Brussels’ most powerful woman takes on Google, by Gregor Peter Schmitz.
The European Union’s powerful antitrust chief is cracking down on Google. And taking on Apple, McDonald’s and Starbucks.
Google’s search engine is extremely popular in Europe, where it has 90 percent market share.
Next to Angela Merkel, Margrethe Vestager is Europe’s most powerful woman. A Danish national, she heads the European Commission’s antitrust unit, which has taken on some of the world’s most powerful corporations, including Gazprom and Microsoft. If companies don’t comply, they risk losing access to Europe’s market of some 500 million consumers. Now, Vestager has taken on Google, which over 90 percent of European internet users use to search the web, for its allegedly discriminatory search practices.
Handelsblatt: Ms.Vestager, do you enjoy a fight? You’ve been in office barely a year, and already you’ve initiated antitrust cases against Apple, Google, McDonald’s and Starbucks. Vestager: I have to thank the founders of the European Union. They left no doubt in the founding treaties how important competition is [in order] to ensure that the strong don’t oppress the weak. And that the law of the jungle doesn’t rule in Europe. I try to live up to these principles.
Some people think you have something against large, successful companies.
Not at all. On the contrary, I congratulate all companies when they are able to attract a lot of customers. But my enthusiasm ends when they exploit their market power.
That’s what you’re accusing Google of doing. Google has taken advantage of its do minance in search requests.
Essentially, it is a matter of whether I, as a customer, can trust Google – namely, that a search entry will show me the best products and not the product that Google wants to promote. After all, the service may be free, but we pay for it as customers by providing data or looking at advertising.
Can we as customers really complain? We’re the ones who made companies like Google huge in the first place.
I use Google myself, simply because it is the best service provider. But that makes it all the more important to make sure that such a giant keeps to the rules.
Some have accused you of primarily focusing on American companies.
[It] has nothing to do with anti-Americanism, as some U.S. industry representatives suggest. And it isn’t a tactic for diverting attention away from the fact that we Europeans have to catch up in IT. We finally have to make more venture capital available for tech founders in Europe.
Members of the EU parliament are calling on you to break up Google as a company.
Our competition law is strong enough to be able to deal with any company, no matter the size. It is my job to enforce the law. Any speculations beyond that would be detrimental.
You’re also probing Google on tax issues, such as its special deal on back taxes with the British government.
The great majority of companies in Europe pay their taxes fully and on time. Naturally, it’s upsetting that some companies apparently don’t.
Is that the fault of corporations? EU countries outdo each other with tax deals trying to attract companies.
There is nothing at all wrong with countries competing with each other in corporate taxation. What is wrong is when individual companies in certain countries only have to pay infinitesimally low tax rates. That’s when I take a closer look. If it is a matter of an illegal government aid, then we can require that the countries demand it back, even amounting to billions.
That will only really change when countries stop this competition.
We are making progress. Years ago as Danish finance minister, I was trying to achieve more European tax cooperation – in vain. But now tax-saving packages are being restricted EU-wide, and the exchange of information between tax authorities is being massively improved.
Your Danish homeland, long a bastion of liberalism, is now cracking down on refugees. What happened?
As a European commissioner, I don’t want to get involved in national politics. But I can remember how lines [of people] used to form up to 15 kilometers long at the border crossings. That gives an idea of what is at stake in Europe, politically and economically. We need a European solution to the refugee problem – the protection of the EU’s outer borders, a more equitable division of refugees, as well as repatriating people who earn no protection.
Antitrust czar Margrethe Vestager says Europe has a lot of homework to do if it wants to catch up in IT. Gregor Peter Schmitz is Berlin bureau chief for the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche.