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The French rejection of the top American economist is a heavy blow for liberal Europe

Lionel Barber was editor of the Financial Times (2005-20) and Brussels bureau chief (1992-98)

Nobody does it better than the French. Charles De Gaulle Twice Said No to Britain’s Offer to Join the European Economic Community; Jacques Chirac said Not 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.

Laffaire 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 America’s follower, as he stated 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 most powerful antitrust regulator in the world. 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 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 & Dmocratie, a trade union representing EU employees, said senior EU officials should be involved in, 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.

Professor Scott Morton’s Frances veto is a de facto veto from Vestager, who was all but untouchable during her first term as competition commissioner between 2014-19. He has won kudos for investigating, fining and suing major multinational corporations 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 overturned the 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 influence overall in Brussels.

Vestager and Breton Fought Over Control of EU’s Digital Markets Act and Artificial Intelligence Policy | Olivier Hoslet/EPA/AFP via Getty Images

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, limit 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 Bretons 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 unique markets 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.


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Image Source : www.politico.eu

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