The European Parliament approved French Commissioner-designate Thierry Breton as EU Commissioner for the Internal Market portfolio on Thursday.
MEPs on have confirmed Thierry Breton, France’s nominee for the internal market portfolio, following his hearing in the European Parliament, according to Parliament officials.
Approval for the French nominee comes a month after the Parliament rejected Sylvie Goulard, France’s first choice for the post, over legal and ethical concerns in a blow to French President Emmanuel Macron.
Breton succeeded in alleviating concerns about potential conflicts of interest linked to his extensive background in the private sector, including at the helm of tech company Atos. Thierry Breton will be in charge of key digital policy as part of his portfolio spanning digital, industry, space and defence.
“Thierry Breton is fit to become the Commissioner for Internal Market,” the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats said in a tweet after the vote. “But we will monitor his commitments to avoid conflicts of interest during his mandate.”
— S&D Group (@TheProgressives) November 14, 2019
According to Parliament officials, Greens didn’t oppose Breton but they wanted further clarifications. The far-right ID group also requested additional questions.
Confronted by MEPs from the Greens and far-left GUE/NLG group on conflicts of interests, Breton showed a document in the form of “a certificate” to prove that he had sold his shares “on the market.”
“I no longer have any interests in the companies I have led. Zero,” he added. He also promised that he would “walk out of the room” if there was a case involving his former company, Atos, and committed to “never [receiving] a member of a company I have led alone in [his] office.”
Responding to Marie Toussaint, a French MEP from the Greens group who noted some concern about Breton’s nomination creating a suspicious “mix of genres,” Breton, again, insisted that the European commission had rules “made precisely for people like me.”
“I will be radical in strictly applying that principle.” “Everything is transparent, this house, your house is a glass house,” he said. “Whatever I do is recorded.”
Unlike in Goulard’s hearing, MEPs from key political groups challenged Breton mainly on issues linked to his portfolio.
His most notable remarks concerned artificial intelligence, including his resistance to create new laws in the next European Commission’s first 100 days. “I am not saying we will have regulation on AI in the first 100 days. I won’t be the voice of regulation on AI,” he said.
Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen has said she will present a European legislative framework for AI in the first 100 days. An internal document provided further details on the future Commission’s plans, including a law on liability for “damage caused by AI application.”
MEPs questioned the French candidate on how he would deal with his broad portfolio (which includes competition, technological sovereignty, the services sector and the challenges posed by new technologies).
Breton was quizzed on his possible conflicts of interests, including the shares worth around 35 million euros that he owned with the Atos tech company, as former CEO.
“I sold all my shares”, Breton told MEPs during his speech.
Breton left his post as Atos CEO on November 1.
Thierry Breton was France’s second Commissioner-designate, after Sylvie Goulard, French president Emmanuel Macron’s first pick, was rejected by the European Parliament citing conflicts of interest.
Media coverage of Atos and Breton often concentrates on the company’s work on innovative tech products, such as high performance computing. Its role in the security and border management apparatus is less discussed. Atos received 67 million euros since 2014 from the Horizon2020 research fund alone. The two key areas funded are big tech projects (ie 5G and big data) and security, including cybersecurity and border controls.
Atos has also been one of the main recipients of EU funding from the European Union Agency for the Operational Management of Large-Scale IT Systems in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (EU-LISA), to build what have been called “virtual walls”. These are IT systems that control, monitor and survey people at the EU’s external borders. According to the Transnational Institute, these programmes use “stringent controls following generalised threat assessments based on biometrics and features, not in the least skin colour”. Moreover such border control systems can also be seen as trial runs for a possible later deployment in the general population.
An internet monitoring system dubbed ‘Eagle’, which was developed by Atos’ subsidary, Bull, is even now the focus of an investigation by the Paris Prosecutor’s office. The system was sold to various repressive regimes including the Khadaffi regime in Libya, Ben Ali’s Tunisia and the Moroccan secret service, allowing them to monitor citizens and journalists. Breton was a board member of Bull.
Breton’s approval by the European Parliament means he now become responsible for steering EU policy in these areas. The mission letter assigned to Commissioner-designate Breton would put him in charge of investing in technologies like “blockchain, high-performance computing, algorithms, and data-sharing and data-usage tools”; “defining standards for 5G networks”; coordinating an “European approach on artificial intelligence and on the new Digital Services Act”; and, finally, building a real single market for cybersecurity”.
Breton had cleared the first hurdle earlier this week — winning approval of his financial declaration by the Parliament’s legal affairs committee — by 12 votes to 11.
Atos boss will be EU commissioner
Thierry Breton was until 2 weeks ago the CEO of Atos. Atos are linked to thousands of deaths in the UK. About 1,600 working-age disabled people are dying every year after having their claim for disability benefits rejected, the government has been forced to admit.
In the United Kingdom, from 1998 – 2015 Atos Healthcare was at the centre of a controversy over the management of contracts by their healthcare division of the Work Capability Assessment for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). In August 2015, statistics from the Department of Work and Pensions revealed that 2,380 people had died between 2011 – 2014 soon after being found fit for work through disability benefit assessments. In 2014, “the DWP negotiated an early exit from the existing WCA contract with the private firm, Atos, after raising concerns about the quality of its work”.
However, Atos still (as of October 2016) undertakes work for the DWP in assessing Personal Independence Payment applications. The Press Association revealed in 2017 that Atos, used by the DWP to make its decisions, are set to be paid more than £700m for their five-year contracts against an original estimate of £512m.
When Atos took over administering PIP’s estimates of how fast claims could be processed were over-optimistic as were estimates of how easily claimants could get to assessment centres. This led to delays in assessments, distress to claimants and unexpectedly high costs. Atos was accused of misleading the government.
Atos developed a computer system that would extract data from GP’s computers nationwide. Costs rose from £14 million to £40 million and it was felt Atos had taken insufficient care how it spent taxpayers’ money. LINK