Inge Bernaerts im Porträt
"The only one that can take care of your work-life balance is yourself."
Inge Bernaerts, Director for Strategy and Policy in the Directorate-General for Competition of the European Commission about her career outside and within the European Commission, the differences between working in the private and public sector and the balancing exercise of family and working life.
Ms. Bernaerts, you are the Director for Strategy and Policy in the Directorate-General for Competition of the European Commission. What does this position entail?
DG Competition is responsible for the development of European competition policy and for the enforcement of EU competition law. Similarly, my role as director is twofold. On the one hand, my directorate initiates policy developments. We look at whether the toolbox we have as enforcers in the competition field is fit for purpose. Sometimes we develop new instruments or update existing tools. On the other hand, we provide case support to the rest of DG Competition, which is enforcing the competition rules in concrete cases. For example, we assist when specific legal questions arise. I think this combination of policy and case support is beneficial because from the cases we are able to gather what is missing in terms of tools. At the same time, it is beneficial to be familiar with the tools to be a good enforcer.
What does your daily work look like?
Well, there are LOTS of meetings of different kinds. (laughs) First, there are management meetings. DG Competition is a big organization of about a thousand people. My own department is big as well with about 110 employees divided in five units. It is important to ensure the flow of information in both directions: from senior management to staff and the other way around. For that, we have management meetings. The second type of meetings, the ones that I enjoy most, is with case teams about a specific file. During these meetings we discuss the current state of the file and what needs to be done next. I like these meetings because they allow you to go into depth. Of course, my teams know the files in much more details than I do. But with the help of experience, one knows which questions to ask, and when specific points need to be discussed and investigated further. Since they involve discussions from different perspectives and a confrontation of ideas, these meetings can be intellectually highly stimulating.
Apart from that, I spend quite some time representing the European Commission, for example at conferences. I like these encounters because, by explaining what you are doing, you realize what difference our work can make and where we can still do better. It is always an opportunity to receive feedback and bring this feedback home. Sometimes, the impression exists that we are in an ivory tower. But we try to “break through” all the time and engage strongly with external stakeholders, for example at conferences but also by representing the European Commission in discussions with Members of Parliament, Member States or with students.
And last but not least, there are the unavoidable avalanches of emails. (laughs)
What intrigues you about competition law?
What has always intrigued me is that competition policy plays at the intersection of law and economics. If you want to deal with a competition case, you must understand how the sector functions. And it is precisely that intersection that I find really interesting. But it is not just law and economics. There is also an element of geopolitics that plays into it. Think for instance about the current discussion on the European Union’s state aid policy and the question whether the EU should relax its own state aid control in response to higher subsidies in China or in the US. And then, finally, in essence, competition law is also about fairness – about ensuring fair outcomes for consumers, for those who participate in the economy, the companies, the big ones but also the small ones. I am deeply convinced that competition law is important to make the market place a fair place for consumers as well as for other economic actors. Our work may sometimes sound technical but it has a lot of direct impact. I ended up studying law, because I wanted to understand the society we live in and how it is organised. And often, a society is organised through its legal rules – the law. If you can have an impact on the development of the laws and on their enforcement, you can contribute a little bit to making the world a better place. That is something which is important to me personally.
Have you always been interested in this area of law?
Interestingly, when I was studying law, I was intrigued by criminal law. I wanted to understand why somebody commits a crime, and how society should deal with people who have committed crimes. So, in my last year of law school, when we were asked to indicate our preferred topic for a dissertation, I put criminal law first. But the computer decided differently, and I eventually wrote my dissertation on European law. In this context, I participated in the European law Moot Court with three fellow students. We won the competition and I received the price for the best speaker, which took the form of a traineeship in the Legal Service of the European Commission. Besides, a law firm which had learned about our success in the Moot Court contacted me and offered me a job. So that is what I did: first my traineeship in the Legal Service of the European Commission and then I moved on to the law firm. I sometimes joke that it was a computer that made me end up practicing European law. But I am quite happy with that outcome. And now, when I look back, thank God that is what the computer chose for me. (laughs)
How did your career in the European Commission evolve?
After my traineeships, I practiced competition law in a Belgian and in an international law firm for seven years. In 2003, I returned to the European Commission where I have worked since in different positions. I started as a case handler in the DG Competition and was fairly quickly promoted to become Policy Assistant to the Director General. Later, I switched to DG Energy, where I was appointed as Head of Unit dealing with the Internal Energy Market and Security of Supply and later on with Energy Efficiency of Buildings and Products. I have also been member and Head of Cabinet of Marianne Thyssen, the former Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. Since 2020, I am in my current position as Director of Strategy and Policy at DG Competition.
In this position, you have recently negotiated the newly introduced “Digital Markets Act” (DMA) on behalf of the European Commission. How did you approach this demanding task?
