Monday, December 5, 2016

Recent events make antitrust chief Vestager the EU's second-most powerful left-winger -- but she's isolated

Leading U.S. high-tech companies like Apple (whose "state aid"--it hurts me to use that misnomer even in quotes--case I'll comment on soon) and Google (I recently outlined my differentiated take on the Android antitrust case) are facing a left-wing populist campaign that stretches the envelope of competition enforcement. I believe part of the motivation is that the EU has failed and is failing its citizens in some very critical areas. The EU's failure has many facets, including among other things that it exposes its citizens to suicide terrorism, rapism, other violent crime, and drug trafficking imported from North Africa and Western/Central Asia, does not employ effective measures of the Australian kind to keep people with a high illiteracy rate, poor education (even including "university degrees" that are a joke) and low average IQ from becoming a burden on Europe's social welfare systems, allows Eastern European (from places as far as the former Soviet republic of Georgia) gangs to break into hardworking, honest European citizens' homes (a sacrifice on the altar of "free movement"), and still doesn't have the sovereign debt crisis truly under control.

The EU's all-out antitrust war with the U.S. puts Europe at the risk of an escalating trade war with the Trump administration, which has promised and, even before formally taking over, has already started to make America great again. There is increasing legal uncertainty for investors and job creation. While I have always supported competition enforcement where it is really warranted (such as standard-essential patents), I will make my tiny contribution to rationality by outlining on this blog, not in this post here but going forward, where the EU is right to slam down the antitrust hammer and where it must be stopped--if all else fails, by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

Over the course of only ten days, the three most powerful politicians of the European left have all stepped down, making competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager the second-most influential European left-winger -- but she's basically just a one-eyed among the blind, no more powerful than before in absolute terms and increasingly isolated. A quick timeline:

  • November 24: European Parliament President Martin Schulz, a German social democrat, finally gave up his highly questionable, self-centered quest for a third term that was, or would have been, an outright breach of an inter-party agreement (the European People's Party and Schulz's socialist block had agreed that a conservative would take office in the middle of the legislative term). The former book dealer who had left high school without a diploma may become Germany's new foreign minister (a terrible choice since he insulted Donald Trump) or his party's top candidate in next year's national elections. He presumably wants both but it would be hard to travel the world and campaign at home at the same time. Polls that have been conducted since his decision show that his party, which has committed high treason against the Germans and legal migrants among its blue-collar voter base, does not benefit from his EU-level fame at all: they're still polling around 20%.

    When announcing his return to German politics, Schulz said he wanted to keep working to make people's lives a little bit better every day. He didn't say which people's lives, though.

    The current foreign minister of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, will become federal president, which is a purely representative, next-to-powerless position.

  • December 1: The weakest French president in my lifetime, François Hollande, made the highly unusual but inevitable decision not to run for reelection. This makes him the epitome of a lame duck until next spring. No matter which candidate his party will nominate, it's virtually certain that the run-off election will take place between Marine Le Pen, who has credibly distanced herself from her father's antisemitism and other radical views and may break through Hillary's glass ceiling (just in another country and coming from another political direction), and Republican nominee François Fillon.

  • December 4: Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, whose proposals for EU policies came down to an uncreative borrow-and-spend dogma and the idea of opening the floodgates for people who will, not in each individual case but in the aggregate, be a huge burden on our social welfare systems and a threat to our security, has stepped down after completely losing yesterday's referendum over an anti-constitutional reform proposal. While Italy does have a problem with forming stable governments and some reasonable reform may be warranted, Renzi's attempted power grab was rejected for all the right reasons. The big winners were the relatively young five-star movement and my favorite Italian party, the Lega Nord, whose leader, Matteo Salvini MEP, celebrated President-elect Donald Trump, Russian president Vladimir Putin (whom too many European politicians and journalists vilify though he would be a great ally in some ways), French Front National leader Marine Le Pen MEP, and his party in a tweet and Facebook post last night.

Now the leaders of all three European institutions (Council, Commission, Parliament) will soon be members of the European People's Party (EPP). That is exactly why Schulz was hoping to somehow secure a third term, which would have been as unusual in Europe as Franklin D. Roosevelt's extra terms (and like FDR then, Schulz sought to justify it with an unprecedented crisis). In the European Council--where the heads of state and government meet and make the ultimate decisions--EPP and libertarian politicians (and the Tories, which are part of an EU-skeptical block in the European Parliament and whose country is on the way out) control the most important countries, except for a lame duck like Hollande, and lame ducks don't count. In terms of population size and economy, Sweden is now pretty much the most important EU member state with a left-wing leader, though arguably the influence of German and Spanish social democrats as "junior partners" of their national governments is more important given the size of those countries.

With Schulz leaving the European Parliament and the Party of European Socialists (which, by the way, has some Eastern European member parties whose views on migration policy and euro bailouts are similar to mine) being in its weakest position ever in the European Council, we have to turn to the European Commission in our search for Europe's most influential left-winger.

The Commission is the executive branch of the EU government. In EU member states, the position of foreign minister is generally deemed the most prestigious and influential cabinet post. Since there isn't really such a thing as a common EU foreign policy (and now, as a result of Merkel's insane and highly divisive migration policies, less than ever before), it's still the national foreign ministers who are in charge. The EU couldn't even agree (in no small part due to British resistance) to appoint an EU "foreign minister," so the title is "High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy." It's a difficult post for an EU politician to influence things, and Federica Mogherini is a Renzi appointee, which further reduces her influence.

In the member states, the ministers of finance are usually also very influential, and even more so in times of a sovereign debt crisis. However, the EU Commission has a limited budget, so here it's the member states who make the decisions in their "Eurogroup." Dutch labor party politician Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who appears to be rather moderate, not leftist, is the leader of the Eurogroup. He can't decide anything alone but as the public face of the euro currency and the organizer of the meetings where the decisions are made, he's now the most important politician of the European left at the EU level.

In the European Commission, the two most important areas of responsibility besides the presidency are competition and the Internal Market and Services. At times, enlargement (negotiations with potential future member states) is also somewhat interesting, but not now: the EU can't expand while struggling with enormous centrifugal forces, which includes that Italy may hold a referendum on EU membership in the near term.

The current commissioner for the internal market is Elżbieta Bieńkowska, a Polish conservative. So, antitrust commissioner Magrethe Vestager is presently the most influential left-winger in the European Commission. But this is a relative perspective. There is no absolute increase in power. Much to the contrary, she's going to find it harder and harder now to get support for her activism. She does have supporters among EPP politicians but the Party of European Socialists is in its weakest position in a long time.

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