‘ WE ARE DO­ING THIS BE­CAUSE PEO­PLE ARE AN­GRY’

Mar­grethe Vestager – Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion com­mis­sioner and in­spi­ra­tion for the Bor­gen TV se­ries – has been fear­less in the fight for fair­ness against pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions. As for Brexit, she says it has made the EU stronger than ever

The Observer - The New Review - - COVER STORY - BY TIM ADAMS POR­TRAIT BY CLAUS PEUCK­ERT

In the un­hinged 18 months since the EU ref­er­en­dum was called, I’ve lis­tened to and made many ar­gu­ments about the folly and hubris of Brexit, but I’ve never en­coun­tered any ar­gu­ment quite as com­pelling as the sim­ple pres­ence of Mar­grethe Vestager. I met Vestager ( pro­nounced Vest-ayer) in her of­fice on the 10th floor of the curvy cross-shaped Ber­lay­mont build­ing in Brus­sels, home of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The of­fice is light and bright, with a desk fac­ing a win­dow, which spans the length of the room. There are mod­ernist paint­ings on the wall be­side a wooden steplad­der (“If a woman wants to go places she should bring her own lad­der”, she likes to say) and, on a low ta­ble, a white cast of a hu­man hand with an up­raised mid­dle fin­ger – an ironic gift from a Dan­ish trade union. For the last two and a half years, this has been one of the few of­fices in the world in which bil­lion­aires fear to tread.

As Euro­pean com­mis­sioner for com­pe­ti­tion, Vestager reg­u­lates com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity across the EU and, with her team of 900 in­ves­ti­ga­tors she has, since she ar­rived in the post in 2014, ap­par­ently been con­duct­ing an ex­per­i­ment in what a new world or­der – or at least a freer and fairer glob­alised mar­ket – might look like. The daugh­ter of two Lutheran pastors from the flat and marshy Dan­ish coast of Jut­land, she tries to work with a sim­ple lib­eral phi­los­o­phy in mind: “Pol­i­tics should give all peo­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties and en­able them to make free choices.”

The full ex­tent of this be­lief started to be­come clear in Jan­uary 2016. Tim Cook, the CEO of Ap­ple, ar­rived in this of­fice to dis­cuss his com­pany’s Euro­pean tax ar­range­ments, which had long been claimed to op­er­ate through a shell or­gan­i­sa­tion in ru­ral Ire­land. By some ac­counts, Cook made the mis­take of try­ing to in­tim­i­date Vestager dur­ing this meet­ing. He in­ter­rupted her ques­tion­ing to of­fer a brief, in­tem­per­ate lec­ture on the ap­pro­pri­ate at­ti­tude of govern­ments to cor­po­rate tax­a­tion, an out­line of the kinds of deals that had al­lowed Ap­ple to op­er­ate so ef­fec­tively in Europe and else­where in the past.

Vestager, who is both cheer­fully en­gaged and res­o­lutely un­flap­pable, lis­tened to these ar­gu­ments, con­tin­ued her in­ves­ti­ga­tions and then, in late sum­mer of last year, came up with her own con­sid­ered ver­dict on Cook’s idea of cor­po­ra­tion tax. “Ap­ple’s tax ben­e­fits in Ire­land are il­le­gal,” she said. Vestager laid out her be­lief that the cor­po­ra­tion’s se­cre­tive deal with the Ir­ish govern­ment amounted to state aid – the com­pany paid tax at some­thing like 0.005% – and that it there­fore con­tra­vened Euro­pean law. Ap­ple, she said, owed the peo­ple of Ire­land back taxes to­talling a jaw-drop­ping €13bn (£11bn) plus in­ter­est. She served no­tice that the EU would be en­forc­ing that pay­ment through the courts. Cook called the judg­ment “to­tal po­lit­i­cal crap”. Ap­ple im­me­di­ately vowed an ap­peal.

