What does the row over EVP Vestager’s pick for Chief Economist of DG Comp mean for the EU?

Publishing date
24 July 2023
Picture of a stack of newspapers

Competition policy was a big topic at Bruegel in the past week for reasons both good and bad. My colleague Christophe Carugati published an extensive Working Paper on competition in the foundation models underlying artificial intelligence (AI) applications. As Christophe explains, delivering AI benefits at low risk requires competitive market for language models, data, and computing resources.

Competition was also the subject of our informal conversations as the conflict over EVP Vestager’s choice for Chief Economist of DG Competition, Professor Scott Morton of Yale University, escalated. The conflict is now over: on Wednesday, Scott Morton withdrew. But its costs will linger on.

First, the EU lowered what many of us perceived as its moral and intellectual standard. Scott Morton was ostensibly rejected for three reasons: that her views were too friendly to big tech, that she had consulted for big tech firms in the past, and that she is not an EU citizen. The first point is demonstrably false: Scott Morton is well-known advocate of, and contributor to, the EU approach to big tech regulation. The second is relevant but could have been addressed through the Commission’s conflict of interest rules. The third should be irrelevant. Leading EU competition experts agree that Scott Morton was superbly qualified for the job. President Macron is correct that the US and Chinese competition authorities would not likely have appointed a non-citizen to a similar role. But the EU could have set a higher standard, opting for qualification over nationality. In the words of Jason Furman, the former Chairman of the US Council of Economic Advisors: “I'm sorry to see Europe following in our mistaken footsteps.”

Second, DG COMP has lost a battle both within the Commission and with some EU member states. For those that believe that a strong, independent EU competition authority is a foundation of EU prosperity, this is worrisome.

Third, the incident raises questions about the independence of the European Commission. As recently as Friday, the Commission stated that the appointment was the right choice and that it would not be reconsidered despite the backlash. It subsequently did a U-turn. If the Commission cannot withstand political pressure on a technical appointment to which it was firmly committed, and for which it does not need consent from member states, what other political pressures will it accommodate?

The damage can be repaired. But re-establishing credibility will take work, and the political climate to do so ahead of an election is not propitious.


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About the authors

  • Jeromin Zettelmeyer

    Jeromin Zettelmeyer has been Director of Bruegel since September 2022. Born in Madrid in 1964, Jeromin was previously a Deputy Director of the Strategy and Policy Review Department of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Prior to that, he was Dennis Weatherstone Senior Fellow (2019) and Senior Fellow (2016-19) at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Director-General for Economic Policy at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (2014-16); Director of Research and Deputy Chief Economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (2008-2014), and an IMF staff member, where he worked in the Research, Western Hemisphere, and European II Departments (1994-2008).

    Jeromin holds a Ph.D. in economics from MIT (1995) and an economics degree from the University of Bonn (1990). He is a Research Fellow in the International Macroeconomics Programme of the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), and a member of the CEPR’s Research and Policy Network on European economic architecture, which he helped found. He is also a member of CESIfo. He has published widely on topics including financial crises, sovereign debt, economic growth, transition to market, and Europe’s monetary union. His recent research interests include EMU economic architecture, sovereign debt, debt and climate, and the return of economic nationalism in advanced and emerging market countries.    

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