Vestager, will have a dual function. Strengthening relations with the Council and Parliament are other agenda points, to build consensus for designing policy, which (it remains to be seen) would likely include possible legislation in digital areas to complement antitrust enforcement.
- To avoid additional bureaucracy, the Commission will deliver on a one in, one out principle. Legislative proposals must be evidence-based, widely consulted on, subject to an impact assessment, and reviewed by an independent board. A strong focus on the application and enforcement of EU law is also part of the agenda. One overall objective is to connect the institutions with the people and build trust and confidence.
As to Commissioner Vestager's new mission as Competition Commissioner and Executive Vice-President for a Europe fit for the Digital Age, the mission statement requests her to focus on “maintaining European digital leadership where we have it” and moving first on new-generation technologies, with a human and ethical approach. This includes making markets work better for consumers, business and society, supporting industry to adapt to globalization, climate change and digital transitions.
- President Von der Leyen wants Commissioner Vestager to focus on “a new long-term strategy for Europe’s industrial future, working together with the Executive Vice-President for an Economy that Works for People,” working with the Member States and businesses of all sizes including SMEs.
- A top priority is to coordinate the work on a European approach on AI, including its human and ethical implications, including the use of non-personalized big data, and to work towards a new Digital Services Act and a consensus on digital taxation.
- In the field of competition policy, Commissioner Vestager is called to ensure that competition policy and rules are fit for the modern economy, vigorously enforced, and contribute to a strong European industry at home and in the world: “I want you to focus on strengthening competition enforcement in all sectors.” The mission statement also includes the review of EU competition rules extending to merger control and state-aid rules.
- Within the next two years, we are also to expect sector inquiries into new and emerging markets that are shaping our economy and society.
- Throughout the next term, competition policy will be one of the aspects of a wider “industrial strategy," which includes state aid for innovation and Important Projects of Common European Interest, as well as “tools and policies to better tackle the distortive effects of foreign state ownership and subsidies in the internal market.”
- Valuable “general market knowledge” gained in competition investigations should be proactively shared within the Commission, notably in the digital sector, to support the development of new legislative proposals.
In a nutshell, the Mission Letter alludes to a number of important and potentially far-reaching themes that do not really surprise anyone familiar with the topics discussed, but do show a strong determination and a clear path ahead.