If the critics of Silicon Valley needed a leader, many would turn to Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s top antitrust regulator.
Around the world, authorities and governments now look to the elegant Dane who in June slapped Google with a record 2.4-billion-euro fine for illegally favouring its shopping service in search results.
Google hit back on Monday, filing an appeal at EU court, embittering ties between Europe and Silicon Valley even further.
The decision was the biggest blow ever inflicted on the US tech juggernaut and came less than a year after Vestager shocked the world with an order that iPhone manufacturer Apple repay EUR 13 billion in back taxes in Ireland.
But despite her thunderbolt decisions, Vestager, who took office as EU competition commissioner in late 2014, is also known for infusing one of the EU’s most feared positions with a welcome dose of humanity.
Across the EU institutions, Vestager is considered one of the most popular of the commission’s 28 commissioners.
“She’s loved by her team, and hugely respected,” said a high-level Brussels official familiar with the often austere corridors of EU power.
Vestager’s vast, bright office in the commission’s Berlaymont headquarters is unlike most others.
The walls are cribbed with personal photographs – including of her three daughters – pinned alongside spirited, colourful pieces by Danish artist Kristina Gordon.
Her small desk faces out to the Brussels skyline suggesting more contemplative work than that of an official feared by highly paid lawyers and boardroom executives.
‘I really liked it’
In an interview with AFP, Vestager spoke of her anti-trust portfolio matter-of-factly, but sparked to talk of the promise of Europe that she said had grown stronger from the drama of the debt crisis and Brexit.
“It’s as if everyone has lifted up their gaze and said OK they want to leave, we’ll find the best way to enable that, but for the rest of us: ahead!” she said.
Vestager, who inspired her country’s hit television political drama Borgen, developed a taste for Europe’s potential when the EU was at its miserable worst, caught in the throes of the eurozone debt crisis.
“One of the reasons I got enthusiastic about this was when I was minister of economics in Denmark,” Vestager said.
“We got the EU presidency so I was head of the Ecofin (the monthly meetings of EU ministers) only three months after I was minister: you set the agenda, you lead the meetings… and I really liked it,” Vestager said.
The year was 2012 and Europe, including non-euro member Denmark, was caught in the fires of the debt crisis, with unemployment very high and economic growth worryingly low.
Vestager said she ended up chairing 33 meetings as she and the other EU ministers painstakingly built the first pillars of a still unfinished banking union.
“We have a well working democracy even though we are so different… That is not seen very often,” Vestager said as she reminisced of the urgency of that moment.
‘Not a lawyer’
It is hard to exaggerate how much of a change Vestager has brought to the insular world of anti-trust competition law.
Instead of bible-length opinions and mind-numbing jargon, Vestager insists on an everyman approach to anti-trust.
“I think its a good thing that I’m not a lawyer… because I’m never tempted to be a better lawyer than the lawyers,” said Vestager, who studied economics at Copenhagen University before embarking on a political career.
It is crucial “to bring that perspective every time we make a decision. Of course it should be legally waterproof but it is also important to see the broader perspective every time because otherwise the risk is that you get stuck in the detail,” she said.
It is this desire to always think of the voter and headlines that bothers her critics who see Vestager as too political for the antitrust portfolio.
Sometimes nicknamed back home as “Margrethe III,” an allusion to Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II, she became her country’s first female minister, at the age of 29, when she was named in 1998 to the education and ecclesiastical affairs portfolio.
But observers in Denmark say her options back home are limited, having already won all the top jobs — including deputy prime minister – that are available to her small social liberal party.
Unsurprisingly, Vestager hinted that she would like to stay on in Europe.
“My philosophy is that if you try to do your best in the job you have, then the next job will also be a good job,” Vestager told AFP.
“Then probably or hopefully I will also be busy on the other side maybe of… the next mandate,” she said, with her eye obviously to the future.