EU's Vestager, Silicon Valley's nemesis

October 4, 2017 by Alex Pigman
They love her in Brussels, but in Silicon Valley? Not so much
They love her in Brussels, but in Silicon Valley? Not so much

When Silicon Valley's critics need a leader, they turn to Denmark's Margrethe Vestager, the EU's top anti-trust regulator.

The elegant Dane on Wednesday added retail behemoth Amazon to her trophy list of all-powerful US tech giants that have run afoul of her scrutiny.

The order that Amazon repay Luxembourg 250 million euros in back taxes comes only months after she slapped search titan Google with a record 2.4-billion-euro fine for illegally favouring its shopping service in search results.

In an EU double-punch, the former Danish finance minister on Wednesday also referred Ireland to an EU court for failing to recoup a jaw-dropping 13 billion euros from Apple, the iconic iPhone maker she hit with a tax bill last year.

Despite her thunderbolts, Vestager, who took office as EU competition commissioner in late 2014, is known in Brussels for infusing one of the EU's most feared positions with a much needed dose of humanity.

'Hugely respected'

Across the EU institutions, Vestager—who inspired her country's hit television political drama Borgen about a female prime minister—counts as one of the most popular figures among the commission's 28 members.

"She's loved by her team, and hugely respected," said a high-level Brussels official familiar with the often austere corridors of EU power.

Vestager's vast, bright office in the commission's Berlaymont headquarters is covered with photos of her three daughters, while her small desk faces out to the Brussels skyline.

In an interview last month with AFP, Vestager spoke of her anti-trust portfolio matter-of-factly, but became animated when describing how she thought Europe had grown stronger from the drama of the debt crisis and Brexit.

"It's as if everyone has lifted up their gaze and said OK they want to leave, we'll find the best way to enable that, but for the rest of us: ahead!" she said.

Not a lawyer, and she says that's a good thing

Vestager developed a taste for Europe's potential when she was the Danish economy minister, chairing meetings with her colleagues during the grim depths of the eurozone .

"You set the agenda, you lead the meetings... and I really liked it," Vestager said.

'Not a lawyer'

Vestager has brought a huge change to the grey and insular world of anti-trust competition law.

Instead of bible-length opinions and mind-numbing jargon, Vestager insists on an everyman approach to anti-trust issues, focusing on consumers.

"I think its a good thing that I'm not a lawyer... because I'm never tempted to be a better lawyer than the lawyers," said Vestager, who studied economics at Copenhagen University before embarking on her political career.

It is this desire to always think of the voter and headlines that bothers her critics who see Vestager as too political for the anti-trust portfolio.

Sometimes nicknamed back home as "Margrethe III," an allusion to Denmark's Queen Margrethe II, she became minister in 1998, named at 29 to the education and ecclesiastical affairs portfolio, and over the years rose up the ranks.

But observers in Denmark say her options back home are limited, having already won all the top jobs—including deputy prime minister—that are available to her small social liberal party.

Unsurprisingly, Vestager hinted that she would like to stay on in a Europe-wide role.

"My philosophy is that if you try to do your best in the job you have, then the next job will also be a good job," she said.

Vestager meanwhile rejects accusations that she is becoming too anti-American.

Explore further: Google proposals 'in right direction,' EU anti-trust chief says

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