Something About Margrethe – The Crowd Loves It When Danish Competition Commissioner Vestager Whacks Corporate Rulebreakers

Margrethe Vestager has charmed the EU— from bureaucrats to commissioners to the media. She can explain complex competition policy to a child but gets mysteriously cryptic about her future plans. She claims that she has not thought about the job of commission president—but she opposes the European Parliament’s demand how to choose one.

Brussels

To use the language of business, God gave the first man Adam and his partner Eve an excellent deal: fertile land with trees, plenty of fruit to choose from, flowing rivers, cattle—even raw materials.

It was an environment of low competition and minimal regulation. Even clothing was not required in that agribusiness paradise. With nothing to be ashamed of, it was casual Friday every day.

There was but one rule: Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for that might cause death.

However, there was also a serpent in paradise, let us call him the first lobbyist or the original consultant, who got Eve and then Adam to think that taking an extra bite would open their eyes to who knows how much richer yields!

Chomp.

It’s been downhill ever since.

The description of the Fall of Man in the Bible does not appear to be a story that would even remotely have anything to do with the European Union. However, that is the story that the Danish competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager likes to refer to as she explains why EU competition law and its robust enforcement is needed.

”Competition policy may seem like a technical thing for lawyers. But it’s just about the things we all know as humans. It’s about greed. It’s about fear. It’s about how you use power. And these are things that have been around forever, back to Adam and Eve,” Vestager says in an interview at the Commission headquarters in Brussels.

For many other commissioners, it might not come to mind to make reference to the Bible. However, nothing could be more natural to Vestager who spent her early years in a religious home with both her parents Lutheran priests. She was the eldest child of four.


Many ordinary EU citizens might ask: Vestager who? And competition policy what?

It is always good to remember that many EU citizens are unable to name a single EU institution, much less personalities involved in the Union’s many activities.

But for people familiar with the Commission’s work, Margrethe Vestager, 49, enjoys the reputation of a superstar who has led a determined and very visible battle against the largest high-tech companies of the world.

She is the same woman who slapped Google with a 2,4 billion euro fine for abusing its dominant position. And she’s the one who told Apple that it needs to pay 13 billion dollars plus interest to Ireland for undue tax benefits that the company had enjoyed.

Not only does Vestager play the world’s most powerful Whack-A-Mole game with the corporations by busting cartels, stopping mergers and going after illegal state aid—she has managed to put a human face and touch to EU bureaucracy.

It’s hard to think of another EU decision-maker who the business news agency Bloomberg has published a wedding photo of, as it did in a long—and typically positive—profile article on Vestager. Its headline read: ”The Eurocrat Who Makes Corporate America Tremble.”

Many technology and business papers from Wired to the Financial Times have dedicated a lot of words and space to go through Vestager’s life—from her childhood through her times in Danish politics to her present-day role. They’ve written about her religiosity and about her love of knitting little elephants and baking.


”It shows that there is a thirst for someone being personal. For me it is a matter of principle. I feel obliged to let the 500 million people [of the EU] know at least a little bit about who is the person who is now exercising their power,” Vestager says in her office where she has dozens of family photos on display.

Many officials, journalists, politicians and others that I have talked to about Vestager show blatantly open admiration for her.

”It is very hard not to overpraise her. She is an extremely sympathetic and logical person whose value system and ability to think is all-encompassing,” says Jyrki Katainen, the Vice President of the Commission.

According to Katainen, Vestager has ”an unusual charm and warmth” and she is someone who ”you would take as a battle buddy into the foxhole”.

Also the members of Vestager’s cabinet and the officials at the Commission’s Directorate-General for Competition, or DG Comp, are said to be infatuated with Vestager. One interviewee says that ”they are ready to jump under a car for her” if needed.

Another one points out that no member of Vestagers cabinet has left, which is rare at the Commission that begun its mandate in November 2014. When I ask one staffer if Vestager is a fun person to work with, she replies with a big smile on her face:

”Don’t you see the big smile on my face?”

