On a soggy, gusty morning in Brussels this January, Margrethe Vestager appeared at work in a perfectly pressed green silk blouse and well-fitted black leather skirt, not a spike of her short gray hair out of place. Vestager is known for being late — she likes to cram her schedule to the point of overflowing — but on this particular day, the European Union’s commissioner for competition was punctual, ready at noon for her seventh press conference in less than a year. Roughly 100 journalists were gathered in an auditorium at the Berlaymont, the massive, X-shaped building that houses the European Commission, anticipating a blockbuster statement from Vestager: She was ruling illegal a corporate tax-break system that Belgium had designed more than a decade prior.
This state aid, known by its slogan “Only in Belgium,” offered to slash taxes on multinational corporations’ profits by up to 90 percent. After its enactment in the pre-financial-crisis, go-go era of privatization and market liberalization in Europe, Belgium welcomed the headquarters or subsidiaries of some 35 multinational corporations, including Anheuser-Busch InBev, BP, and the telecommunications firm Proximus. These businesses pumped jobs and an avalanche of money into the national economy: AB InBev, for instance, became Belgium’s largest company by market value. It reported nearly $28 billion in global profits in 2014.
Vestager, however, told the reporters that corporations had dodged about 700 million euros in taxes, an “unfair competitive advantage” that is “bad for small companies who pay normal tax laws.” So she stood behind the Berlaymont podium, cameras flashing before her, and insisted the companies pay what they owe.
“I hope that the decision we have taken today,” she said to the room, “will help us to keep up the momentum to tackle tax avoidance not only in Europe, but also globally.” (The Belgian government claims it placed the tax-break program on hold in early 2015, when the commissioner first began investigating it.)
Vestager then took questions from the press. “Do you think we still have tax havens in the eurozone?” asked a reporter from El País, Spain’s largest daily.
“Well,” Vestager started, then paused for effect, “I don’t really know what a tax heaven is,” emphasizing the man’s accent. “To me, a tax heaven is where everyone pays their fair share. In that respect, I am not quite sure we are in tax heaven yet.”
Everyone laughed, and Vestager looked pleased. She didn’t really have to answer his question. Her actions in recent months already had.
As the EU’s antitrust czar, the 47-year-old Vestager is tasked with promoting economic growth in the European market by enforcing competition policies. The job sounds painfully stodgy and technocratic, but she has used it to wage an aggressive, high-profile war against corporate power. Since assuming her post in November 2014, Vestager has pursued state-aid cases against some of the world’s biggest companies and their lenient European hosts, including Starbucks in the Netherlands and Apple in Ireland. She has investigated Google (for abusing its dominance as a search engine) and Gazprom (for inflating prices). And so far, she seems to have eschewed politics in choosing her targets, even putting her boss in her sights: European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker could fall under scrutiny when Vestager presents a verdict this year on McDonald’s, which may be benefiting from state aid in Luxembourg — one of the world’s most popular tax havens — where Juncker was once prime minister.
Vestager has burst onto the international stage at a watershed moment for Europe. Economic discontent in the southern states, the impact of austerity measures, battles over immigration, and secession threats from Britain and Greece have left many people questioning the strength and value of the European Union. Moreover, the continent, never an oasis of innovation in comparison to the United States, has struggled to find its footing in the new global business order. The digital economy comprises roughly 5 percent of the GDP of all leading rich and developing nations, but patchy oversight of tech firms means there’s little agreement on what constitutes monopolization and illegal dominance. EU members are constantly angling for competitive advantage with foreign companies.
Countries and firms alike cry injustice when Brussels slaps them with penalties. But case by case, Vestager, who hails from Denmark, is hoping to restore popular faith in the EU. She’s also forging a path as the latest arbiter of what is right and wrong, fair and unfair, in the 21st-century economy — a vital distinction not just for Europe, but for the rest of the world as well. “Going against these big companies and telling them they have to obey the same rules as the little ones, it makes sense in her head,” explained her biographer, Elisabet Svane. “It is very Danish. We’re a small country. What we really like in the Bible is David and Goliath.”
