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Radio France Internationale
Radio France Internationale

EU regulator faces questions over appointment of US economist

An Apple logo in front of an EU flag. The EU is in the middle of an overhaul of the rules governing online businesses. © REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

French politicians want the European Commission to reconsider its decision to hire an American economist for a key post in its competition department, which oversees European Union efforts to regulate American tech giants.

The European Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, will face questions on Tuesday from members of the European Parliament who have objected to her choice of a new economic adviser.

Vestager picked Fiona Scott Morton, a former anti-trust official for the United Sates government and professor at Yale University, to serve as her chief competition economist – the first time somebody from outside Europe has taken such a senior role.

But the appointment was roundly criticised in France, where Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said she was "astonished" by the nomination and Digital Minister Jean-Noël Barrot argued that it raised "legitimate questions" at a time when the EU is seeking tighter regulations on Big Tech.

"Europe has many talented economists," commented France's secretary of state for Europe, Laurence Boone, who said that she had joined Colonna and Barrot in urging the Commission to reconsider "so that appointments are consistent with our European ambitions".

European lawmakers wrote to Vestager last week to express their "dismay" over the hiring of Scott Morton, who in addition to her government work has consulted for Apple, Amazon and Microsoft.

"We fail to understand the consideration of non-EU candidates for such a high-ranking and strategic position," the MEPs said in a letter seen by Politico.

"We are very concerned about the opposite views she publicly expressed and the potential conflict of interests between her new role and her previous functions with large American tech companies."

'No grounds to reconsider'

The European Commission defended its decision, saying that Scott Morton was the most qualified applicant.

"The decision was made. We see no grounds to reconsider," said commission spokesperson Dana Spinant.

Vestager will nonetheless appear before the European Parliament on Tuesday to address MEPs' concerns.

"We are waiting for clear answers to specific questions concerning this unprecedented choice," French centrist MEP Stephanie Yon-Courtin told French news agency AFP.

Meanwhile 39 European economists, including some of France's most renowned scholars, signed an open letter supporting their American colleague's nomination.

"Scott Morton is one of the best economists in the world in the domain of industrial organisation, a major contributor to policy thinking on tech regulation and strongly motivated for public service," they wrote.

"The European Commission and, more broadly, we as Europeans are very lucky to have drawn someone of her calibre."

Sensitive portfolio

Despite her track record investigating online monopolies in the US, Scott Morton has faced criticism in the past for failing to disclose her paid work for Apple and Amazon while continuing to write about antitrust issues relating to other tech giants.

She is supposed to start at the EU's competition unit from September.

The unit is charged with making sure EU markets remain competitive – including ensuring that US tech titans do not abuse their market dominance, which has already seen them given record fines in Europe.

(with AFP)

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