As the EU institutions move forward with their quinquennial reshuffle, European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has announced her much anticipated list of Commissioner-designates for the new European Commission.

The announcement has caused great excitement in the competition community with the nomination of current Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager for a second term at the helm of DG COMP – something unprecedented in recent times. She is also nominated as Executive Vice-President Europe fit for the Digital Age, combining her competition powers with leadership for policy making in the digital space.

It is a powerful portfolio by any standard and one that will surely have a significant impact on the next era of EU competition enforcement.

Von der Leyen’s Commission

With everything going to plan, von der Leyen’s Commission will take effect from 1 November this year. The process and timeline are set out below (See “What’s next?”).

Eight Vice-Presidents will be responsible for the top priorities in the political guidelines. These priorities are: The European green deal, A Europe fit for the digital age, An economy that works for people, A stronger Europe in the world, Values and transparency, and Protecting our European way of life.

Three Executive Vice-Presidents (including Vestager) have the dual function of Vice-President for one of the three core priorities and Commissioner for a Directorate-General. These are digital (Vestager), green policies (Timmermans) and an economy that works for people (Dombrovskis).

A new leadership team for competition

As Competition Commissioner, Vestager has been hands on and results driven. With her broader responsibilities, the leadership team within DG Competition and the cabinet will have an even more prominent role to play.

She is in a unique position to choose her Director General from the beginning of her mandate. This post has been vacant since Johannes Laitenberger’s appointment at the General Court from 1 September. We can also expect to see some changes to senior appointments within Vestager’s cabinet in the coming weeks.

Looking forward

Vestager’s nominations to such high profile and impactful portfolios are testament to her achievements over the past five years and her political standing in Brussels. During a press statement on Tuesday, President-elect von der Leyen said that Vestager has done an “outstanding” job so far.

Under Commissioner Vestager, competition law enforcement has been more vigilant than ever. Her term has also seen EU competition enforcement well and truly rise to the global stage, not least marked by President Trump’s infamous quote “Your tax lady, she really hates the U.S.”

Her focus on competition in the digital sector is unprecedented. The sector inquiry into e-commerce concluded in 2017, and a resurgence in vertical restraints enforcement ensued. Abuse of dominance enforcement against tech giants Google and Qualcomm attracted fines totaling €8.2bn and €1.2bn, respectively. This summer, the EC opened a formal antitrust investigation into Amazon. Vestager has often said that competition and other policies should go hand in hand in this area and she now has the tools in her portfolios to ensure this. President-elect von der Leyen noted that there are still other industries in the portfolio but the digital economy is a “must” if we want to be successful and urgently catch-up.

The Commission President-elect’s mission letter to Vestager sets out, in six points, a steady course ahead for competition policy. Including ordinary course review of the legal instruments, focus on enforcement, use of sector inquiries, and, as part of industrial strategy, ensuring State aid is appropriate and foreign direct investment does not distort markets.

During her current term, Vestager has overseen some noteworthy decisions, including five merger control prohibition decisions. Vestager has passionately defended these decisions and is unlikely to prioritise the creation of European Champions over functioning markets in Europe.

What’s next?

The list of Commissioners-designate will be submitted to the European Parliament. Later this month the EP will begin hearings of the Commissioners-designate. The EP plenary will vote on the entire College of Commissioners from 21 to 24 October (if the hearings run smoothly). The EP can veto the appointment of the College of Commissioners as a whole, but not of an individual candidate. However, in the past, the EP has used the threat of its veto to force the withdrawal of particular candidates following poor hearings.

If the EP approves the list, the new Commission will be officially appointed by the European Council and will take effect from 1 November 2019 for a five-year term.

If this timeline does not go smoothly, for example, because of delays in appointing the members of the College, the current Commission will continue to work in caretaker mode. This means day-to-day running, with no major decisions to be taken during this period.

Upcoming events which will determine the new Commission.

  • 10 September: List of Commissioners-designate and portfolios submitted to Parliament in preparation of the hearings
  • 16 September: Conference of Committee Chairs adopts the draft programme of the hearings and the questionnaires
  • 19 September: Conference of Presidents adopts the questionnaires, the format and the programme for the hearings
  • 30 September - 4 October: Hearings of Commissioners-designate and committee evaluation meetings
  • 9 October: Extraordinary meeting of the Conference of Committee Chairs to evaluate the outcome of the hearings
  • 10 October: Conference of Presidents to declare the hearings closed
  • 21 - 27 October: Vote in Plenary to accept or reject the proposed Commission.

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For those of you as geeky as we are, here is an interesting timeline for the last 60 years of EU Competition policy led by previous Competition Commissioners and Director Generals.