After the press conference, Vestager returned to her office, a welcome respite in the clinical Berlaymont, which is all glass and metal. The space had soft lighting, plush blue-gray couches, brightly patterned antique rugs, abstract Danish paintings, and the requisite functionalist furniture (large meeting table by Arne Jacobsen, ergonomic desk chair by Fritz Hansen). A colleague brought in a pot of tea, which the commissioner proceeded to serve throughout our conversation, as though she were hosting me in her own well-appointed living room. “Why would anyone want to work here if it wasn’t inspiring?” she asked.
On a nearby table sat a small ceramic sculpture of a hand with the middle finger jutting out. The “Fuck Finger,” as Vestager calls it, came to her from some Danish trade unionists displeased with her decision, as a national politician, to lower unemployment benefits. She has said the statue reminds her that decisions will never make everyone happy.
It’s a lesson she first learned as a child. The daughter of two Lutheran rectors, Vestager grew up in the small city of Olgod, in Denmark’s flatlands. Her parents’ rigorous values would bring bruising disappointments to her as a child, but also formative instruction. When Vestager was in the fourth grade, she had a crush on a boy whose father belonged to an invitation-only social club that was going on a trip with members’ families to cut down Christmas trees. She asked her father to join the group so that she could go along. He refused, explaining that he wouldn’t participate in an organization that wasn’t open to everyone. “I thought it was extremely unfair because I had thought of this plan, and I thought it would work. And he wouldn’t do it for this very abstract reason,” Vestager said. “Since it was painful for me, it also stuck with me.” Today, she believes her father “was right.”
Her parents’ home was almost always open to their congregants. She remembers waking up in the early morning to the sound of car tires crunching on the gravel driveway, when a father was eager to announce the birth of his new child, or late at night, when someone called the house with an emergency, spiritual or otherwise. Incoming calls still make her anxious. “If the phone rings,” she said, “someone needs you.” (Svane described Vestager being upset by an incident in 2009, when a group of refugees sought safety in a Danish church but was detained by police. Vestager “grew up learning that if you come to church and you ask for help, you should not be driven out.”)
Vestager’s parents rarely talked politics: “We never had, you know, father clinking the glass and saying, ‘Now we’re going to discuss … defense.’ Never.” Back in 1905, however, her maternal great-great-grandfather had founded the tiny Radikale Venstre (“Radical Left”) party. When Vestager was just 21 and a recent university graduate with an economics degree, the party came calling; its leaders were scouring the country for possible candidates — not an easy task for a small political force — and Vestager’s familial ties piqued their interest. They asked her to run for parliament. Vestager lost the race, but the experience helped her see that politics “made sense” as a career because Radikale Venstre’s values mirrored her own. Nicknamed the “Caffè Latte Party,” it attracts well-educated voters, though not necessarily people of wealth, and promotes liberal social goals alongside more conservative economic ones. Because of its size (the party currently holds just eight of 179 parliamentary seats), it must compromise nimbly with both the left and the right, focusing less on ideology than on problem solving. “If you want things done, you need to be able to find solutions,” Vestager explained.
She served as the party’s national chairwoman throughout her 20s. Then, at 29, she became Denmark’s minister of education and ecclesiastical affairs. Vestager quickly developed a reputation as a formidable policymaker, if not a terribly relatable politician. She executed a conservative (by some standards) agenda, which included implementing stricter international testing standards and a “values-based” curriculum that reinforced Danish children’s sense of national belonging. Some journalists regarded her as overly serious and pedantic; in press conferences and interviews, Vestager could seem like a teacher lecturing students. Her critics, however, also remarked on her technical knowledge and confidence. Pernille Rosenkrantz-Theil, who was an activist at the time and disliked many of Vestager’s reforms, was amazed by her attention to detail. “That’s obviously pretty scary when you are opposing her,” said Rosenkrantz-Theil, now a member of parliament for Denmark’s Social Democrats. Vestager is always “very well-prepared, which means no politician is ever able to know more than she does. Most politicians are either generalists or specialists. It’s very rare that a politician is both.”