This is beginning to sound like some sort of crazy cult!

So let us turn to the critical, and at times, jaded EU media for some clearheaded thinking.

I ask ten EU Correspondents from ten different member states to answer a little unscientific survey on who they think are their favorite three commissioners in the 28-member College of Commissioners. I don’t tell them what article I am working on.

The results from this expert panel—that spends many of its days observing the commissioners—are almost shockingly unanimous. Nine out of the ten respondents named Vestager as their favorite commissioner, whereas the tenth one ranked her as second favorite.

”She is focused, consistent, audacious, and communicates well. And all that with a witty sense of humor. Politically, she is clever enough never to enter any issue she has no direct influence on: frustrating for journalists when chatting with her, but very wise,” says Jurek Kuczkiewicz who covers the EU for the French language Belgian daily Le Soir.


No other commissioner received more than three mentions from the journalist panel. And nobody mentioned the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who has an erratic and somewhat controversial reputation.

Griselda Pastor, who works for the Spanish radio network Cadena SER, also picked Vestager as her top choice but agonized over who else she could mention.

”It’s not easy to find three good ones. It is a pitiful team, this Juncker team. Not political at all, not transparent, not strong. It is difficult to understand if they have, as a team, any idea about the EU during these crisis times,” she complained.

As for the competition commissioner, she said:

”Vestager brings her personality out under this grey Brussels sky and shows that it is possible to work for a general interest,” Pastor said.

One respondent—Eric Maurice, the Editor-in-Chief of the EUobserver publication—was the one placing Vestager as his number two favorite. He later explained that he did not want to give the most obvious answer, meaning Vestager.

Maurice’s gold medal went to the Dutch First Vice President of the Commission Frans Timmermans whose most visible task includes rule-of-law issues.

”He is in charge of the trickiest issues, policing the member states on fundamental issues while trying to keep them in the ’family’. Not easy, because in reality, the EU cannot do much and there is a huge risk of pushing Poland, or Hungary, or Romania further away,” said Maurice, who is originally from France.

Maurice’s answer is a reminder that Vestager’s portfolio is both heavy and clear. Vestager is a kind of sheriff whose job is to make sure that European and global companies respect the rules of EU competition policy that has taken 60 years to take their present form.


A clear portfolio does not mean a simple one. Vestager receives a lot of praise for her ability to explain very complicated and technical cases to ordinary people. She explains things in such a way that a child could understand the need for the competition policy.

”If you have to shop for a new pair of sneakers, you want the real price. You don’t want someone to have agreed on the price beforehand. If you cannot find what you want in one shop, you can go to another one, and it will be better. So that you’re in charge. It’s for you to decide,” she says.

The price is not always right and the serpents are still out there, coaxing businesses to break the rules. Recently Vestager slammed six European truck companies with fines totaling 3.8 billion euros for running a price-fixing cartel for 14 years.

It was the biggest cartel fine in EU’s history, another record during Vestager’s term.

Vestager often talks about the rights of the consumers. But she also dives effortlessly into deeper waters, explaining how fair competition relates to the birth of the EU and the times before and after the Second World War.

For her, competition policy is one piece of the puzzle that forms the ”peacekeeping” operation known as the EU.

Vestager is praised for her clarity, but also for her sense of humor and subtly funny delivery. Sometimes watching her corporate-slapping show at the commission press room makes one think: Where is the popcorn?

”I know a lot of things are happening today. But one of those things is that the commission has decided to prohibit the proposed merger between Deutsche Börse and the London Stock Exchange,” she began her presentation a year ago.


On January 24 this year, Vestager’s team showed that her office is indeed a fun place to work at. On Twitter, some of their messages were about market dominance in LTE baseband chipsets—and others about marzipan, sugar, and egg whites.

Before announcing the 997 million euro fine to American chipmaker Qualcomm, Vestager had somehow found time to prepare her staff a traditional Danish Kransekage, a marzipan-flavored ring cake, decorated with small EU and Danish flags.


