When Mariya Gabriel became the EU’s digital czar last July, tech insiders gritted their teeth and hoped for the best.
Here was a young MEP from not-quite-wired Bulgaria, suddenly put in charge of Europe’s digital strategy. Her mandate was nothing less than completing the digital single market (DSM), a €415 billion plan to make the EU a global tech hub.
What could go wrong?
As it turned out, quite a lot. Nine months after Gabriel began, lobbyists and EU officials ticked off their reasons for being disappointed in her leadership: plans to lift audiovisual geo-blocking restrictions risk being heavily watered down; discussions on telecoms reforms are floundering, despite a recent spectrum compromise; and attempts to broker a copyright overhaul for the digital age are similarly stuck in the mud.
“It’s extremely difficult to change or shift [the DSM],” said Czech Liberal MEP Dita Charanzová of Gabriel’s work. “She doesn’t have political weight.”
“She hasn’t yet put forward a clear, strategic vision that departs from the institutional narrative crafted by her services,” — Alberto Alemanno, academic at HEC Paris business school
Hopes for a major breakthrough are now so dim, it’s become commonplace to say that the original vision for the DSM, as sold by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, is dead.
Part of the problem, EU officials and tech insiders say, is that Gabriel picked up the digital agenda mid-race, taking the baton from a powerful predecessor, Günther Oettinger.
But others argue that Gabriel, a 38-year-old career politician who won praise for her work in Parliament, is falling short in terms of leadership.
Where Oettinger excelled at the art of pressuring and cajoling member countries into compromises, Gabriel lacks clout — and has defaulted to leaning on Vice President Andrus Ansip to try to push through tough proposals while focusing herself on lower-stakes issues like fake news and digital skills.
Brussels officials are worried that Gabriel is unable to correct her listing vessel | European Parliament audiovisual
“She hasn’t yet put forward a clear, strategic vision that departs from the institutional narrative crafted by her services,” said Alberto Alemanno, an academic at the HEC Paris business school who follows EU policy.
Lobbyists, parliamentarians and officials agree: Unless she sets out clear positions of her own, or at least puts up a fight to save the Commission’s original vision, she is unlikely to correct her course.
Not picking your battles
In her stewardship of key issues in the DSM, Gabriel receives mixed reviews. On telecoms, for example, she reaped some praise after parties reached a new deal on spectrum. But the commissioner has yet to clinch any agreement on the other big issue: How Europe is supposed to finance its grand vision for 5G deployment over the next decade.
Observers at three-way talks between the EU institutions said the commissioner talked tough but wasn’t adept at wading into the technical details of the proposal, leaving those elements up to her staff.
Senior telecoms executives, who are expected to come up with the billions of euros needed to develop Europe’s 5G infrastructure, say Gabriel has little interest in telecoms. Instead she appears to be more focused on fake news and digital skills, two issues that have less direct impact on industry, several of the executives said on the sidelines of the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, half a dozen executives said they saw Gabriel as a placeholder, not a mountain-mover. If they need urgent action, they would turn to Ansip.
“I think she’s doing her best in a very difficult position” — Julia Reda, German Green MEP
Gabriel’s on-again, off-again focus on telecoms sets her apart from Oettinger, they added. The former commissioner designed an overhaul of telecoms specifically to encourage big players to invest money, and CEOs were already lamenting his lower profile at the Mobile World Congress in 2017. A year later, disappointment turned to resignation.
“[Gabriel and Oettinger] shared the same role, but their standings are completely different,” said Agustin Reyna, a senior policy officer at European consumer organization BEUC.
On copyright, insiders drew a similar comparison between Oettinger’s hard-driving style and Gabriel’s slow-pedaling. While the former lobbied hard to include a right offering publishers more power to monetize their online content at the request of German heavyweights like Axel Springer (Axel Springer is co-owner of POLITICO’s European edition), Gabriel has been less gung-ho.
“I think she’s doing her best in a very difficult position,” said German Green MEP Julia Reda, a shadow rapporteur on copyright in Parliament who has advocated for looser copyright restrictions online.
Other lobbyists and officials said the commissioner would achieve more progress if she attended more negotiations — meetings with shadow rapporteurs, committee sessions and encounters with deputy permanent representatives — in person.
Council officials speaking on condition of anonymity said that Gabriel had barely weighed in on copyright. While the Commission has sent nearly a dozen officials to Council meetings on the issue, Gabriel has rarely showed up. At conferences, she has made only brief, controlled statements on the topic, the officials and copyright lobbyists said.
Gabriel has struggled outside of her more natural environment in the European Parliament| European Parliament audiovisual
Mariya Gabriel and the Commission declined requests for an interview.
“Commissioner Gabriel has been part of most — if not all — trilogue negotiations,” Nathalie Vandystadt, a Commission spokesperson, said in an emailed statement, referring to three-way talks between EU institutions. “She is not only attending, she is negotiating and fostering consensus in decisive moments.” The Commission added that Gabriel is meeting regularly with key actors in the telecoms sector.
On copyright, Vandystadt argued that Gabriel has not yet started direct negotiations as Parliament and Council are still crafting their final positions. She cited the Commission’s “roadmap on spectrum,” which lays out a possible plan to harmonize telecoms frequencies in advance of a rollout of 5G technology, as one of Gabriel’s concrete achievements.
Too much fake news
Gabriel’s natural environment is the European Parliament, where the in-house magazine twice named her “MEP of the year,” and where she’s been more visible on another copyright-related file.
When Parliament moved to water down a Commission proposal on audiovisual geo-blocking that sought to make more online TV shows available across borders, she rushed to rally MEPs to support her position.
She met with the then-rapporteur on the file, Tiemo Wölken, and other influencers, according to Reda, who is a shadow rapporteur. But when it came to clinching a deal, the Commission decided to call in Ansip, who has tweeted, blogged and briefed journalists in an effort to whip up support for the official position. Gabriel’s efforts were muted by comparison.
“She has not been able to leave a mark yet, but I hope she will use the time left to be fearless and push for progress” — Marietje Schaake, Dutch Liberal MEP
In the end, both commissioners failed, as the legal affairs committee and plenary voted against the core of their proposal.
Not all hope is lost — the Commission is still looking to secure its position in three-way negotiations with Council and Parliament. Gabriel has attended these negotiations to try to push for a compromise.
Where Gabriel has devoted more time and attention is on disinformation, or fake news.
After hosting several conferences and roundtables with experts and academics, she is due to present a European fake news strategy in April.
Politically, her emphasis makes plenty of sense. A Commission official said that Juncker had “gifted” her the fake news file so she could lead discussions in the run-up to European Parliament election in 2019.
Gabriel’s predecessor Günther Oettinger excelled at the art of pressuring and cajoling member countries into compromises | Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images
But for the industry players who lament slow progress on the DSM, fake news is beside the point. The Commission is unlikely to draft legislation regulating disinformation. Other priorities are screaming for attention.
Generally, DSM hawks complain that Gabriel has stuck too closely to prepared talking points, which gives her less latitude to try to strike political deals and build relations with national governments.
Without delivering more wins on audiovisual geo-blocking or telecoms from Council and Parliament, the Commission may decide to pull some tech proposals altogether, leaving Juncker’s original digital vision to crumble.
“She has not been able to leave a mark yet, but I hope she will use the time left to be fearless and push for progress,” said Dutch Liberal MEP Marietje Schaake.
Mark Scott contributed reporting.