Once the bane of big tech, Vestager's star wanes

Once the bane of big tech, Vestager's star wanes

Margrethe Vestager's star has waned, after a series of setbacks in EU courts
Margrethe Vestager's star has waned, after a series of setbacks in EU courts

BRUSSELS - Margrethe Vestager is preparing to return to her day job as the European Union's competition chief after a hard-fought and ultimately unsuccessful bid to lead the bloc's lender.

She stepped down temporarily in September after entering the race to become the next head of the European Investment Bank but lost out on Friday to Spanish economy minister Nadia Calvino.

After the EU selected Calvino, Vestager, 55, said she would "resume" her duties at the European Commission, the Eu's executive arm.

Vestager's star has waned in recent years following a series of setbacks in EU courts against some of the world's biggest companies, including Apple.

It wasn't always thus.

The former Danish minister was once one of the best-known EU officials.

Her name and face were recognisable beyond the Brussels bubble, and she was known for hitting tech companies with hefty fines.

She was even once in the running to become president of the European Commission.

Her tough stance towards US firms earned her the ire of former president Donald Trump, who reportedly told Vestager's boss in 2018: "Your tax lady... she really hates the US."

True to form, she later quipped: "I've done my own fact-checking on the first part of that sentence. I do work with tax and I am a woman so this is 100-percent correct."

But, she insisted: "I very much like the US."

- Everyman approach -

Vestager brought a huge change to the grey and insular world of anti-trust law when she arrived in Brussels in 2014 to take over the portfolio.

The daughter of Lutheran pastors and now married to a mathematics professor, Vestager says she is guided by the principles of "neutrality, impartiality, rigour".

Avoiding legal jargon and weighty opinions, Vestager insisted on an everyman approach to anti-trust issues, focusing on consumers.

She was best known for delivering mega fines against Silicon Valley giant Google and ordering back taxes to be paid by Apple and Amazon.

Such was her success, she became commission executive vice-president in 2019 with a portfolio that included the digital transition, one of the EU's priorities.

But soon all that was left were the dying embers of the trail she blazed, as the legal losses began stacking up, as well as what some member states, especially France, viewed as missteps that harmed Europe.

She infuriated officials in Paris and Berlin after slapping a veto on the merger of the rail businesses of Siemens and Alstom in 2019, and further aggravated France this summer when she tried to hire a US competition expert to advise the commission.

- 'Margrethe III' -

A major setback came in 2020, when the EU's lower General Court annulled the commission's order for Apple to repay the money.

There were also losses in the courts against Starbucks and Amazon in 2019 and 2021 respectively.

Vestager may yet win a reprieve in the Apple case after the European Court of Justice's top legal advisor called for a new ruling. The ECJ will issue its decision next year.

Vestager was at one time famous for inspiring her country's hit television political drama "Borgen", about an ambitious female politician who becomes prime minister.

She developed a taste for Europe's potential when she was the Danish economy minister, chairing meetings with her colleagues during the grim depths of the eurozone debt crisis.

Sometimes nicknamed back home as "Margrethe III," an allusion to Denmark's Queen Margrethe II, she became minister in 1998, was named at 29 to the education and ecclesiastical affairs portfolio, and over the years rose smoothly through the ranks.

Vestager will now return to the commission but with only a few months left before European elections that are likely to change the make-up of the EU's executive arm.

Do you like the content of this article?
COMMENT