In 2007, Vestager, by then an MP, was elected to lead her party in parliament at a precarious time. An internal schism over nuances in Danish liberalism sent two groups spinning off to form their own parties. That year, Radikale Venstre was trounced in elections, and it was clear she had an image problem. “Everyone thought she was rubbish as a politician,” said Svane. “She was thought of as this beautiful, cold, academic ice queen.” Newspapers crowed that Vestager was killing the party.
One of her longtime advisers, Henrik Kjerrumgaard, said the viciousness greatly worried Vestager; she fretted for a time over what the country thought of her. He recalled one conversation he had with her about, of all people, David Bowie. Kjerrumgaard described how the musician responded to gossip about his sexuality — or, really, didn’t respond, because he said it didn’t matter what people said or believed. The story resonated with Vestager. “She decided that who she really was,” Kjerrumgaard explained, “was the person she was to her husband and children” — Vestager has three daughters — “and her dear friends.”
It was a turning point in Vestager’s political career that, coincidentally, harked back to the moral she had learned when her father refused to join the exclusive club so many years before. “She had a moment of clarity that being a leader means you make the decisions, and making the decisions makes you unpopular,” Kjerrumgaard said. “You might as well take the decision you want to take.”
Still, Vestager made some changes, particularly after seeing herself in the media. “Do you know how awful it is to look at yourself on television?” she asked me with a laugh. “I had to tighten up, be much more direct, and de-learn a vocabulary with words that sometimes people may not understand.… I was shy as a child, so I used long sentences as a protective barrier not to engage.”
She also decided to work on being more likable. “When I was very young and came into politics, I basically thought ideas would do the trick,” Vestager said. That approach had backfired, so she set out consciously to personalize her politics, the results of which can be seen today in everything from her fashion sense to her speaking style to her office decor. Her party also adopted a new slogan: “Take Responsibility,” which seemed as much to reflect Vestager’s evolution as it did Radikale Venstre’s ethos. The party decided to focus its agenda on three main topics — education, welfare reform, and the humane treatment of immigrants — in hopes of delivering to voters a clear, concise sense of what it stood for politically.
In 2011, Vestager mounted a remarkable electoral comeback and, after canny maneuvering during negotiations to form a coalition government, became Denmark’s deputy prime minister and its minister for economic and interior affairs. The national economy was reeling after the financial crisis, and Vestager made tough budget decisions, sometimes to the chagrin of citizens and the political opposition. She supported cutting the state’s time limit on unemployment payments from four years down to two. In a press conference, she famously responded to the policy’s critics by saying, “That’s the way it is.” The press pummeled her with accusations of callousness. Vestager, however, wasn’t apologetic; instead, in a subsequent speech, she used the same phrase no fewer than nine times. (Around then, she was given the Fuck Finger.)
She became known for this sly humor. In another instance, the opposition, then led by politician Lars Lokke Rasmussen, accused her of proposing an economic growth package that was too “small.” She replied publicly, “I am a bit cautious about trusting any judgments on size from men, and perhaps — but this might be a woman’s perspective — I am more interested in the effect.”
Many of her colleagues agree that she is obstinate. When she gets angry, she goes unnervingly silent. During the 2011 talks to create a governing coalition, Vestager reportedly said, “But I don’t know if I want to join,” over and over and over — until she extracted the concessions she wanted.
On policy matters, Danish MPs have diverging complaints about Vestager: For some, she is too far left and for others, too far right. Few, however, would argue that she isn’t capable, and even some adversaries reject negative characterizations of her. Rosenkrantz-Theil argued that there’s troubling gender coding in many criticisms, and maybe even in some praise, of Vestager. “Things like ‘stubborn,’ ‘ice queen,’ ‘too powerful,’” she said. “Would anyone ever say that about a man?”