It was a task that I enjoyed a lot, because it brought together all the things I had been dealing with and had learnt up until that point in my career. It all starts with the quality of the legislative proposal you put forward. That was challenging because we did not have a lot of time to develop a proposal in this complicated area. But we did not start from scratch. I had a very good team consisting of people with the necessary competences and we could build on twenty years of enforcing competition law in this field. This gave us a lot of credentials in the discussions, but I also encouraged the team to think outside the box. After the European Commission had adopted its proposal, we started to negotiate it with the Council, then with the European Parliament and finally in a trilateral setting with all three institutions. Here, it was important to build trust by explaining in detail to the legislators, where we were coming from, why we were putting this proposal on the table, and why we drafted it in this manner.
At the same time, we kept an open mind to improve the text, without losing sight of the details – since the devil often lies in the detail when it comes to legal texts and their enforcement. We tried to anticipate contradictory views and comment on them to enable a fruitful discussion. Because obviously the regulated companies were also active and informed Member States as well as Members of Parliament of their views. In my opinion, the resulting discussions are a positive example of EU law making where all views are factored in.
And then a final important point is timing. We put the proposal on the table when there was a lot of demand in the Parliament and in the Council to act upon developments in the tech sector and the growing market power of a small number of companies that set their own. Not only the timing of the proposal, but also keeping the momentum during the negotiations is important – even if it is late at night or on the weekend. So overall, putting the right people on it, having a good proposal, building trust, a lot of communication and keeping the momentum have been key elements in the negotiations and the success of the DMA.
Before your work at the Commission, you had worked seven years as a lawyer in competition law. Why did you change from the private to the public sector?
I have enjoyed my time at the law firm a lot. That is a constant factor throughout my career: I have really enjoyed every job I have done along the line. And I certainly also enjoyed my time at the law firm since it was so varied. The day-to-day contact with real-life companies as your clients added a practical dimension to my legal thinking and reasoning. I started in one of the big Belgian law firms and moved on after a couple of years to one of the Magic Circle law firms. Why did I leave? A very simple fact: I had children and I felt that it was difficult at that point of my career to combine these two aspects of my life. Being a Senior Associate in an international law firm was very demanding in terms of hours and flexibility. I did not think that it was compatible with me being the mother of two very young children. At the same time, I know myself well enough to acknowledge that I want to have a “front-row job”. Therefore, any other job within the law firm than growing into partnership did not attract me.
When I was pregnant, I heard in the cafeteria of our law firm that the Commission had published a Concours for lawyers (an exam to become an official of the European Union). It was shortly before the enlargement of the European Union in 2004 and it was clear that this would be the last opening for a long time. So, I thought I’d better take this test as a plan B and keep this option open. But when I returned to the law firm after I had given birth to my oldest son, it soon became clear that a job at the Commission would probably be the better option. I started working here in DG Competition in 2003 as a case handler in the telecommunication unit. And I never regretted that choice. Even if it sounds perhaps a bit like a negative choice at the origin, it turned out as a positive turn for me.
How would you compare your experiences in both sectors?
Let me start with the similarities because I think there are more than one thinks. First of all, the intellectually challenging nature of the work. This is important for me. I found it in the law firm and here in the Commission. Also, and this might be a surprise because the Commission and the public service in general are sometimes perceived as bureaucratic, the two workplaces leave a lot of space for entrepreneurship. You have space to develop your own ideas and to take the initiative. Probably even more here than in a law firm where your mandate is determined by the client. In the Commission, there is room at any level to take initiative and to push through your ideas and projects. In addition, both workplaces are of course international environments. As a Belgian I have the best of both worlds because I live in my own country but work in Europe.
In terms of differences, I feel that in the public function it matters what I do. Developing policies like competition policy with a direct impact for 450 million people and maybe even globally: that is fantastic! I find it a privilege to work on such issues every day.
Thinking back to what made me switch from the private to the public sector, I find the Commission a wonderful place to work. Do not get me wrong please: it is not because we do not work hard. (laughs) Sometimes my husband asks me “Why is it again that you left the law firm?” because I still work late at night and over the weekends, but it is more adjustable to where you are in your private life. For example, when I started here and had two very young children at home, I worked pretty much from nine to five. Now my children are at university, so I have more time. In this way, I have been able to adjust the way I worked throughout my career. This would not have been possible in a law firm. There it is often up or out, and you are supposed to make it to partnership in a phase in your life when you often also start a family.
How did you manage to start your career at the European Commission (especially with two young children)?
As I said, for the first two, three years, I worked from nine to five. With the help of the experiences I had gained at the law firm, my commitment, and my skills, I was able to work efficiently and do a good job. And that was what counted and what was appreciated. In general, I found a very enabling environment here at the Commission, with a lot of support from my employer, colleagues, and bosses. I was lucky to have an enabling environment also at home, starting with good childcare services in Belgium and also the help of my husband with whom I have always shared the role of taking care of the children. In addition, my parents, and my in-laws stepped in when the children were ill.
