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BRUSSELS — If the European Union ever ends up in an all-out trade war with China, it would have to count on Denis Redonnet to fight its corner.
Redonnet is Brussels’ very own Chief Trade Enforcement Officer. He’s French. He operates mostly out of sight. And he’s been instrumental in deploying a series of measures that have, over the past three years, transformed the EU from being the world’s most open trading bloc into a well-defended economic fortress.
Redonnet is the quintessential Brussels insider and, since being appointed to the job at the urging of Paris, has built up an arsenal of trade weapons — most notably an “anti-coercion” tool to retaliate against economic bullying by an increasingly dominant and assertive Beijing.
How has he done it? The bespectacled veteran of the Commission’s powerful trade department works as a double act with its better known director general, Sabine Weyand, a German civil servant nicknamed “Queen Sabine.”
“There’s a good cop and a bad cop,” said former WTO chief Pascal Lamy, who recruited both Redonnet and Weyand to his cabinet when he was EU trade commissioner from 1999 to 2004.
“There’s a smiling interlocutor, Sabine, and there’s a gentleman, who smiles less — even though he has a great sense of humor, he keeps it to himself — and who’s scowling with his stick,” Lamy said of Redonnet, who is one of Weyand’s deputies.
Lamy’s “stick” refererence recalls the quiet-but-strong U.S. foreign policy advocated by Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century. In Redonnet’s hand, the stick represents Brussels’ increasingly powerful trade armory.
Five years ago, things looked very different: Against the backdrop of a weakening World Trade Organization, Europe found itself unable to fight back against the far-reaching U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imposed by President Donald Trump.
Stunned, Brussels was forced to realize that even its close ally and trading partner the United States could cross every red line. The position of chief trade enforcement officer was created in 2020 — with a distinctively French je ne sais quoi.
At first, critics questioned the need for the role, recalled Marie-Pierre Vedrenne, a French MEP from President Emmanuel Macron’s liberal Renaissance group.
“Some were opposed to the principle. It’s not about Denis Redonnet, it’s more about the idea: ‘We’ve given something to the French again,’” said Vedrenne.
Macron and his team at the Elysée palace lobbied at the highest levels to rally support for the proposal, she explained.
“The battle to get a chief trade enforcer was more or less won. And then we had to push for it to be him, specifically,” Vedrenne said of her early exchanges with Phil Hogan, the trade commissioner at the time.
Representing the European Parliament, Vedrenne worked closely with Redonnet in 2020 as the EU institutions overhauled the bloc’s enforcement regulation — another trade weapon that allows Brussels to retaliate with tariffs when another WTO member is uncooperative during a dispute.
But it would be simplistic to conclude that the appointment was a French stitch-up, some officials say, adding the choice by Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission was based on merit.
“At all times, everyone is watching everyone else to make sure they don’t pull the carpet in one direction,” said Lamy, Redonnet’s former boss, who is also French. “The truth, hidden from the eyes of many, is that it’s the Commission that manages the Commission’s services.”
Under the banner of “strategic autonomy,” France nonetheless expended significant political capital to remodel the EU’s trade agenda, raising green standards in deals and working to include provisions to deploy sanctions when countries fail to uphold them.
The French push has not always been well received by the bloc’s free traders, who have accused Paris of “green protectionism.”
The “trade pendulum is swinging in the wrong direction,” said one European diplomat who, like other diplomats and officials quoted in this story, was granted anonymity to speak candidly. The diplomat cautioned the bloc was “becoming more inward-looking now.”
Officials describe Redonnet as a multilateralist at heart, who accepted the job reluctantly after several years working in the WTO unit of the Commission’s trade department.
A graduate of the College of Europe — an academic conveyer belt for aspiring eurocrats — Redonnet spent nearly three decades climbing the Commission ladder, also serving as head of cabinet to Lamy’s successor as trade commissioner, Britain’s Peter Mandelson.
“Certainly, Denis is someone who was very clear about his community mandate. He’s cultivated other cultures, he’s cultivated other countries, including the U.K,” said Arancha González, a former Spanish foreign minister who worked alongside Redonnet in Lamy’s cabinet.
The Frenchman is in many ways the quintessential technocrat: His power resides in his mastery of the files at hand.
“Denis is very much a ‘trust but verify’ kind of guy,” said one EU official. This person said that Redonnet, when handed a report, would turn first to the annexes to check the author’s math. “He’s very good on the substance and knows how to use it to get what he wants,” the official added.
Yet for some, Redonnet isn’t doing enough to fight Europe’s corner and should ensure that the Commission uses all the tools at its disposal to hit back against increasingly assertive global players.
For instance, Paris is ratcheting up pressure on Brussels to launch a probe that could result in Chinese electric vehicles being hit with tariffs.
Redonnet’s trade defense unit is considering whether to launch an investigation that could allow the EU to impose additional levies or restrictions, known as anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigations, on such cars. He is also exploring his first case under a new international procurement instrument against Chinese medical devices, according to three EU officials.