Some say all this baking and knitting is extremely clever PR that boosts Vestager’s popularity. Others point out that it’s not exactly easy to learn knitting colorful little elephants just to impress the media. What does Vestager say?

”We all have different ways for staying mentally healthy. For me, the kitchen is like a spa. When you do things with your hands, it takes your mind of things. I work a lot with words and paper. To do something with my hands, I find that to be extremely fulfilling.”

Although Vestager, an economist by education, is the face of the EU’s competition policy today, behind her work is an army of 900 investigators and a long tradition of doing things. Some of the big cases began before her mandate and will take years to come to a conclusion.

The staff at the DG Comp are considered to be some kind of an elite unit at the Commission that employs about 33 000 people. During Vestagers mandate, this expert machine has produced more than 2 200 decisions: over 1 100 on state aid cases, another 1 100 plus on mergers and about 30 on antitrust cases.

”People may not see on a day-to-day basis that we do so many different cases. We have mergers on beer and cement and coffee,” Vestager lists, and the list keeps growing with medical implants, sports federations and so on.

When it comes to the work of the 28 commissioners, Vestager, like her predecessors as competition chiefs, has an unusual independence to do her work. She says that President Juncker does not interfere even—or perhaps especially—in the cases that have related to the tax scandals of Juncker’s home country of Luxembourg.


”One of the very few occasions where the President has ever addressed any of my cases was when he said, that I will of course not interfere and you have completely free hands to do what you find the right thing to do. And this is what I do,” Vestager says.

Katainen agrees with Vestager. He says that in the College of Commissioners there is very little talk about the competition cases, even though the decisions are formally taken together.

”We want to keep the competition policy out of politics or the politics out of the competition policy. There is sort of a firewall about it internally in the Commission,” Katainen says.

One long-term commission official says that the independent reputation of Vestagers work has been ”a real salvation” to Juncker’s Commission, not too successful or consistent in some other fields.

Vestager says that her focus has been a lot on digitalization ”because it changes our societies, it changes our lives”. She thinks that the high-tech companies need to play by the rules and pay their taxes just like all the other hundreds of thousands of companies.

Vestager knows how to communicate her message in a provocative way that an ordinary tax-payer can relate to. For instance, in the case of Apple and its arrangement with Ireland, the company had ended up paying only 0.05 percent tax, 500 euros for each million euros of profit in one year, Vestager claimed.

Both Apple and Ireland have appealed the decision. Many of the Commission’s cases end up in several years of court ping-pong before the final verdict is out, and the Commission does not always win the cases.

It is also worth noting that obviously not everyone adores Vestager’s work. The US president Barack Obama’s government accused the Commission of disproportionately targeting American firms and in one interview in 2015, Obama hinted that the EU competition policy has a smell of protectionism.

”In defense of Google and Facebook, sometimes the European response here is more commercially driven than anything else,” Obama said.

And the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, gave this view on the Apple-Ireland decision: ”It’s total political crap.”

Vestager says that she takes very seriously American accusations about the Commission having some kind of anti-American bias in its work. Her staff later sends statistics to argue that point.

Since Vestager took office in November 2014, there have been, for example, 34 recovery decisions in state aid cases. Three of them, or nine percent, have concerned American companies.

In the same time period, the Commission has prohibited three mergers or takeovers involving seven companies. All seven of them were based in EU countries.

The Commission is also happy to point out a Columbia University study, published in December last year, concluding that there is no evidence that the Commission is trying to protect European businesses. The study went through more than 5 000 merger cases between 1990 and 2014.

”Our analysis therefore challenges the common notion of European antitrust protectionism and shifts the burden of proof to those advancing this view,” the study concluded.


The French historian Laurent Warlouzet of Université du littoral Côte d'Opale who studies EU’s competition history says that Vestager’s popularity even outside the so-called EU bubble can be explained by the ”angst” that people are feeling with the rapidly changing world.