Vestager ultimately made a huge impression on Denmark: In addition to a raft of economic reforms, which she claims moved the country out of recession, she helped pass a law guaranteeing dual citizenship for immigrants and another allowing transgender people to change their social security numbers (which identify citizens by gender). It is widely believed that she is the model for the prime minister on the acclaimed Danish TV show Borgen; actress Sidse Babett Knudsen shadowed Vestager for a few days before the show first aired. “She’s really aware that politics is a power struggle and it’s a power game,” Kjerrumgaard said. “It’s about taking; it’s not about giving.”
In 2012, Vestager served as president of the Economic and Financial Affairs Council, also known as Ecofin, an EU institution that brings together member states’ finance and economic ministers. She helped steer new regulatory recommendations to deepen countries’ integration, including the creation of a continent-wide banking union and the appointment of a common financial supervisor. Her efficiency and persuasiveness, as ever, left a mark. A Danish colleague, who asked not to be named, told me, “A high-placed person called me from Brussels and said, ‘Your minister is very good. Maybe we could play Borgen in Berlaymont.’”
Of the 28 EU commissioners — the equivalent of U.S. cabinet secretaries — you’d be hard-pressed to find one that’s a household name in Europe, much less the world. They hold dreary, sometimes wordy titles (“first vice president for better regulation, interinstitutional relations, the rule of law, and the charter of fundamental rights,” for example). Most play roles in striking political and economic deals between EU member states, but they have relatively little legal power.
The commissioner for competition is different. The officeholder can launch investigations and serve as an impartial judge on matters of antitrust law, cartels, mergers, and state aid. This involves probing businesses and member states, even those of fellow commissioners. As Andrea Renda, a senior researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies, put it, the commissioner has “the corner office looking at everyone else.”
Past commissioners have varied widely in temperament and effectiveness. Italian Mario Monti, who served in the early 2000s, was known for his commanding presence and for giving few concessions. When then-CEO of GE Jack Welch first met him and said, “You can call me Jack,” Monti famously replied, “No, grazie. You can call me Signor Monti” — not long before he blocked a major merger between Welch’s company and one of its rivals, Honeywell. Neelie Kroes of the Netherlands took the job next, and she issued Microsoft and Intel billions of dollars in fines for shoving smaller players out of the market. She was criticized, however, for having ties to big business — she sat on a handful of corporate boards — and Kroes recused herself from five cases during her tenure. Then came Spain’s Joaquín Almunia, who by many accounts had an uninspiring run: Not long after opening a case against Google, he met with then-CEO Eric Schmidt at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland; reportedly, Almunia told Schmidt he would try to settle the inquiry without penalizing the company. “You’re not supposed to see the commissioner of competition sitting down in front of a big steak and a glass of wine with the CEO of a company and saying, ‘How are we going to solve this problem?’” Renda said, referring to public perception. (Almunia declined to comment.)
Vestager was nominated by Denmark to serve on the European Commission in 2014, and Juncker, with whom she had worked through Ecofin, selected her as the antitrust chief. Straight out of the gate, she drew public attention during her confirmation hearing at the European Parliament, where she chomped on pieces of chocolate and snapped iPhone pictures of the press while it took photos of her. She managed to seem simultaneously poised, confident, and charming.
Once in office, where she oversees a staff of about 900 employees, she quickly began selecting investigations. (Svane, Vestager’s biographer, described her decision-making as “unsentimental.”) Cases come to the commissioner through complainants (companies or individuals anywhere in the world who allege a violation of EU competition law); requests from EU states; or public notifications of companies’ transactions. There are close to 400 potential cases each year that pertain to mergers; around 200 concern antitrust issues. Vestager and her advisers deliberate anywhere from five to 15 cases weekly and decide which ones to pursue, based on where the evidence appears strongest. At the conclusion of an investigation, Vestager decides if illegal behavior has occurred and proposes fines or other remedies to the full European Commission. Companies can appeal decisions to the EU Court of Justice.
