On 24 October, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that Thierry Breton would be his new candidate for the role of European Commissioner. The candidate has now been formally confirmed by the President Ursula von der Leyen. The nomination follows the rejection of former candidate Sylvie Goulard, who was rejected by MEPs after two parliamentary hearings over legal and ethical concerns.
Thierry Breton is not as widely known by the European public but has experience both in high level politics as well as the private sector. Between 2005 and 2007, Breton was the French Minister for Economy and Finance under Jacques Chirac, a portfolio which included French industry policy. In the private sector, Breton has gained extensive experience as the CEO of major industrial, defense and Telecom groups such as Thomson, France Telecom and more recently Atos.
Breton has ample knowledge of the digital sector and is said to be a strong supporter of the development of the so-called supercomputers in Europe that can compete with products from countries such as China and the US. Furthermore, he is already familiar with Von der Leyen, as he knows her from her time as German defense minister. During that time, they worked together on the creation of a European Defense and Security Fund to stimulate European investments in those policy areas.
In an article dating back to July 2019, Thierry Breton already shared his opinion of French and European digital policies. He insisted on the importance of access to data and their valorization for European companies, as well as the importance of promoting artificial intelligence to ensure the EU’s sovereignty and competitiveness. He also highlighted the need for a unified data space in the EU to ensure that European companies can compete worldwide.
After the rejection of Goulard, French President Macron has been adamant to preserve the broad portfolio for the internal market Commissioner. The portfolio that was initially planned for Sylvie Goulard contains, besides Internal Market, defense, space and digital issues. It remains to be seen how the Parliament will respond to this, as one of their critiques towards Goulard was the broad scope of the portfolio.
With Breton, who has served as CEO of different large corporations, the issue of a potential conflict of interest has already been raised. However, Breton has communicated that if he is approved as the new Internal Market Commissioner, he will sell all his shares in tech firm Atos as well as other companies. Breton will resign as CEO of Atos effective from 31 October 2019.
Von der Leyen is set to meet Thierry Breton and the Hungarian nominee Oliver Varhelvi at the beginning of next week. The official start of the new Commission has been delayed until 1 December, to allow more time for the approval of the new candidates for France, Hungary and Romania.