Margrethe Vestager has never been shy about challenging big corporations. Prior to this year, the European Union’s commissioner for competition had already taken on Apple, Starbucks, and Gazprom. But in June, Vestager set her sights higher, on the company that many consumers identify with the internet itself. She leveled a $2.7 billion fine on Google — the largest-ever such fine by the EU on a company — after determining the search engine privileged its own shopping service over competitors.
Vestager isn’t unusual in her belief that “dominant companies have a responsibility not to abuse their powerful market position,” as she put it in a speech at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in April 2015. In a certain sense, that belief is a job requirement. But her outsized ambition is defined by her expansive definition of antitrust “abuse.”
“I do hope that people find that it makes sense that no one is above the law, that someone is looking after their interests,” she says.
Vestager has been looking out for ordinary people’s interests for much longer than she has been an EU commissioner. From 2007 to 2014, she was leader of the Danish Social-Liberal Party, and it was under her that it adopted the motto “Take Responsibility” and zeroed in on education, welfare reform, and immigration reform. Her steely approach was honed during the three years she spent as economy minister. When a budget or financial decision was attacked by the press, she’d respond with a curt, “That’s the way it is.”
But taking responsibility in Denmark is one thing. Overseeing Europe’s collective free market — and ensuring global companies play by its rules — has been far harder.
In her work this year, Vestager highlighted “the tensions between the U.S. and EU in the way that competition policy is interpreted and applied,” says Georgios Petropoulos of Bruegel, a Belgian economic think tank. American law generally judges the abuse of monopoly power according to its direct effect on consumers; if there’s no impact on prices, a company’s actions aren’t typically considered a problem. In Europe, however, the law emphasizes protecting active and fair competition among firms. At the time she intervened, Google’s users weren’t necessarily complaining about its search results, but what mattered to Vestager was the company’s bullying of its competitors.
As internet companies have grown wealthier and more powerful, Vestager believes their responsibilities under the law have grown, too. “I think that message has been passed,” Petropoulos says, “especially here in Brussels.” Whether the message has been fully absorbed outside of the EU remains to be seen.
Most of the world’s largest tech companies are based in the United States, and Washington has generally been more interested in promoting their success than policing their interactions with other companies or foreign governments. In 2016, after the European Commission’s verdict against Apple for tax evasion, the U.S. Treasury Department said it was “disappointed” by the decision, which it worried would threaten “the important spirit of economic partnership between the U.S. and the EU.”
Whatever Americans may think however, the EU, as the world’s largest single market, has great power, and Vestager isn’t afraid to use it. By levying antitrust penalties, she can compel companies to reform their behavior — or at least spend years in court. Google decided in September to appeal its fine to the EU’s General Court.
Whether the fine ultimately gets paid, however, is less important than the signal it has already sent. According to Petropoulos, Vestager’s actions have served as a warning to all tech companies that they can be expected to be “evaluated in the appropriate way” by the EU, thus deterring any future attempts to stifle competition. In November, speaking at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Vestager argued that the Google fine would thus encourage wide-ranging tech innovations beneficial to consumers.
And that, to Vestager, is the important thing. She says she isn’t concerned that her zeal will drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. “My feeling is that the relationship between the U.S. and European Union is based on the fact that we are different,” she says. “We share a number of the same values, but we are different. I respect the fact that my counterparts do things in their ways and with their priorities. We expect that our counterparts have the same respect for what we do.”
And “what we do” isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Vestager notes that she and her team have already started analyzing the so-called Paradise Papers, a journalistic investigation published in November that details the activities of tax avoiders around the world. And she’s quick to point out that there is a Gazprom case and two Google cases still on her docket for the new year.
That’s a warning to the internet giant, one the company might not need. When it comes to Google’s onetime motto — “Don’t Be Evil” — Vestager has already shown she’s not about to take the company’s word for it.
Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Vestager is one of the inspirations for the character of the female prime minister in Borgen, the hit Danish parliamentary drama. The lead actress, Sidse Babett Knudsen, shadowed Vestager, then economy minister, for a day.