American economist turns down top EU job as Macron's criticism reverberates

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France's President Emmanuel Macron talks to journalists during the third EU-CELAC summit that brings together leaders of the EU and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, in Brussels, Belgium, Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Francois Walschaerts)

BRUSSELS – One day after French President Emmanuel Macron criticized her appointment because of her nationality, the American candidate to become one of the European Union's chief economists will now not take up the position because of the political controversy it stirred, the bloc announced Wednesday.

In a letter to the EU’s executive Commission released early Wednesday, Yale economics professor Fiona Scott Morton wrote that she had “determined that the best course of action is for me to withdraw and not take up the Chief Economist position" in the department that oversees competition and anti-trust policy.

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She insisted the department must have the full backing of the 27-nation EU, which the bloc would not be able to provide, “given the political controversy that has arisen because of the selection of a non-European.”

France insisted Wednesday that the position of Morton as an American at the heart of EU economic policy was incompatible with its view of a stronger and more independent European stance in global affairs.

It jarred “with two principles which are at the heart of our conception of the European Union: sovereignty and the protection of the interests of European businesses and consumers,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anne-Claire Legendre.

Macron had not been the only one to criticize the unusual move to take on an American for such a post but his disapproval had the most visible impact.

Late Tuesday, he insisted that if the European Union needed more strategic independence, it was a bad move that the EU head office planned to hire an American expert as its chief competition economist.

“Is there really no great European researcher with academic qualifications that could do this job?” Macron asked at an EU summit.

In a bloc of some 450 million people, “is there no one in the 27 member states that has a researcher good enough to advise the (European) Commission? That is a real question mark,” Macron said.

EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who had pushed through the decision to appoint an American to such a high-level position, said, “I accept this with regret and hope that she will continue to use her extraordinary skillset to push for strong competition enforcement.”

The EU’s executive commission announced last week that it had appointed Scott Morton as chief competition economist in its department tasked with ensuring that “all companies compete equally and fairly on their merits within the single market, to the benefit of consumers, businesses and the European economy as a whole.″

Macron insisted that he has nothing against Scott Morton herself, an economist with multiple diplomas from elite schools.

But the French leader demanded answers from the commission and suggested that hiring a non-EU citizen to such a senior job should not be allowed under EU statutes.