Tech

Thierry Breton: Europes big players wont crush the little guys

Europes internal market chief Thierry Breton bristles at the word “champion.”

While Europes top powers want the industrial strategy that launches on March 10 to create “European champions” to rival the corporate powerhouses of the U.S. and China, he acknowledges that the phrase has become politically toxic.

“Semantics are important in politics. Personally, I dont like this term champions, and I dont use it,” he told POLITICO in an interview.

His problem is that more traditionally free-trading Nordic and Baltic countries see the doctrine of “champions” as a trap. They fear that the impending industrial strategy means the EU will lavish attention on Franco-German luminaries like trainmaker Alstom and auto giant Volkswagen to the detriment of small businesses and a competitive single market.

Breton, himself a former chief executive of the French tech heavyweight Atos, was at pains to insist that supporting big players does not mean that their smaller suppliers would struggle for oxygen.

Countries are mobilizing a political counterblast across the EU to try to ensure that the single market and core principles of free trade dont fall victim.

“Everything is linked and we cant build dichotomies between the two,” he said, and offered the car industry as an example of a sector where a few big brands feed an ecosystem of suppliers throughout Europe. “We need a web of small and medium-sized enterprises … as well as some European leaders that are perfectly integrated in this web.”

Despite such assurances, countries like Sweden and the Netherlands are mobilizing a political counterblast across the EU to try to ensure that the single market and core principles of free trade dont fall victim to a Franco-German industrial onslaught.

While Breton denied the EU is veering toward anything like a “planned economy,” he also stressed that a critical moment had come to rally behind technologies that would determine Europes future for decades.

For that reason, he argued Europe needs to change its long-sacrosanct methodology for making competition decisions. Crucially, he insisted that Brussels has overemphasized the importance given to keeping prices low for consumers in its big merger decisions, and should give equal weight to looking after key businesses.

European Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton has stressed that a critical moment to rally behind technologies has come | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

“Reducing prices for consumers has often been put front and center,” he said of the EUs thinking in competition law. “We need to put businesses back on the same level.”

The European Commissions decision to block a merger in the rail sector last year between Alstom and Siemens looms large in moves to review the antitrust rulebook. While the Commission argued that a rail behemoth would harm consumers, France insisted not enough attention was given to the importance of forging a European engineering titan that could hold its own against China.

A strategy for the ages

Speaking at his office in the Commissions Berlaymont headquarters in Brussels, where he keeps a collection of trilobite fossils and a chunk of meteorite, Breton digressed about his interest in time and quantum physics.

An engineer by training, there was more than a hint of scientific language in his descriptions of the strategic decisions that Europe needed to make. While the industrial strategy was not perhaps a question of geological time, he stressed the stakes were still high as the EU would have to “integrate these very powerful forces that will change the way we produce in Europe in the next 30 years.”

“Europe today is the first industrial continent and our role is for it to keep this place” without being “naive” and taking into account “the geopolitical evolution of balance of powers,” he said.

One of the great sources of speculation in Brussels is whether Bretons industrial agenda will pit him against competition chief Margrethe Vestager, custodian of the antitrust rule book.

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