That salvo against Ap­ple was only Vestager be­gin­ning to count the ways in which global cor­po­ra­tions might fi­nally be held to ac­count by Euro­pean democ­ra­cies. She has also driven in­ves­ti­ga­tions of Fiat, Gazprom and Star­bucks. The “Luxleaks” rev­e­la­tions, a cache of doc­u­ments re­lat­ing to cor­po­rate tax af­fairs in Lux­em­bourg now in the public do­main, al­lowed close scru­tiny of the tax ar­range­ments of McDon­ald’s and Ama­zon for the first time – re­mem­ber all those lines on your bank state­ments read­ing “pay­ment to Ama­zon EU Sarl”? – and Vestager’s rul­ings are im­mi­nent. Her team are also pur­su­ing a case against Qual­comm (for sell­ing com­puter chips be­low mar­ket price al­legedly to drive com­peti­tors out of busi­ness) and in May, fined Face­book €110m (£94m) over the data min­ing of What­sapp ac­counts, which con­tra­vened its takeover terms. There are also three sep­a­rate an­titrust cases against Google, which ac­cuse it of us­ing a mix­ture of al­go­rithms and dom­i­nance to de­stroy com­pe­ti­tion. The first of these, which in­sists Google skewed its search re­sults to favour its own on­line shop­ping ser­vices, led to a €2.4bn (£2.14bn) fine levied in June (against which Google is ap­peal­ing). The oth­ers, in­clud­ing what Vestager calls the “real heavy­weight one”, which al­leges that the An­droid plat­form has built-in mo­nop­o­lies, are pend­ing.

Vestager is not techno­pho­bic or anti- Sil­i­con Val­ley – she is a long-term Ap­ple user, and her face lights up when she re­mem­bers the first time she did a Google search – and nei­ther is she an­tibusi­ness. Far from it. She just wants a mar­ket and a tax sys­tem that plays by the stated rules and pays its way.

“It is our sus­pi­cion that Google has been us­ing An­droid to make sure it is dom­i­nant when we go fully mo­bile in search,” she says. “They do some amaz­ing, in­no­va­tive things, but they are re­ally an old-school ad­ver­tis­ing busi­ness. The way their prod­ucts are set up, you have to take their browser and their search en­gine. Peo­ple then don’t go look­ing for any­thing else, so com­peti­tors never have a chance of show­ing us some­thing else. And be­cause the mar­ket doesn’t work, then no­body in­vests in in­no­va­tion…”

Can you imag­ine Theresa May, too chicken to ad­dress the Euro­pean par­lia­ment or, God help us, Liam Fox, hav­ing the wit or the gump­tion to hold Google or Ap­ple or Face­book to ac­count in these ways? While our govern­ment is send­ing se­cret bil­lets doux to Nis­san to keep them sweet in Sun­der­land, or beg­ging let­ters to the CEOs of FTSE 100 com­pa­nies in the hopes of get­ting them to say some­thing, any­thing, nice about Brexit, Vestager has been qui­etly as­sert­ing her un­der­stand­ing that the po­lit­i­cal bat­tles of the present and the fu­ture should not be among na­tions, but be­tween democ­ra­cies and glob­alised cor­po­ra­tions, which for too long have had things their own way. Those

Sbat­tles can’t be fought by in­di­vid­ual coun­tries, be­cause global com­pa­nies just base them­selves else­where. But if a mar­ket the size of the Euro­pean Union starts to as­sert its col­lec­tive in­ter­est, then the cor­po­ra­tions might have to take no­tice, act fairly and pay tax. In that sense, Vestager is per­haps all of your Brexit re­grets made flesh. he wears that man­tle lightly. A tall, smiling woman of 49, she talks with un­usual warmth and can­dour for a politi­cian who is clearly rel­ish­ing the role of en­forcer. She takes me first through the de­tail of her of­fice and the scope and lim­its of its power. Her 900 staff are di­vided among the three strands of her depart­ment: merger con­trol, state aid and an­titrust; there are also ex­perts in dif­fer­ent sec­tors – cars, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, hi-tech, food and so on. Lan­guage and dig­i­tal skills are ob­vi­ously at a pre­mium.

One of her di­rec­tives – she only has a five-year term, though it can be ex­tended by the Dan­ish govern­ment – is to try to speed pro­cesses up as much as pos­si­ble. There is a dan­ger that com­pa­nies will stall their way to avoid­ance, wait­ing for the new oc­cu­pant of her desk. One re­sult of that has been a some­times over­whelm­ing work­load for the depart­ment. “When we do merger rul­ings, we have strict dead­lines: 25 days,” says Vestager. “It is ex­tremely in­ten­sive, and you must de­cide how you can do it, be­fore your spouse says, ‘You know I still love you, but please spend some more time at home.’”

Vestager mar­ried Thomas Jensen, a teacher of phi­los­o­phy and maths, in 1994, and they have three daugh­ters aged 14, 18 and 21. Her ef­forts to jug­gle po­lit­i­cal in­trigue and fam­ily made her a model for the lead char­ac­ter in Bor­gen, the Dan­ish po­lit­i­cal TV drama. While Vestager was So­cial Lib­eral party leader and the fi­nance min­is­ter in the coali­tion Dan­ish govern­ment, Sidse Ba­bett

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