Almost everyone uses the services or products of companies such as Google, Apple and Amazon. The financial crisis of 2008, the LuxLeaks scandal, the Panama Papers and the general anxiety with the effects of globalization have caused concerns among people: are the rules rigged against us, is people’s privacy in danger and so on.

”She fits this mood,” says professor Warlouzet who recently published a book, Governing Europe in a Globalizing World and who has been writing the official history of EU’s competition policy.

Warlouzet notes that there have been other colorful and influential competition commissioners in the past 60 years. Vestager is the twelfth person to hold the position.

The competition policy has taken its shape through many ideological battles and fights between the member states and Brussels. Warlouzet says that because the politics and shape of the world economy have changed many times over, it is hard to make comparisons. Yet, he ranks Vestager among the Top 3 among the different competition commissioners.

”Vestager is an unusual character because now is the first time that we talk so much about competition policy. And it is the first time that the competition policy has such a high profile. She has brought a personal touch to the work and even inspired a fictional character,” Warlouzet says.

The character he refers to is Birgitte Nyborg, a fictional prime minister in the hugely popular Danish TV series Borgen. Nyborg is played by Sidse Babett Knudsen who spent some time following Vestager around to get the feel of a real politician’s work.

The connection between the series and Vestager’s life may be loose, but all the same, this link adds another ring to the towering kransekage called Vestager.

Warlouzet says that everything about Vestager seems to have some sort of ”romantic flavor”: a mother of three daughters defending us against the biggest corporations of the world, against those who trespass against us.

”And she is good-looking. That’s something not to disregard,” the historian says, not the only interviewee to make this assessment.



Elisabet Svane, a Danish journalist who has written a biography about Vestager, says that Vestager has many sides, somewhat contradictory ones as well.

”She is powerful, but she is not sentimental about power. She is very sweet and nice. And she is a tough cookie. She is really rough if you have to go into negotiations with her, because she goes all in. She is a no-bullshit type,” Svane describes.

According to Svane, Vestager was a shy child. Vestager confirms this, and says that she is still struggling with shyness and nervousness in public events.

Svane says that when Vestager was a child and her home with its two pastors had many visitors, Vestager would prefer to serve the guests coffee rather than chat with them. All this happened in a small town in Western Denmark that has a somewhat über-Danish-hygge-ish name Ølgod, meaning literally ”good beer”.

In spite of her shyness, Vestager joined politics at a young age. And she picked the party supported by her parents, the social-liberal Radikale Venstre.

Svane points out that in certain phases of her political career Vestager was mocked for being ”a total failure with no understanding of politics”.

That changed when Vestager managed to lift her little party from ruins to a great election result in 2011 and into the government led by the social democrat Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

Although the Radikale Venstre was a much smaller party in size, Vestager managed to push through harsh reforms, most famously cutting unemployment benefits. Svane is not alone thinking that Vestager was the strongest decision-maker and the boss in the government, a view that Vestager disputes.


As a reminder of the stormy years in Danish politics, Vestager has a statue of a hand with a middle finger pointing up, a gift she received from angry construction unionists. In Danish, the gesture is known by an English name, the Fuck Finger, Vestager explains.

The statue in her office is a reminder that Vestager has not always enjoyed the admiration of others as she does today, and that decisions hurt. She was considered by some to be a cold and arrogant politician who did not understand the anxieties of jobless people.

But today, Svane says, the Danes have a different view of her and her popularity crosses all party lines. Vestager recently said that she would like to have another term as a competition commissioner and in one poll 67 percent of Danes supported the idea.

”Today the right-wing and left-wing love her. I think what she is doing now is kind of David versus Goliath. She is fighting Google, and telling them that you have to follow the same rules as everybody else. That is, in our mind, a beautiful story,” Svane says.

Now that we have moved from the Book of Moses to the Book of Samuel, it is a good moment to ask what religion means to Vestager.