I think those two elements combined, an enabling and supportive environment at work and an enabling and supportive environment at home, really made it not an issue for me to have a career as a young mother. When I look back, it all happened naturally. I started, I did my best, it was picked up, people appreciated it, I got more responsibilities. After my initial years at the Commission, I made a career step that required longer hours again, but my husband helped me to deal with that at home. And it has always made me a happy mother who is passionate about her job. Apparently, this has been visible to my children. It is nice to see that one of them decided to study law and the other one decided to study economics.
What advice would you give to young lawyers who would like to start a career in the European Union?
Go for it! (laughs) Absolutely by all means, go for it! There is not a single path to a job in the Commission. If I look back now, I am really grateful and I will always be grateful for my time in the private sector. I think that I would not have gotten the reality check and the drive for efficiency to the same extent if I had started immediately in a large institution. But you know, other people make other choices. And sometimes life takes you through another path. But I would definitely say go for it: It is a fantastic place to work!
Have you ever encountered difficulties in your career? And if so, how did you tackle these?
Yes sure! If you never encounter difficulties, it probably means that you never take any risk and stay on a very safe path. So, difficulties are part of the game. Of course, I also had my disappointments in making a career. But then sometimes such disappointments are a good lesson in life not to stay frustrated about it but to turn the page. I once did not get a job that I really wanted. But if I had gotten that job, I would not have my current job which I love. So, I think it does not make sense to stay frustrated. Try to learn from your disappointments and from your mistakes. Do not try to solve everything on your own. If you face difficulties, be open about those challenges, look for advice and inspiration on how to overcome difficulties. But if you never face difficulties, you cannot overcome them, learn from it and grow.
In your position as Head of Cabinet to Marianne Thyssen, the former Commissioner for employment and social affairs you have been involved in the introduction of “parental leave” all over the European Union. What do you think has to change to make the balancing exercise of career and family life easier?
One of the things we saw looking into scientific evidence on that issue is that leave arrangements are very important. Not only maternity leave, but also paternity leave as well as parental leave and carers’ leave. Together with people from my generation, I am now in a situation where we have worries about our parents. So, the balancing exercise may come back later in your career.
With Marianne Thyssen, we proposed and negotiated a European Directive that creates a right for ten days of paid paternity leave for all fathers upon birth. It also creates parental leave rights for both parents and special leave rights to take care of close relatives. I am convinced that modern parental and care leave arrangements create better opportunities for everyone. They help creating a working environment where people are not artificially cut into a “working personality” and a “private personality “. If you incorporate this idea, if you can create a working environment based on openness and willingness, where people give each other space and step in for each other, it is not only a much nicer but also a much more productive environment.
That is not to say that today’s situation is always perfect, including here in the Commission. I do not want to diminish the difficulties that still exist today. It is a point that requires continuous attention. But by being able to openly discuss things, you already go a long way.
What advice would you give young female lawyers?
What I have always found important, and I got this advice by someone when I was a Senior Associate in the law firm, is that the only one that can take care of your work-life balance is yourself. It is important to stay in close contact with who you really are and to see whether you yourself feel at any point in time that your work-life balance is out of order. It will inevitably get distorted at some points in life, probably, to the advantage of work. But if you feel that this happens too often or for too long, it is you who needs to do something about it and think about adjustments. Can you for example get more help in taking care of your household? Or can you get rid of a hobby, which after all you do not like as much as you thought? Or can you cut back on work, and can you do that at your current job? Can you discuss it openly with your superior, or would you be looking for a different job – at least temporarily? It is also important to know that all these choices are never definitive. It is not because you scale back temporarily, because your parents are ill, or your child temporarily needs extra attention, that you no longer will make a career. That is the nicety of the working world today. You can temporarily adjust and get back on the career track later.
Which female lawyer would you like to nominate as a role model for breaking.through? Why?
I have met and worked with a lot of fantastic women in my life, and I have been inspired by so many of them. Many are not lawyers, such as Margrethe Vestager, our Executive Vice President and Commissioner for Competition, or Nadia Calviño who is now Vice Prime Minister in Spain but used to be a colleague at DG Competition 15 years ago. But an inspiring example as a lawyer is Marianne Thyssen, who served as European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility between 2014 and 2019. I had the privilege to work as her Head of Cabinet. We sometimes think about great lawyers as the ones who have produced major textbooks. By the way, interestingly, you find more men than women among those. But at the end of the day, I do not know whether publishing a textbook is what makes the biggest difference. What I appreciated about Marianne Thyssen is how she as a politician communicated about complicated legal issues with ordinary people – who were of course her constituents as a politician. She was able to explain in a natural manner what she was doing as a lawmaker and why. And she always had this mantra about legal rules: they must be clear, fair, and enforceable. If you manage to live up to that standard as a lawmaker, I think you have achieved a lot. This might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about great lawyers. It might be seen as a “female” approach because it is so down to earth: you want to make sure you do the right thing and you want people to understand it. And you care about this more than having a book on a shelf with your name on it. (smiles)
Thank you very much for this interview!
Brussels, 16 January 2023. The interview was conducted by Paulina Kränzlein.
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