Anyone who wants to make a career in a public authority usually needs patience above all else. One step follows the other, grade after grade. It’s no different in a ministry than in the EU Commission.
Things were different for Renate Nikolay. At the end of the 1990s, the lawyer started working for the German Federal Ministry of Economics, and after just one year, Alfred Tacke, then State Secretary, took her on as his personal advisor. A little later, after her move to the EU Commission, it was also just over a year before she was promoted to the cabinet of Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.
Nikolay has jumped up the career ladder rather than climbed it. This is not possible without ambition, the will to work hard and a quick grasp of things, which her colleagues attest to. In her case, however, she has even more qualities that not too many civil servants possess: Courage – to her own ideas and to political infighting. “I’ve never been afraid of politics, but I’ve enjoyed helping to shape it,” she says.
Counterpart of the big platforms
A quality that the 55-year-old will also need in her new position: Since the beginning of December, she has been Deputy Director General of DG Connect, responsible among other things for overseeing the major platforms. The Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act have propelled the Commission to become the most important counterpart to Amazon, Meta and similar. Nikolay’s team now has to ensure, in the case of the DMA together with the Directorate General for Competition, and in the case of the DSA in coordination with the national authorities, that the new rules are enforced. It’s a “huge new task,” she says.
Nikolay hopes to draw on her experience from previous posts. As head of cabinet for then Justice Commissioner Věra Jourová, she negotiated the first codes of conduct with platforms against disinformation and hate speech years ago. In turn, during her first stint at the Commission, Nikolay witnessed how the agency monitors markets: DG Trade investigates companies when it suspects dumping. “Having worked in different areas helps to see connections,” she says.
From Mandelson to Ashton
She had moved from Berlin to Brussels for personal reasons – the father of her twins worked in the Commission. Nikolay initially had herself transferred to the Permanent Representation as a commercial attaché, then went through the selection process after giving birth.
Mandelson brought her into his cabinet a short time later, where she oversaw in particular the negotiations with South Korea on a free trade agreement. When the Briton returned to London as minister in 2008, Nikolay moved to succeed Catherine Ashton. And stayed there for the time being when Ashton was appointed the first EU foreign affairs representative in 2009.
Two years later, the subject changed: Nikolay moved to the new Directorate General for Justice and Consumer Protection, where she worked as a liaison to the European Parliament on the formulation of the General Data Protection Regulation and the beginnings of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. In 2014, Věra Jourová contacted her; the prospective Justice Commissioner from the Czech Republic was looking for a head of cabinet. This turned into eight years in which the two worked closely together.
Tenacity on Jourová’s side
“She was open to ideas,” says Nikolay, “we implemented many things that were not in the mission statement.” Unlike in trade policy, the EU has few powers in the area of justice, but Jourová and Nikolay are seizing opportunities by the horns: in the wake of the VW affair, they are pushing through the possibility of class actions throughout the EU, against fierce opposition from industry and the German government. “Without the diesel scandal, we would not have been able to advance collective redress in the EU,” says Nikolay.
The European Public Prosecutor’s Office would not exist today without the duo’s tenacity. As a former minister for regional structural policy in the Czech Republic, Jourová knows all about the lure of EU funds; political rivals even briefly put her behind bars with the help of baseless accusations. With her experience, Jourová has succeeded in convincing many skeptical member states, says Nikolay.
Jump onto the job carousel
With the end of the Juncker Commission, Nikolay actually moved back to DG Trade, but this time her timing wasn’t right when it comes to jumping onto the Commission’s internal job carousel. The change was dragging on; as head of cabinet, she was fully involved in the planning of the new Commission, and Ursula von der Leyen also wanted to see her as a German in the important round of heads of cabinet. The new Director-General for Trade, Sabine Weyand, eventually offered her the post of Director for Africa and Sustainable Development, but the area didn’t excite Nikolay enough. She decided to stay with Jourová, who moved up to Vice President for Values and Transparency.
There, the two dealt with the thorny issue of the rule of law and helped draft the proposal for the Media Freedom Act. It is intended to protect the independence of the press in places where it is particularly endangered, such as Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, but it is also causing German publishers and media watchdogs to flare up.
“Our aim is not to put a straitjacket on publishers or to attack public broadcasting,” Nikolay asserts. Rather, she says, it’s about creating minimum standards. Convincing the critics is also part of her new job at Connect. “I’m convinced we can do it.” Till Hoppe