Iron Lady. Steely Foe. The Goblin Under Google’s Bed. Since taking office on November 1, Margrethe Vestager has earned her share of epithets. By steadfastedly challenging the practices of companies like Google and Gazprom, the European Union’s competition commissioner has convinced many that she is a ruthless corporate opponent. But they may have gotten that wrong. More than fearsome, Vestager may simply be Danish.
On April 15, Vestager filed a Statement of Objection — the European Commission’s version of charges — against Google, alleging that the company ‘s preferential treatment of its own comparative shopping service constituted an abuse of its dominant position in internet searches. A week later, she struck again, this time alleging that Russian energy giant Gazprom misused its dominance to overcharge clients. Add in other inquiries — including ones into tax evasion by the likes of Apple, Starbucks, and the Luxembourg government
And yet, after six months on the job — and 24 years in politics — Vestager still seems surprised, and a bit pained, by the depiction. Speaking from the European Union offices in her home city of Copenhagen, where she has returned to spend the weekend with her family (they will move to Brussels after her daughters finish the school year), the 47-year-old objects particularly to the portrayal of her as eagerly attacking corporate giants. “Despite what it says in the headlines, we are not going after Google,” she says. “We don’t have an issue with Google or with any other company. We have an issue with certain conducts.”
That is the kind of fine line that Vestager is skilled at walking. From her experience as the leader of Denmark’s Social Liberal party, which blends a neoliberal, economy-first platform with left-leaning positions on immigration, education, and other social issues, she acquired an unsentimental pragmatism. “She’s practical, not into ideologies,” says Elisabet Svane, political editor for the Danish newspaper Fyens Stiftstidende, and author of White Smoke, Black Tower, a biography of Vestager. “She is not the kind of person who wants to to sit up all night debating how should society be.”
Which is why, perhaps, that after years in parliament, and stints as the minister of education, finance and the interior, she is so well-suited to her new job as anti-trust commissioner. “She’s come to the place where she seems most at home: half politician, half administrator,” says Kasper Fogh Hansen, a former communications director for the city of Copenhagen and advisor to the Social Democrat party. “She believes in the rational practices of bureaucracy and the exertion of economic theory.”
Which is not to say that she can’t be motivated by ideals. Explaining her new role as Europe’s corporate policewoman, she says, “For me, this is a very clear expression of European values: we are created free and equal, we have the same rights, we are worthy of the same respect. As a consumer or as a small business owner, you should know that there is someone who will take a look if things are not as they are supposed to be.”