Lionel Barber was editor of the Financial Times (2005-20) and Brussels bureau chief (1992-98)
No one says « No » better than the French. Charles De Gaulle twice said « no » to Britain’s offer to join the European Economic Community; Jacques Chirac said « no » to the war in Iraq; and Emmanuel Macron this week gave a thumbs-down to Fiona Scott Morton, the American Yale academic shortlisted for the post of top economist at the powerful EU Competition Directorate in Brussels.
The case Scott Morton may seem trivial about the (as yet unresolved) debate over Britain’s place in Europe or the armed conflict in the Middle East, but the French veto of the first foreigner to take office speaks volumes about the European Union’s current paranoia about America’s influence and power.
As Macron has promoted a vision of Europe resisting the United States, resisting pressure to become « followers of America, » as he put it in April, such thinking has strengthened in Brussels.
The Scott Morton fiasco brings to mind a luncheon in Brussels exactly 30 years ago, when some officials suspected that the United States was involved in an Anglo-Saxon plot to sabotage their plans for economic and monetary union. “Remember James Jesus Angleton,” said a stone-faced Belgian bureaucrat, invoking the name of the legendary, obsessive CIA counterintelligence officer at the height of the Cold War.
Professor Scott Morton has been selected as the best candidate in an open competition. He enjoyed the backing of Margrethe Vestager, the Danish EU competition commissioner often described as the world’s most powerful antitrust regulator. He also had the backing of Ursula von der Leyen, the German president of the European Commission, whose leadership during the war in Ukraine and the COVID pandemic has won widespread praise on both sides of the Atlantic.
All of this counted for nothing. Despite his distinguished academic pedigree, Scott Morton, a former Obama administration antitrust official, has worked for Apple, Amazon and Microsoft in US competition cases. Today’s problem is that Paris doesn’t understand the term « poacher turned gamekeeper ».
Like Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister of Sweden, tweeted: “Regrettable that the narrow-minded opposition in some EU countries has led to this. She was reportedly the more competent candidate, and knowledge of the United States and its antitrust policies certainly shouldn’t have been a disadvantage.
Now, President Macron’s opposition to the nomination has garnered good support in the Commission, the European Parliament and among European trade unions. Cristiano Sebastiani, head of Renouveau & Démocratie, a trade union representing EU employees, said senior EU officials should “get involved, believe in and contribute to the European project. The very logic of our statute is that an EU official can never go back to being an ordinary citizen”.
France’s veto of Professor Scott Morton is effectively a veto of Vestager, who was nearly untouchable during her first term as competition commissioner between 2014 and 2019. She has won kudos for investigating, fining and suing major multinationals including Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Qualcomm and Gazprom. More controversially, at least in Paris and Berlin, he vetoed the planned merger between Alstom and Siemens, two industrial giants intent on creating a European champion.
Vestager’s second term was a different story. You have faced reverses in the courts that have overturned punitive fines against Apple and Qualcomm. So, although she is a Commission Vice-President, Vestager found herself challenged by a nominal underling in the guise of Thierry Breton, a former French industrialist in charge of the EU’s internal market.
Both have fought for control of the EU’s Digital Markets Act and AI policy, a proxy fight for overall influence in Brussels.
Breton is in favor of the so-called AI Pact, an effort to push forward parts of the EU’s artificial intelligence bill. This would ban some cases of AI, restrict « high-risk » applications, and impose controls on how Google, Microsoft and others develop emerging technology.
Conversely, Vestager is in favor of a voluntary code of conduct focused on generative AI like ChatGPT. This could be developed globally, in partnership with the US, rather than waiting the two years needed to secure legislative approval of the Breton AI pact.
So what’s the solution? If Europe is to have any chance of prevailing, so the argument goes, member states need to take a much more stubborn stance towards competition policy. This in turn leads to the creation of national or pan-European champions at the expense of crackdowns on subsidies and other anti-competitive behaviour. In short, the very liberal policies designed to protect the level playing field of the single market and embodied by the Viking fighter.
For those who occasionally wonder how power within the EU has changed since Brexit knocked the UK out of the equation, it really is proof that « liberal Europe » is on a losing streak.
Goodbye, Little Britain; hello, little Europe.