Vestager leaves EU competition job as M&A decision looms

The European Union’s competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager (pictured) is taking a temporary leave of absence to pursue a top position at the European Investment Bank.

EU president Ursula von der Leyen granted Vestager, EVP for the European Commission, a period of unpaid leave to enable her to serve as the Danish government’s candidate for the position of President of the Management Committee of the EIB, Brussels announced earlier this week.

In her absence, which will likely last for a matter of weeks, her responsibilities will be split three ways. Her digital role, leading what the Commission has dubbed ‘A Europe Fit for the digital age,’ will go to Values and Transparency VP Vera JourovΓ‘, while Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders becomes Competition chief. Less notably, the Innovation and Research portfolio Vestager took on on a temporary basis after the resignation of Mariya Gabriel in May passes to Margaritis Schinas for now.

Naturally, if you’re a telco hack, at least, all thoughts turn immediately to M&A policy in the industry, specifically a number of ongoing high-profile merger bids. Vestager’s bid to lead the EIB – a job she stands a decent chance of getting, although she is far from the only credible contender – comes at an interesting time in European telecoms.

The Commission had been due to publish its final decision on Orange’s bid to merge with MasMovil in Spain this week, but paused proceedings over the summer to give it more time to ruminate on the matter. Back in June it declared the plan anti-competitive, making the usual noises about a reduction in the number of network operators in Spain’s mobile and fixed broadband sectors, leaving the two telcos to put together a package of potential remedies.

And, more to the point, leaving the industry speculating as to whether it will stick by its age-old insistence on four-player markets going forward.

There has been a lot of debate about consolidation in Europe – plus Γ§a change – with Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton in particular talking up the need for cross-border tie-ups; we might see a little more of Breton in Vestager’s absence, incidentally, although he is not formally picking up the competition baton. But the in-market M&A is still viewed with suspicion in Brussels and as such the Orange/MasMovil deal is serving as a bellwether for future opportunities.

At this stage we can only guess what – if any – impact the temporary arrival of Reynders to the top competition job will have on Orange/MasMovil and future telecoms M&A. Reynders himself has not given a lot away.

Doubtless, he means that wholeheartedly. Apart from anything else, he must be a strong candidate to take up the high-profile competition mantle should Vestager succeed in her EIB bid. All should become clearer – in terms of both Vestager’s future and the prospects of a Spanish telco merger – pretty soon.


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