Examining the UK’s most influential industry figures on
During her tenure as Denmark’s Minister for Economic and Interior Affairs, Vestager was described as the most powerful person in the Danish Government, pushing through unpopular changes to the country’s welfare system despite disagreement within the government.
When applying for the position, she described her leadership approach as part of a questionnaire stating: ‘I will strive to work as I have always done: to contribute to a balance so that small as well as big are being treated equally. By not being bullied, excluded or misused by the ones who have the strength, muscle or will to misuse their power.’
This approach is evident in the European Commissioner for Competition’s pursuit to investigate and prosecute some of the world’s most powerful tech companies over tax deals (Apple) and antitrust suits (Google). In doing so, Vestager once again showed a willingness to make judgements even when the outcome results in powerful enemies. A statement made when applying for her current role warned: ‘I will listen to everyone, from the largest multinationals to the representatives of small firms. From states to citizens. But the analysis of my staff and my own judgement will not be swayed by anyone.’
Opening a speech on competitions and investment in telecoms made on 28 November, the Commissioner for Competition began with the Monty Python joke, ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ From this beginning Vestager outlined a unified approach to mergers and mobile network investment across the continent, hinting that the EU’s Electronic Communications Code was designed to allow state investment in telecoms to be simple and free from falling foul of ‘state aid’ accusations of favouritism. This represents a major shift in policy from her predecessor, Joaquin Almunia, who had previously worked towards creating a singular Europe-wide telecoms market with a single regulator in order to remove ‘national divergences’.
Animosity between the EU and American tech giants over antitrust suits isn’t anything new, with Microsoft’s famous lawsuit running from 1998 to 2003 and ending with Microsoft being forced to open up its eco-system. However, no other European Commissioner for Competition has given so many tech giants a bloody nose in so little a space of time. In April 2016 the EU accused Google’s Android OS of being anti-competitive – it now has three antitrust investigations open against Alpabet, Google’s parent company. In August 2016 Apple was hit with an order to pay Ireland 13 billion euros previously avoided through ‘sweetheart’ tax deals. In September, the European competition regulator began sniffing around the ramifications of Whatsapp and Facebook’s data sharing to examine the impact on competition.
Looking forward, a major question for the UK will be how to beef up the Competition and Markets Authority to give post-Brexit Britain the same regulatory firepower that Vestager has developed.
Having been profiled by the Financial Times, BBC and just about every UK broadsheet, the European Commissioner for Competition sits alongside an elite group of world leaders who have received the same level of widespread coverage. Meanwhile, Vestager balances the composure of a negotiator with news fodder quips like this one on Apple’s Ireland tax defence: ‘If my tax rate went down from .05% to .005%, I should have felt maybe I should have had a second look at my tax bill.’
Despite previously telling Reuters when chosen for the role that she is staunchly against ‘anti-Americanism’ interventions to curtail Silicon Valley’s power, her headline-grabbing comments and decisions have, in the eyes of some, made her a figurehead for those who resent the pervasive influence of big American tech firms in national economies.
How many people can wipe away nearly £6 billion of Google’s revenue with a single lawsuit? Though unlikely, the EU’s antitrust law allows fines of up to 10% of a company’s annual revenue, which shows why companies dragged into antitrust suits fight tooth and nail for years to avoid them. However, Vestager has controversially said that she favours early settlement to fines agreed at the end of a case. Detractors argue that these settlements hinder the development of case law by depriving the system of precedents and thus keeping the interpretation of statutes open to debate.
Ones to watch
After talks with the European Commission, Margrethe Vestager cleared his planned purchase of Linkedin, rapidly increasing Microsoft’s social media credentials.
Chairman, Competition and Markets Authority
Currie and the CMA’s chief executive Dr Andrea Coscelli, are Vestager’s counterparts in the UK and oversee decisions and cases designed to ensure fair competition by businesses active in the UK.