Tech

Frances freewheeling Thierry Breton rises to the crisis

Much like a leopard, a CEO cant change its spots. Or maybe he just doesnt want to.

In the months since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton has muscled his way to the forefront of the European response to the epidemic.

With a series of high-profile interventions in areas both in, and outside, his portfolio, the former CEO of the French tech firm Atos has overshadowed more senior members of the European Commission, such as Executive Vice Presidents Margrethe Vestager, Frans Timmermans and Valdis Dombrovskis. On at least one occasion, he has come close to openly contradicting his boss, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The French politician, who once served as finance minister, is on constant phone calls with CEOs, ministers, MEPs and journalists to coordinate Europes production of medical supplies, ensure telecoms networks are not congested and inform the public about his actions, filling a space left almost vacant by an institution that traditionally struggles with effective large-scale communication.

In February for instance, before Europe went on lockdown because of the coronavirus, Breton wrote to the blocs industry ministers — without looping in his fellow commissioners — asking them to report back on supply chain hiccups caused by Chinas confinement.

Bretons man-of-action style has earned him praise.

“It created quite a stir in the Commission that he took this initiative alone,” said a high-ranking Commission official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But everyone realized 10 days later that it was a good thing.”

The coronavirus crisis is highlighting Bretons maverick, unorthodox style, which stands out in a town driven by process, coordination and collegiality. “He grants himself a certain freedom,” the official said.

“He has an American approach to things,” said Andreas Schwab, a German MEP from the conservative European Peoples Party.

“He calls you by tu right away and accepts to be called tu himself,” Schwab said, referring to the informal way of addressing people in French. “Hes fierce, and takes decisions rapidly; hes very quickly for or against.”

Its an approach that can easily backfire.

Bretons man-of-action style has earned him praise. An early move to get Netflix to ease internet congestion by lowering the quality of its videos was widely applauded.

But his go-it-alone attitude and his excursions into policy areas usually managed by his colleagues have earned him a dose of sneer among the cheers.

“He is coordinating relatively little with others and sometimes misses the mark,” said another Commission official.

The crisis CEO

When von der Leyen first announced she was forming a coronavirus task force in early March, Breton was not part of the team. It consisted of Commissioners Janez Lenarčič (crisis management), Stella Kyriakides (health), Adina Vălean (transport), Ylva Johansson (home affairs) and Paolo Gentiloni (economy).

It didnt take long before his name was added to the list.

On March 6, Breton made a surprise visit to a meeting of the EUs health ministers to protest French and German export bans on personal protective medical equipment.

“Breton made a clear intervention, asking for restrictions to be lifted,” said a diplomat who attended the meeting. “He was direct: It was the CEO talking, not the politician. He couldnt care less about interrupting ministers.”

After Brussels applied pressure, France and Germany backtracked and allowed exports to other EU countries — a move Breton cheered in an Italian-language tweet: “Thanks to our intense contacts and connections, 🇫🇷 and 🇩🇪 are lifting the blocks for masks and PPE.”

Italian Economic Development Minister Stefano Patuanelli thanked Breton personally in an official government statement for the “far from trite words of solidarity… and also for having personally worked to solve the problem through direct dialogue.”

Thierry Breton | Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Breton is now a member of von der Leyens task force.

“The reason why Breton came on board is that the focus broadened from Lenarčičs crisis management to areas of industry and internal market, such as the production of protective equipment and vaccines,” a Commission official explained.

In that role, Breton has made a point — and a show — of doing everything he can to address the crisis. He holds regular calls with producers of personal protective equipment to assess European stocks. Doing so “was my proposal,” he told reporters on March 9.

He has also called on manufacturers, and on CEOs directly, to reconvert production lines to make products that can be used to fight the virus: ethanol gel, masks, ventilators. And he has spoken with CEOs from tech giants such as Netflix, Google, YouTube and Facebook about everything ranging from network congestion to coronavirus-related disinformation.

Fund of discord

Bretons efforts have sometimes run into pushback, including in one of his core areas of competence: the handling of data.

In late March, Breton, a former telecom CEO himself, spoke with Europes telecoms giants asking them to provide users anonymized aggregated location metadata to track the spread of the virus and determine where peoples need for medical supplies was the most pressing.

Bretons echo of the French position is seen as denting his European credentials and alienating other capitals.

The effort came under criticism from privacy hawks in Parliament, who are worried it would put the personal information of EU citizens at risk, while the Dutch privacy regulator warned it is “not possible” to anonymize location data.

“The Commissions explanations are not complete yet,” said Sophie in t Veld, an MEP who belongs to Bretons political group Renew Europe. “If they want to introduce very intrusive measures, they should be very transparent about it.”

Another case in point is Bretons idea for an “European Industrial Recovery Fund,” costed at €1.6 trillion, which he pitched on French media and to the European Parliaments Internal Market Committee last week just hours before von der Leyen presented a €100 billion loan scheme to back up countries national short-term unemployment programs.

“Im working with the way which I presented, which is probably the only way to do it, so at the end of the day we will reach consensus,” a confident Breton told MEPs.

The announcement bewildered many who didnt appreciate Breton stealing the presidents spotlight. “He reminds me of [Günther] Oettinger,” said a senior EU official, referring to the former German commissioner who became famous in Brussels for going off script.

Undeterred, Breton doubled down by penning an op-ed three days later with Italian Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, in which the duo call for European bond-issuance to fund the recovery.

The article was published ahead of an inconclusive Eurogroup meeting on Tuesday where collective debt proved to be one of the apples of discord among EU countries. It had not been previously agreed with von der Leyen, who sent out her chief spokesman Eric Mamer to tell journalists that the president had a different opinion, which is funding recovery through a more ambitious EU budget and a €100 billion unemployment fund.

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