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Who is Margrethe Vestager, and how is she fighting big businesses and cartels?

September 29, 2018 08:24 pm | Updated 08:24 pm IST

Last year, former Danish Minister and European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager gave a TED talk that included biblical references to underline her absolute determination to prevent markets slipping into being the “private property” of “big businesses and cartels.” Competition had to mean you competed on the “quality of your products, the prices you can offer, the services of the innovation producer — that’s competition on merits.” However, the desire to avoid competition — rooted in greed for yet more money — was as old as the story of Adam and Eve, she said. “When greed and fear are linked to power, you have a dangerous mix.”

What is her record?

Vestager, 50, daughter of Lutheran ministers, and a former Minister of Economic Affairs for Denmark’s Danish Social Liberal Party, has been Europe’s Commissioner for Competition since 2014. The high-profile job, which has regularly required its holder to face off some of the world’s corporate heavyweights, has gained a reputation for attracting intransigent, no-nonsense types — such as ardent free marketeer Neelie Kroes, also called ‘Nickel Neelie,’ or Joaquin Alumunia, the socialist Spanish politician who followed her. It is Ms. Vestager’s time as Commissioner that has resulted in some of the most eye-catching outcomes, such as the €13 billion that Apple was required to pay Ireland in back taxes. Google’s parent company Alphabet has been hit twice by her office: first €2.4 billion over practices on its online shopping search; and earlier this year, it was fined €4.3 billion for “illegal restrictions” on Android device manufacturers and network operators to “cement” its dominant position in Internet search. Others to have fallen foul of EU rules during her time include Starbucks, Fiat and Russian energy giant Gazprom.

Her tough stance drew on her clear perspective as she took on the job. Fines had to be big enough to have a deterrent effect and ruin “undue profits,” and not just be a “line in your spread-sheet,” she told a meeting of the European Parliament in October 2014.

Is she tech-unfriendly?

With an easy-speaking style and short salt-and-pepper hair, Ms. Vestager exudes the confidence of a person accustomed to the public spotlight. She entered politics in her early 20s, rising swiftly up the party machinery, and as a Minister, pushed back against lobbying for tax breaks for the banking sector. A mother of three, she is one of the politicians on whom the character of Brigitte Nyborg, in the hit Danish political drama Borgen , was based. She is an avid user of social media.

Where next?

Last week, Ms. Vestager said her office was conducting a preliminary inquiry into Amazon and how it used data from sellers on its site. While it would be perfectly proper to use the data to enhance the service to third party sellers, using data gathered to fit its own calculations as a merchant — perhaps to discover the new big thing and beat competition — was more questionable. Her focus on this will hardly come as a surprise. Particularly in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Ms. Vestager, like other regulatory heads globally, has indicated that data and its role in promoting anti-competitive practices is among the issues at the top of her mind.

While Ms. Vestager has kicked off this new focus, who follows it through remains to be seen. The Danish government — whose consent is required if Ms. Vestager is to continue in her position for a second term once her current time expires later this year — is yet to give her the go-ahead. However, she could be on course for even loftier things. Some European media outlets suggest she is a contender to take over from Jean Claude Juncker as European Commission president, and is said to be French President Emmanuel Macron’s top choice.

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