In the latest battle for strategic autonomy, Emmanuel Macron has notched up a small victory. Last month, under French pressure, American Fiona Scott Morton resigned from her post as chief economist of the EU’s Directorate-General for Competition. Starting from this month, Morton was to become head of the body that manages the functioning of the European market, despite many believing she is compromised by her previous roles advising companies in Silicon Valley.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-Left, declared flatly that giving Morton the post amounted to annexation of Europe by the US. Marine Le Pen echoed him, indignant at an EU “that does not work on behalf of the interests of the European peoples”. Geoffroy Didier from the centre-right Les Républicains, expressed astonishment that, at a time when the EU should be curbing the power of US monopolies in Europe, such an important position was being granted to their lobbyist. The Macron government was equally united in its opposition.
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Addressing l’affaire Morton, Macron once again insisted that Europe needs strategic autonomy, as well as “intellectual autonomy”, arguing that the appointment of an American with ties to Big Tech “does not necessarily represent the most coherent decision”. The largest groups in the European Parliament also rallied around France and sent a joint letter to the European Commission demanding the withdrawal of Morton’s nomination and stressing that strategic posts in the EU should be reserved for Europeans. Objections to the American candidate were also voiced from within the EU itself, where five commissioners — including Josep Borrell and Thierry Breton — wrote a letter to President von der Leyen.
How did Morton unite a continent so fractious and diverse? Symbolically, because she represents a challenge to Europe’s attempt to establish civilisational parity between itself and America — Macron’s fabled “autonomy”. But specifically because she was seen as a champion of the American tech oligopoly. As Matt Stoller, author of Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy, has noted, “competition or consumers are secondary in Morton’s thinking. This is why the Obama antitrust authorities facilitated the dominance of big business when she was in the administration there.” He points out that it was during the Obama administration that Big Tech consolidation occurred and “Scott Morton played a role facilitating [it]”. This is also the reason, according to Stoller, why she did not find a position in the Biden administration, as she was viewed as not being assertive enough towards Silicon Valley.
Yet the affair can also be seen as a settling of scores between France and Margrethe Vestager, the Danish Commissioner for Competition who defended Morton as simply the best person for the job. According to Politico, Morton’s resignation has severely eroded Vestager’s political capital. And Paris already harboured resentment towards Vestager for opposing a proposed merger between France’s rolling stock giant Alstom and Germany’s Siemens Mobility in 2019. Following her decision, Minister of Economy Bruno Le Maire had expressed outrage that the European Commission would deliberately obstruct the emergence of “European champions”. Instead of defending Europe, he added, the Commission “serves the interest of China”.
Serious concerns remain that the next candidate for chief economist, an Austrian with American citizenship, Florian Ederer, will clash with Paris as well. He has admitted his own scepticism about loosening the rules around industrial policy and said “the guiding principle should be protecting competition and not protecting competitors”, even if it disadvantages European companies. This is the new division between Paris and Brussels: a division between the market-brain that still predominates at levels of the EU and the strategic realpolitik emanating from the Palais de l’Élysée.
For Macron, meanwhile, the fact that he was able to mobilise opposition against the American candidate is the first real success of his vision of Europe. But in doing so, he has extended the fear of loss of sovereignty to the rest of Europe’s leaders — who already live surrounded by headlines auguring continental decline. According to the IMF, the eurozone economy grew about 6% in the last 15 years, compared with 82% in the US. And crucially, not only is the Old Continent becoming poorer relative to the New, but the essential basis of sovereignty and strength in the 21st century, technology, is its Achilles’ heel: among the 20 largest technology companies, only two hail from Europe.
Does the EU have the means and will to resolve this? Or is its margin for manoeuvre limited only to symbolic victories, such as the rejection of Morton? The big, ambitious projects that were supposed to form the core of the EU’s technological sovereignty have largely failed. Like its unsuccessful Eurochip project and delayed and overpriced Project Galileo scheme, the GAIA-X project, supposed to provide Europe with its own online cloud, also seems doomed to failure.
The story will likely be the same with the upcoming AI Act, which is being suffocated by Brussels’ bureaucracy. The EU sees itself as a regulatory superpower and wants to shape the future of AI not by fostering innovation, but by imposing its regulatory standards on the entire world. There are many indications suggesting that, unlike in the area of internet privacy, the so-called “Brussels effect”, projecting European standards across the world, will not prevail. Instead, rigid regulations are hurting European companies, which are losing the chance to compete with their competitors from the US, China or even the UK. Last year, in one report, more than three-quarters of British start-up companies claimed that, if they were subject to the restrictions, the impact would either be negative or prevent them from doing business altogether.
So, while Macron can claim a symbolic victory over Morton’s resignation, it hides a deeper problem for the proponents of strategic autonomy, namely the lack of vision on how to accomplish it. Devoid of one, it risks remaining a mere slogan, little more than a manifestation of sterile anti-Americanism. In the early Eighties, Georges Suffert addressed the French in his book Les Nouveaux Cowboys, which stemmed from his observations of Silicon Valley. “I am going to tell you why you don’t like Americans: they play, they putter about assembling a world, and before long you will no longer know how to play in it.” The big question for Macron’s grand strategy after l’affaire Morton is: can Europe rule, let alone play in, this new world?