Great Dane

The Woman Taking on Donald Trump

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The EU’s competition commissioner is tasked with enforcing rules on state aid, and preventing monopolies and protectionism.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Margrethe Vestager was appointed to the role by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in September 2014.
    • Though she brushes off such rumors, Ms. Vestager has been touted as a future replacement for Mr. Juncker.
    • She previously served in her native Denmark’s government as education minister (1998-2001), and economic and interior affairs minister (2011-2014).
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    Audio

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EU Commissioner Vestager holds a news conference in Brussels
Margrethe Vestager has been a thorn in the side of big, multinational corporations. Source: Reuters

The ladder takes pride of place in Margrethe Vestager’s Brussels office. It has come along on her journey from her native Denmark, but that still doesn’t answer the question why it is there. “If a woman wants to climb, she should have her own ladder,” Ms. Vestager says.

The ambitious 49-year-old has certainly scaled several rungs in her career to date. At the age of 23, she was elected to her country’s parliament. By 29, she was a minister – at the time, Denmark’s youngest ever. Now, she holds one of the EU’s most important offices: Competition Commissioner.

This is no job for shrinking violets. Ms. Vestager has to stand up to multinational companies and contend with issues such as the Bayer-Monsanto merger, or Apple’s tax affairs in Ireland. In that case, the European Commission says the US company received up to €13 billion in undue tax benefits.

“There is a risk that other companies are being harmed because of Google’s alleged malfeasance in the marketplace.”

Margrethe Vestager, EU Competition Commissioner

US President Donald Trump, with his wish to put “America First,” should take note of Ms. Vestager’s name. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump ordered a review of a US visa program as a way to encourage American companies to hire Americans. No doubt their paths will cross this year, when the commissioner rules on two more prominent cases involving the United States.

She must determine whether McDonald’s benefited from illegal tax reductions in Luxembourg, and whether Google manipulated search results to better market its own products.

Will she once again garner headlines with figures in the billions? Ms. Vestager knows that her fight against tax dumping could lead to bad blood in the US, but she is steadfast in her adherence to EU law. “Here in Europe, we have an additional anti-trust instrument to keep countries from distorting competition,” she says. “I appreciate that the concept seems strange to Americans.”

Indeed, President Trump has complained loudly that Europeans deliberately use anti-trust law to weaken US firms. Ms. Vestager dismisses such accusations – especially with regard to Google, whose case she definitely wants to decide this year.

Last year, the commissioner promised a decision by Christmas, but the case – which started in 2010 – has dragged on. Far too long, says Ms. Vestager: “There is a risk that other companies are being harmed because of Google’s alleged malfeasance in the marketplace.”

“When it comes to applying anti-trust law, then for us it’s ‘Europe First’.”

Margarethe Vestager, EU Competition Commissioner

Ms. Vestager has no intention of being intimidated by the bluster from Washington. “When it comes to applying anti-trust law, then for us it’s ‘Europe First’,” she emphasizes, pointing out that her main responsibility is to ensure that European markets function fairly. But she also extends an olive branch: “Anti-trust law is part of the political culture of the US. I am proceeding on the assumption that we will continue our trans-Atlantic cooperation in such cases.”

The Dane maneuvers so adroitly in Brussels that many view her as a possible successor to the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who doesn’t intend to seek a second term. She clearly knows which items in her dossier can provide political capital. Back home, she was even the inspiration for the TV series “Borgen,” which charts the ascent of a female Danish politician to prime minister.

Asked about a possible leap to the top of the EU, Ms. Vestager laughs out loud: “I take that as a compliment. But I don’t have any plans that far into the future.” Here as well, the professional climber plays by the book: take one step at a time.

 

A version of this article first appeared in WirtschaftsWoche, Handelsblatt’s sister publication. To contact the author: silke.wettach@wiwo.de