The European Commission on Friday defended its decision to appoint a US professor with links to Big Tech as the chief economist of its key competition department despite opposition from lawmakers and the French government.
The appointment of Fiona Scott Morton, a former competition economist for the US Justice Department who has also lobbied on behalf of Apple, Amazon and Microsoft, has set off alarm bells in Brussels and Paris.
"The College [of Commissioners] has made a decision on this appointment [...] We see no grounds to reconsider," a European Commission spokesperson said Friday.
According to the EU's executive, only eleven applications were received for the position, indicating the high level of expertise required for the position.
Candidates underwent five assessment rounds, including an interview with EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. A spokesperson assured that "more than one candidate" was interviewed by the competition chief.
Morton’s mandate would involve advising the EU Commission on investigations into alleged anti-competitive behaviour, proposed mergers, and the implementation of the landmark Digital Markets Act (DMA), the EU’s rulebook to rein in the market power of Big Tech firms. She would be the first non-EU citizen to occupy the role.
Morton has been hailed an "antitrust warrior" for her critical stance on tech platforms, and previously claimed her side-gig consulting large firms, many of which have been targeted by EU anti-trust regulators, was important for her research and teaching.
But the decision has come under fire for potential conflicts of interest.
The Commission assured on Friday though that there will be a cooling-off period of two years during which Morton will not be able to work for companies for which she recently worked. They could not immediately confirm the name of the companies in question.
Among those critical of the appointment are the Presidents of the European Parliament’s four biggest political groups who expressed their "dismay" in a letter sent to Vestager on Friday.
“At a time of intense scrutiny of our Institutions vis-a-vis foreign interference, we fail to understand the consideration of non-EU candidates for such a high-ranking and strategic position,” they said.
“We haven’t worked tooth-and-nail to regulate GAFAM, only to trust their lobbyist to implement these rules,” French Member of the European Parliament for the Socialists and Democrats, Raphaël Glucksmann, tweeted.
Paris pitched in with criticism on Thursday, as three ministers, including Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, tweeted their concerns.
“As Europe engages in the world’s most ambitious digital regulation, the recent appointment of DG Competition’s chief economist invites legitimate questions. I invite the European Commission to reexamine its choice,” French Digital Minister Jean-Noël Barrot tweeted.
Other voices from across the French political spectrum have slated the decision. Marine Le Pen, the parliamentary leader of the far-right Rassemblement National in the Assembly, tweeted Wednesday questioning whether Europe ‘is still completely European’.
The appointment is particularly sensitive for Paris, as President Macron is an outspoken critic of US Big Tech’s unchecked influence on the EU economy.
In May, when news that Morton was considered for the role first broke, a group of NGOs also voiced concerns regarding potential conflicts of interest.
Vestager has also come under fire for the lack of transparency and open political discussion during the recruitment process.
Morton is due to start in her new role on 1 September for a three-year contract.