Vestager has gone after big fish in a big way. On three subsequent Wednesdays in April 2015, she announced investigations into Google, Gazprom, and then EU governments that might be giving state aid to utilities companies; the triple strike earned her a cartoon depiction in the Economist as a Viking who splits corporate logos with an ax. Later came the investigations into Amazon and McDonald’s, and the revival of a case against Apple that had languished under Almunia: To date, the Silicon Valley-based company may have saved some $19 billion in taxes by having its European headquarters in Ireland for more than 30 years. (Apple denies any illegal behavior.)
Vestager told me that tax breaks irk her not only because they violate the law, but because their political optics are abysmal: “These have been challenging times, and every government has had to do things that were quite surprising to some citizens: lowering salaries, cutting subsidies, making personal taxes higher,” she said. In other words, that huge companies get special treatment seems particularly egregious in the Age of Austerity.
Eleanor Fox of New York University Law School elaborated on the principle behind opposition to European state aid. “A neighboring country could say, ‘We want Apple, too; we’ll give it a bigger tax break.’ And that is a race to the bottom,” she explained. “Competition for Apple without the race to the bottom is thought of as a better way to get to and keep a common market.” In this sense, Vestager’s work reflects the business priorities of the Juncker-led commission: securing Europe as a single economic entity — there has even been chatter about a common tax regime — as well as protecting data and privacy from incursions by tech companies. “It’s clear they want to reduce the powers of major platform operators,” Renda said.
As for investigations of Juncker’s home country, Vestager insisted she isn’t concerned about a conflict of interest. “I never talk with him about this,” she said, “and he has also been very specific in public to say I have a completely free hand.” (Juncker was unavailable for comment.)
Vestager’s ostensible focus on facts over politics has earned her plaudits. “Contrasting with her predecessor … Vestager seems to be willing to test cases for what they are,” said Yves Botteman, an antitrust lawyer at the Brussels firm Steptoe and Johnson. Unlike many EU officials, she also doesn’t seem to be angling for easy wins in order to avoid embarrassment and possibly secure a promotion. “She seems to be saying, ‘Let’s try the case,’” Botteman added, “‘and if it’s not good enough, we may need to nix it.’”
Vestager’s approach, if applied consistently, could project a message that the EU isn’t run by a bunch of overpaid bureaucrats lunching in Brussels, accomplishing little, favoring certain governments, and proving impotent against others. Yet as she hopes to garner support close to home, she also faces opponents who watch her like a hawk from thousands of miles away.
When she announced the Belgian case in January, Vestager made sure to emphasize that the companies involved were European. That may be because her biggest pushback since taking office has come from America, where many of her most prominent targets have their roots. Neither CEOs nor some U.S. officials want firms’ hands (or profits) tied by rigorous oversight. In February, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew issued a warning, in a letter to Juncker, about the European Commission’s hard line on tax breaks. “While we recognize that state aid is a longstanding concept, pursuing civil investigations — predominantly against U.S. companies — under this new interpretation creates disturbing international tax policy precedents,” he wrote. “We respectfully urge you to reconsider this approach.”
Vestager takes charges of anti-Americanism seriously. “The casework has to be objective and fact-based because, of course, our decisions may have to hold up in court,” she said. But she also pointed out that many complainants who approach her office are American. (Microsoft, for instance, is a complainant in the Google case.) And she rejected the notion that she’s using her post to diminish U.S. economic power or, for that matter, the influence of Europe’s large eastern neighbor. In April 2015, when a reporter asked Vestager what the Google and Gazprom cases had in common, Kjerrumgaard said she replied tersely, “The only two things the cases have in common is that they both start with ‘G.’”
These may be Vestager’s most important investigations — and her trickiest. Europe is in a tense stalemate with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his aggressions in Ukraine and is eager to show its might. “You need to have strong will to go after Gazprom,” said Georgios Petropoulos, a visiting fellow at Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank. Meanwhile, the European Commission is the first regulator in the world to charge Google with an antitrust violation. In 2013, when it shelved its own investigation into whether the company was rigging its search function to prioritize certain content, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission concluded that Google had acted to improve users’ experience, writing that “any negative impact on actual or potential competitors was incidental to that purpose.”