But in the big showdown between the EU’s protectionist and liberal capitals, Paris hasn’t yet won the argument. France will also have to convince the EU’s biggest economy — Germany — to take a more robust approach on trade towards Beijing.
Redonnet declined to comment for this story, but the Commission vouched for his work as its CTEO — or chief trade enforcement officer.
“Under the CTEO, the EU has been the first and, to date, the only WTO member to tackle China’s channelling of state subsidies to its companies in third countries,” said Miriam Garcia Ferrer, a spokesperson for the EU executive. “Tackling the increasingly complex nature and damaging effects of Chinese subsidies is a priority.”
Then, whether Brussels can hit back against economic bullies will come down to the resources and staff that Redonnet has at his disposal.
“I understand that he’s probably understaffed and we put a lot on his plate all the time with all these instruments,” said Greek MEP Anna-Michelle Asimakopoulou, one of the main lawmakers who negotiated the anti-coercion instrument this year.
Not so, responds the Commission: “The CTEO and his team remain effective in carrying out his mandate with the resources at his disposal,” said Garcia Ferrer. New tools such as the anti-coercion instrument, she said, “are targeted measures of last resort. Their nature as proportional and deterrent instruments mean that they will not require much more in the way of additional resources.”
Striking a balance
Diplomats and lawmakers say Redonnet’s job has less to do with trade enforcement than with striking a difficult balance between keeping markets open for business while protecting the guarantees already enshrined in existing trade deals.
“His job is not just a fortress, but hopefully it also means opening up the market,” said a second European diplomat.
Still, more protectionist ideas are making their way from the fringes of EU trade policy to its center. His nationality is no coincidence: pushing for French objectives while balancing with Germany’s Weyand.
“He has a very important role, not just in trade defense” but also making sure EU businesses have access to foreign markets, said Luisa Santos of the industry lobby group BusinessEurope. She warned that “without growth, you cannot transform your economy,” hinting at the need to ink new trade deals, too.
Redonnet’s role is just one aspect of the “geopolitical Commission” that has taken shape under von der Leyen, as she has sought to push back against bullies and walk tall on the world stage. The Commission highlights his team’s role in drawing up trade and technology sanctions against Russia over its war of aggression against Ukraine.
And Redonnet has walked a fine line between wielding the stick with one hand while holding the door open for business with the other.
“The right framework … is what we call ‘open strategic autonomy,’” Redonnet said during an event in May. “That has a meaning because it means walking on the three legs of openness, of sustainability, and when necessary, of assertiveness.”
Not everyone is buying that.
Brussels’ favorite buzz-phrase marks a significant shift from the European Union’s long-standing stance as a champion of free trade and multilateralism.
Yet the expression remains a contradiction in terms that allows capitals to project their wishes and concerns onto it, marking political divides between governments which see it as a threat to the EU’s open market and those who view it as a mandate to boost their industrial champions.
“The benefit of open strategic autonomy is that everyone can interpret in their own way: those who want open trade, and those who want strategic autonomy,” said a third EU diplomat.
Having once starred as an 8-bit video game character in a social media post promoting the EU’s more forceful stance on foreign trade, Super Denis’ biggest fight still lies ahead.
In June, the Commission ditched its long-held free-market ideals to propose a new economic security strategy that foresees greater intervention in the way European companies invest and trade around the world.
One of the tools on the table is screening outbound investments, which would create new EU powers to control the outsourcing of strategic industries and technology to problem countries. Although described by Eurocrats as “country agnostic,” it’s clear that the intent of such screening is to prevent EU companies sharing sensitive technologies with China.
So in a bid to “de-risk” supply chains, negotiating Brussels’ idea of outbound investment screening is set to be the next institutional bugbear, to take the EU’s trade game to the next level after Brussels recently signed off on the new anti-coercion instrument.
Von der Leyen has emphasized that the instrument will be “targeted” and limited to sensitive technologies that can lead to the development of military capabilities. But telling companies what they can and cannot do abroad is something the bloc’s free traders won’t like.
Eventually, Redonnet will probably get the power to push the button on that new tool.
Meanwhile, insiders say he already has set his sights on becoming the trade department’s director general, or DG, in the next Commission. “A lot of people are betting on him as the next DG. He has a lot of gravitas,” said the EU official.
If he wins that role, “it will be the marshal who has built the trade arsenal, and then he can appoint a general to use it,” they added.
And with the array of trade instruments to wield, the role of the EU’s bad cop on trade carved out by Redonnet is here to stay.
“When I compare the arsenal I had when I was commissioner with what I have now, it’s the difference between a hunter and a soldier,” said Lamy. “The ammunition is not the same caliber, not the same strength, not the same quality.”
Barbara Moens and Sarah Anne Aarup contributed reporting.