”It is an important part, but it doesn’t take too much time or space. If I were to have a motto, it would be: trust in God and fear the church. It is a good thing that there is a God. But the way humans utilize that, I’m not a fan. If you start counting, you can never stop, the number of people who have been killed in the name of religion,” says Vestager who served as her country’s Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs between 1998 and 2000.

Religiosity is another ingredient that makes Vestager. And it may partly explain her reputation as a very principled and exceptionally clean politician, as describes Jens Thomsen who wrote a book about Vestager’s first hundred days as a commissioner.

”I think she is a very principled person, and that’s what basically drives her. You will certainly be able to find Danish politicians who don’t like her or agree with her. But I think you would never be able to find any dirt on her, even if you tried very hard. She just hasn’t committed any stupidities,” Thomsen says.

Considering the amount of praise, respect and admiration showered on Vestager, it is perhaps not surprising that the Brussels rumor mill wants more of her. According to Politico.eu, a news outlet focusing on EU issues, the French President Emmanuel Macron wants Vestager to be the next President—and the first female President—of the European Commission.

”Macron loves Vestager,” the publication headlined its recent story that was based on sources at the European Parliament.

This is a topic with which the normally straight-talking Vestager gets first time truly cryptic during an hour-long interview. She first says that the whole issue is just a Brussels rumor.

When pressed, however, she says that ”in every story there is some truth, there has to be a grain in order to start speculating”.

”But what is the grain of truth in this story, I dont know,” she says. (Her answers on this topic can be heard on the audio recording of her interview below.)

Vestager says that Macron has not asked if she is interested in the job. She says that she knows Macron relatively well but they are not ”friend friends” who would spend evenings on the phone together.

Would you like to be the President of the European Commission?

”That I don’t know. Because I haven’t thought about it, in that respect,” she answers.

She adds that the best way to guarantee any ”good and interesting job after the job you have now” is to focus fully on your present work.


Vestager then says that she does not think that the so-called Spitzenkandidaten or top candidate process of choosing the Commission President is to her liking because it limits the pool of talent to choose from, for instance, sitting heads of state or government.

”I don’t think it can stand on its own.”

This puts Vestager in the same camp with Macron and many member states, but in the opposite camp with the European Parliament who wants to have the main say in choosing the head of the Commission. Juncker is also a supporter of the top candidate system and he was the first Commission President to be chosen through the process.

The EU Parliament has said that it is ready to reject any contender who is not nominated as a top candidate of the European political parties for the Commission Presidency ahead of the 2019 EU elections.

”I think it is important that it is not automatic.– – Yes, of course the Parliament can do the Spitzenkandidaten, but we [the member states] would also have the freedom to say, well, this person would actually be the very best, considering what is the task ahead of us,” Vestager says.

This same process would work against herself as her own Radikale Venstre party is member of the liberal ALDE group, only fourth largest in the European Parliament.


Another factor decreasing Vestagers chances for the top job at the Commission is the fact that Denmark is not a member of the Eurozone and the country is the queen of opt-outs among the EU member states, not participating in defense co-operation, for example.

”I don’t think it is likely to happen. Maybe Macron has thrown this on the table just for the fun of it. The old rule of thumb is that if you are mentioned as a candidate too early, you are never going to get it,” says Jens Thomsen who has a long background in covering EU politics.

Complicating things further, the Prime Minister of Denmark, Lars Løkke Rasmussen of the center-right Venstre party, recently indicated that he does not want Vestager to get a second term as the competition commissioner. Vestager’s party is not in the government now.

So, it looks like it’s the end of the road for perhaps the best-liked European decision-maker?

Not so fast, thinks Vestager.

For her, the Prime Minister’s comment was not surprising or disappointing: ”I would be very surprised if he had said anything else.”

She says that Denmark will hold elections before the next commissioners are nominated, one and a half years from now.

”A year and a half in political time is like a century.”

She says that she will focus on her day job and, as she still has a lot to do in Brussels, has no intention of starting to call moving companies.

”No reason to start packing boxes,” Vestager says.

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