Vestager views things differently. “What we see is Google using its dominant position in search to promote its own services,” she explained. Vestager asked me to think of how I use Google. “How often do you go to the second page?”Vestager then asked me to think of how I use Google. “How often do you go to the second page?”
This tension points to another big-picture question that Vestager’s time as commissioner will likely address: how EU competition policy interacts with the fast-paced tech economy, and whether it needs updating. Some observers have argued that European law is antiquated because it favors the rights of complainants over ultimate benefits to consumers, even if they’re provided by conglomerates. “We are using the manuals of competition law from the 1970s,” Renda explained, “and pretending we can impose old rules to this new setting.” The EU’s traditional definition of competition — roughly, that all entities in the same sector are rivals — is different than the one currently at work in the global market: Google, Facebook, Twitter, and similar firms, with billions of users worldwide, are jockeying and evolving constantly to win an upper hand; hampering them in the name of fairness to companies of all sizes could put Europe and its citizens at an economic disadvantage. “This is going to weigh heavy on Europe’s ability to be a place you want to do business,” Renda said.
Botteman pointed out that Vestager isn’t the only European force taking on American tech companies. “It’s more EU versus California, than Europe versus the U.S.,” he said. Six European countries — Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy, France, and the Netherlands — have launched a case against Facebook over privacy concerns. In December, some Amazon employees in Germany went on a four-day strike against poor working conditions. “This is about the new economy,” Botteman said, describing the debate in which the competition commissioner is now a central figure. “The supply or distribution chain is being revolutionized by those companies.”
Vestager, however, is stalwart in her view of economic justice — which she believes will nurture innovation. “If you have an idea for an app or a new service, then you need a market to present it to new customers,” she argued. “If that market has closed because the big ones have decided, ‘Well, we’re here, and we don’t need to be disturbed,’ then it’s very hard for you to decide to innovate. We must make sure markets stay open. Otherwise, you don’t have a fair fighting chance.”
Vestager has almost four years ahead of her in Brussels, where she lives with her husband, a high school math and philosophy teacher, and their two youngest daughters, Rebecca and Ella. (Their eldest, Maria, studies medicine in Denmark.) Vestager betrays little of the distress over work-life balance so many female leaders exude, nor does she seem to have the media-pleasing desire to brag about her own competence in that regard. Rather, she prides herself on raising three self-sufficient women who, “if they miss the bus, know how to find the next one.” She has been spotted attending parent-teacher meetings and grocery shopping at local farmers’ markets. “Family life makes politics make much more sense,” said the woman known to knit in meetings and bake bread for colleagues. “It’s important that you can live the life as everyone else … [and that] you understand what people’s lives are like.”
The goal of Vestager’s principled offensive against corporations, if she were to sum it up, is to show Europeans that the EU is on their side. “The state-aid taxation case can mean more competition and a balanced contribution to a national budget,” she said. “People [can] expect there is someone who will look over the shoulder of the big corporations.”
That is what makes Vestager tick: She’s in it for the fight. Winning is just a bonus.That, says Kjerrumgaard, is what makes Vestager tick: She’s in it for the fight. Winning is just a bonus. She wants to show companies that the EU is watching, which may push some to rethink how they do business. “In a few years, if she gets a lot of bad press because she didn’t win cases,” Kjerrumgaard said, which could mean investigations faltering or corporations prevailing in appeals against her rulings, “I think she will think, ‘That is your way of looking at it.’”
When I asked Vestager about her professional future, on a phone call after we had met in Brussels, she shrugged off the question by recounting a recent conversation. “A friend of mine was talking about where she will retire, and I said I never spend a second wondering about that,” Vestager said. “I have been willing to take chances because very often the worst thing that can happen to you is hurt feelings. But if you can live with that, then bring it on.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of FP under the title “The Face of Justice.”
is an American journalist based in Istanbul. She’s working on a book about living abroad in the era of American decline. (@suzyhans)
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