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Thierry Breton is winning the war of ideas in Brussels.
The ex-CEO is a political whirlwind with a gigantic portfolio as internal market chief, the backing of French President Emmanuel Macron and lots of proposals. He’s been touring European Union capitals to win support for plans to shield Europe’s industry from crippling energy prices, American subsidies and “naive” EU free traders.
France’s decades-long push for more state intervention is finally finding some echo in Berlin and the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building, occupied by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who largely owes her job to Macron.
Omnipresent and ebullient, Breton is playing a key role in marshaling industry and political support for sweeping but so far vague plans to boost clean tech, secure key raw materials and overhaul EU checks on government support that he blasts as too slow to help companies.
“Of course there is resistance; my job is precisely to manage and align everyone,” he told French TV this week of his January meetings with Spanish, Polish and Belgian leaders to flog a forthcoming industrial policy push that could be a turning point in how far European governments will finance companies.
Time is short. Von der Leyen wants to line up proposals for a February summit. European industry is complaining that it can’t swallow far higher energy prices and tighter regulation for much longer, with at least one announcing a European shutdown and an Asian expansion.
Breton said governments don’t need convincing on the need for rapid action. But he’s running up against one of Europe’s sacred cows — EU state aid rules run by Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager that curb government support with lengthy checks to make sure companies don’t get unfair help. She’s also under intense pressure to preserve a “level playing field” as smaller countries worry about German and French financial firepower.
The French internal market commissioner’s bullish style often sees him act as if he’s got a role in subsidies. In the fall, he sent a letter to EU countries asking them to send views on emergency state aid rules to the internal market department, which is under his supervision, two EU officials recalled.
In a meeting with European diplomats, a Commission representative had to correct it, the EU officials said, asking capitals to make sure the input goes instead to the competition department overseen by Vestager.
While Breton doesn’t like to be called a protectionist, his latest mission has been to protect Europe from its transatlantic friend.
As early as September, one Commission official said, the Frenchman was mandated by Europe’s industry to speak out against U.S. President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which provides tax credits for U.S.-made electric cars and support to American battery supply chains.
His Paris-backed campaign charged ahead while EU officials and diplomats tiptoed around the subject. Some within the Commission headquarters found his bad cop routine helpful in keeping pressure on the U.S.
“He’s been constructive, though clearly disruptive,” said Tyson Barker, head of the technology and global affairs program at the German Council of Foreign Relations.
The Frenchman has even pitched himself as the bloc’s “sheriff” against Silicon Valley giants, warning billionaire Elon Musk that an overhaul of the Twitter social network can only go so far since “in Europe, the bird will fly by our rules.”
“Big Tech companies only understand balances of power,” said Cédric O, a former French digital minister who worked with Breton during the French EU Council presidency. “When [Breton and Musk] see each other, it necessarily remains cordial, but Breton shows his teeth and rightly so. It’s his job.”
Breton can even surprise his own services, according to two EU officials. In May, the Commission’s department responsible for digital policy — DG CONNECT — was caught off guard when Breton announced in the press that he would unveil plans by year-end to make sure that technology giants forked out for telecoms networks.
In so doing, Breton — who was CEO of France Télécom in the early 2000s — resurrected a long-dormant and fractious policy debate that had been put to rest almost a decade ago, when erstwhile Digital Commissioner Neelie Kroes ordered Europe’s telecoms operators to “adapt or die” rather than seek money from content providers.
After Breton’s commitments, the Commission’s services were soon scrambling to develop some sort of a coherent policy program to deliver on the Frenchman’s comments. A consultation is scheduled for early this year.
Breton is a rare creature in the halls of the Berlaymont, where policy is hatched slowly after extensive consultation. To a former CEO with a broad remit — his portfolio runs from the expanse of space to the tiniest of microchips — rapid reaction matters more than treading on toes or singing from the hymn sheet. This often sees him floating ideas and then pulling back.
Last year he alarmed environmentalists by raising the prospect of a U-turn on the EU’s polluting car ban. He wagged his finger at German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for a solo trip to China. He called for nuclear energy to be considered green. He has pushed out grand projects — such as industrial alliances on batteries and cloud, or a cyber shield — that he doesn’t always follow up on.
He’s even pushed forward a multibillion-euro EU communication satellite program dubbed Iris², a favorite of French aerospace companies, that will see the bloc build a rival to Musk’s space-based Starlink broadband constellation.
“It’s clear that he’s been given more free rein than others,” said one EU official. “He has von der Leyen’s ear,” the official added, noting that Breton enjoys “privileged access” to the Commission president — who may be mindful that she’ll need French support for a second term.
Indeed, Breton’s massive role was partly designed as a counterweight to a German president.
“There is a criticism of von der Leyen for being too German,” explained Sébastien Maillard, director of the Jacques Delors Institute think tank. “There may inevitably be a division of roles between them — [where Breton is] a counterbalance.”
He’s been called an “unguided missile,” but more often than not, the Frenchman has Paris’ backing when going off script. His October op-ed with Italian colleague Paolo Gentiloni, which called for greater European financial solidarity, was part of France’s agenda, according to one high-ranking Commission official.
“When he went out in the press with Gentiloni against Scholz’s €200 billion, he was clearly doing the job for Macron,” the official said.
His November call for a rethink on the 2035 car engine ban came just after a week after critical green legislation had been finalized by Commission Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans and jarred with the EU’s own position at the COP 27 climate summit in Indonesia. But it aped the position of French auto industry captains, such as Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares and Renault’s Luca de Meo, who wanted Brussels to slam the brakes on the climate drive.
Breton had not coordinated his car comments with colleagues in advance, according to two Commission officials.
Less than 10 days later, French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne echoed caution about the “extremely ambitious” engine ban and warned that pivoting to electric car manufacturing was daunting.
Breton acknowledged himself that he wasn’t Macron’s first choice for the critical EU post, telling POLITICO at a live event that he was a “plan B commissioner.”
Asked if he was targeting an A-list job for the new Commission mandate in 2024, he said he “may be able to consider a new plan B assignment — if it is a plan B.”
“He is thinking about the future,” said one EU official. “Look at his LinkedIn posts. He is thinking past the next European elections. He definitely wants to convince Macron to get an expanded portfolio.”
Grabbing the Commission’s top job may be tricky, relying on how EU leaders will line up, according to multiple EU and French officials.
There are other jobs, including overturning the unwritten law that no French or German candidate can hold the economically powerful competition portfolio. Another option could be becoming Europe’s official digital czar, combining the enforcement powers of the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act into a supranational digital enforcement agency, one EU official said.
Breton has shrugged off speculation on his long-term plans.
“All my life, I have been informed of my next potential job 15 minutes before,” he said last month.
Jakob Hanke Vela, Stuart Lau, Barbara Moens, Camille Gijs and Mark Scott contributed reporting.