France’s EU commissioner, Thierry Breton, fired the starting gun in the race to succeed Ursula von der Leyen as European Commission president Wednesday, dropping a big hint that he’d be interested in the job himself.
In a wide-ranging interview with POLITICO, the internal market commissioner set out his vision for how the EU should respond to the transatlantic trade threat arising from U.S. President Joe Biden’s clean tech subsidies. And he revealed he had personally warned Elon Musk that Twitter could be banned from the EU if the platform failed to abide by the bloc’s rules.
But it was his comments on his own long-term ambitions that will set tongues wagging in Brussels.
“I am a plan B commissioner. I was not plan A, I’ve been a commissioner by accident,” the Frenchman said, when asked if he could see himself as Commission president, at the gala event to unveil the annual POLITICO 28 ranking of Europe’s most influential people.
“All my life, I have been informed of my next potential job 15 minutes before. To answer to your question: I may be able to consider a new plan B assignment, if I am a plan B,” Breton said, to laughter from the crowd: French President Emmanuel Macron’s initial pick to represent the country in the Commission, Sylvie Goulard, was rejected by the European Parliament.
The race for the EU’s top job hasn’t yet begun, as the next European elections are scheduled for 2024. Who gets to replace von der Leyen will ultimately depend on a myriad of political factors, including whether the German president seeks to remain at the head of the institution.
‘What’s done is done’
During the interview, Breton also touched upon Biden’s $369 billion Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which will offer support to sustainable industries in America, in particular U.S.-made electric vehicles.
Biden will not change his law, Breton said, and the ball is now in Europe’s court. “What’s done is done,” he said. “We have to do our own job here, to protect our companies if we need to, without entering in a subsidies race.”
The Frenchman has been one of the plan’s most vocal critics in Europe. He has been pushing for a more assertive EU industrial policy in response, while Brussels’ more liberal competition chief Margrethe Vestager has warned against a subsidies war with the U.S.
On Sunday, von der Leyen said Europe should adapt its state-aid rules in response to Biden’s IRA.
Breton also said that EU countries are already planning their own subsidies schemes, referring to Germany’s €200 billion energy plan, and that his role is now to ensure there is “a level playing field in the single market.”
“What we need is to give the same access to the capacity to borrow, because at the end of the day, we’ll have to borrow. Germany will borrow, Italy will borrow, the Netherlands will borrow, everyone will have to borrow,” Breton explained.
He proposed that a system in which the EU offers to “top up” national government subsidies in some sectors could be part of the solution, though did not offer many details. “It’s a pretty powerful tool to align our member states,” Breton said.
The Frenchman, who spoke with Twitter’s new owner, Musk, last week, said the billionaire — whose decisions about the platform have proven controversial with regulators — was open to applying the EU’s content moderation rules known as the Digital Services Act around the world.
This article has been updated with further comments from Thierry Breton.