Commissioner Breton lashes out against EPP, raising ethical questions

Commissioner Thierry Breton shared a critical message about the European People's Party (EPP) and Ursula von der Leyen.
Commissioner Thierry Breton shared a critical message about the European People's Party (EPP) and Ursula von der Leyen. Copyright Virginia Mayo/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Virginia Mayo/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for the single market, has found himself in hot water after he shared a scathing post against the European People's Party (EPP), raising ethical questions ahead of the elections.

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In a short but explosive message, Breton denounced the centre-right group for failing to deliver an overwhelming endorsement to Ursula von der Leyen as lead candidate.

At the end of the EPP congress in Bucharest on Thursday, von der Leyen received 400 votes in favour and 89 against. In total, 737 delegates had voting rights and 591 registered to vote, according to the party. (The message that Breton highlighted erroneously put the number of eligible voters at 801, making von der Leyen's victory margin seem smaller.)

"Despite her qualities, Ursula von der Leyen (was) outvoted by her own party," Breton said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, shared on Thursday evening.

"The real question now: 'Is it possible to (re) entrust the management of Europe to the EPP for 5 more years, or 25 years in a row?' The EPP itself does not seem to believe in its candidate," he also wrote.

The critical post, which is completely unrelated to Breton's portfolio, immediately raised ethical questions, as it appeared to run counter to the Commission's internal guidelines for participation in the elections, adopted in mid-January.

The updated rules allow Commissioners to take part in campaigns for the June elections without taking unpaid leave, as President von der Leyen and Commissioner Nicolas Schmit are doing for the EPP and the Party of European Socialists (PES), respectively.

However, the handbook imposes strict limits to draw a clear line between the activities of a person as Commissioner, which is a politically independent position, and candidate or campaigner, which is intrinsically partisan.

Among these is the obligation to "create a separate social media account for the campaign," as von der Leyen and Schmit have already done, "and for any statement of intervention on behalf of a party or a candidate."

Another provision prevents Commissioners from using the executive's "human and material resources for any activities linked to the campaign."

Asked about a potential breach of conduct, a Commission spokesperson said all members of the institutions had to "exercise judgment" when applying the rules but refused to provide a detailed assessment of Breton's invective.

"It is clear that this comment is a personal remark and is not made in his capacity as Commissioner," a spokesperson said on Friday afternoon.

"The Secretary-General will send a reminder to all Commissioners about the guidelines that have been defined for the period of the electoral campaign that every College member must apply."

Thierry Breton, a Frenchman with a CEO background, was nominated for his post by  President Emmanuel Macron, whose party Renaissance sits with Renew Europe, the liberal formation in the European Parliament. The official website of Renew Europe identifies Breton as a member of "our family in Europe," together with other Commissioners like Margrethe Vestager, Věra Jourová and Didier Reynders.

Renew Europe is therefore in direct competition with the EPP and the PES for the largest share of seats in the Parliament. The liberals will present their 10-point manifesto and lead candidates on 20 March.

Although Breton has not entered the race – at least not officially – he has made no secret of his desire to stay in the next Commission. His name has been floated as Commissioner for Defence, a portfolio that von der Leyen has vowed to create if re-elected.

But the assignment of tasks depends on the president's vision and is often influenced by personal dynamics and political considerations.

In a biting reply, Thanasis Bakolas, the EPP's secretary general, thanked Breton for his interest in the party and pointed out the dismay prospects that liberals face, as they are projected to fall from third to fifth position.

"I know the liberals are anxious about the upcoming European elections - having no foresight, no message, no relevance," Bakolas said on X.

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"And I know that things are particularly difficult in France for Renaissance, as they are squeezed by the extremes they helped to grow by weakening the traditional centre-left & the centre-right," he went on.

"Wish you the best in the campaign!"

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