30 Aug 2016 | 05.09 pm
The Woman Who Wants Ireland To Have Apple’s €13bn
Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is a Die Hard fan
30 Aug 2016 | 05.09 pm
So who exactly is Margrethe Vestager, the EU competition commissioner who has just overseen the single biggest tax-avoidance case the EU has ever seen, and who has finance minister Michael Noonan swearing he will tear up the winning Eurobillions ticket she has just presented him with?
‘Steely’ would appear to be the word. Since her appointment to the Commission two years ago tomorrow, Vestager breathed new fire into the existing investigation of Google, which had stalled under former commissioner Joaquín Almunia, and lit a few more, including investigations into the tax affairs of Fiat, Starbucks, Amazon and Apple Inc, under competition rules.
From 2011 to 2014, Vestager served as deputy prime minister and minister for economic and interior affairs in the three-party Social Democrat-led coalition government in Denmark. Born in Glostrup in 1968, she studied at the University of Copenhagen, graduating in 1993 with a degree in economics.
At times in interviews, she comes across as tough, stressing her love of pre-dawn runs. But she also plays up her penchant for knitting woolly elephants and baking biscuits. The 47-year-old, who has wide cultural interests, says her favourite fiction is The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell’s tetralogy of intertwined lives in 1930s Egypt.
To avoid sounding too lofty, she adds that the films she has watched the most are Bruce Willis’s outings as unkillable cop John McClane in the Die Hard franchise.
For the rune readers trying to determine her nerve, Vestager is a slippery personality. Some observers detect an unusually moral approach, perhaps inspired by her ecclesiastical upbringing in the small town of Olgod, the daughter of two Lutheran pastors from the dour flatlands of Jutland. She often addresses her most complex cases in stark terms of what is “fair”.
When companies don’t play fair, Vestager is wont to slap them with eye-watering fines. If she decides a deal worth billions will harm consumers, she can block it. As she did in May, harpooning the hopes of Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, to bulk up his mobile business in the UK by merging it with rival O2.
Where Almunia might have avoided confrontation, Vestager was up for it. In her first few months in office she set the pattern, driving forward controversial probes against Google and Russian gas giant Gazprom. Others quickly joined her list, high-profile targets like Qualcomm, MasterCard, Amazon, and six top Hollywood studios.
But she has faced the problem of time. Reportedly, her staff regularly draw all-nighters — and lesser cases have been killed off. At the beginning of her tenure, Vestager said she hoped to finalise the Apple case by June last year, but it’s only now, 14 months on, that the ruling has been annnounced.
So can Google escape? If there’s anything Vestager would want to stand as her legacy, it must surely be a successful conclusion in which the search-engine monster is tamed and made to obey the spirit of competition as well as the rules. Yet, just last month she filed new charges against Google, this time about its advertising business. It’s the third charge sheet she has sent Google in 15 months.
But with all those extra indictments, can Vestager bring the Google case to an end before her time is up? And will the Commission back her conclusions? Or will Google outlast her reign over competition policy, just as it outlasted Almunia’s?