The EU’s competition commissioner is known for a no-nonsense demeanor and taking tough stances. But she’s also known for knitting elephants during staff meetings.
Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s competition commissioner, announced Wednesday that she was bringing formal antitrust charges against Google.
A longtime Danish politician, she has brought an assertive approach to Europe’s competition ministry since taking over late last year. She also may be the only regulator in Brussels known for knitting elephants.
Here is a look at the woman at the center of the ambitious antitrust case.
Who is she?
About Margrethe Vestager
Education: University of Copenhagen, degree in economics
Title: European commissioner of competition, 2014-present
Previous position: Minister for economic affairs and the Interior, Denmark, 2011-14
Vestager, 47, began her career as a civil servant and has also served as a member of the Danish Parliament and in a number of government posts, including education minister, economy minister and deputy prime minister.
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She is known for a no-nonsense demeanor and has taken some tough stances, which included supporting cost cuts that trimmed early retirement and other benefits for Danes.
She has an economics degree from the University of Copenhagen and three daughters. Her husband is a high-school-level math teacher.
Who is she not?
Helle Thorning-Schmidt. The two most prominent Danish politicians on the world stage at the moment happen to be women.
Thorning-Schmidt is the prime minister and leads the Social Democratic Party. Vestager, who previously served as Thorning-Schmidt’s deputy prime minister, leads the Social Liberal Party.
The two center-left parties are partners in Denmark’s coalition government.
What did she just do?
Jump-started an antitrust case against Google that has been inching along for five years.
Her predecessor, Joaquín Almunia, tried and failed to reach a settlement three times with Google. Vestager has taken a more aggressive approach and has appeared not to have much appetite for a fourth round of settlement talks.
She once said that the “amount of data controlled by Google gives rise to a series of societal challenges.” But she also uses Google like just about everyone else.
“My kids or myself never consider for a minute that this is a U.S. company or a European company; the reason why we use it is that Google has very good products,” she said during a news conference Wednesday.
She has accused Google of using its dominance as a search engine to “artificially” skew results that favor its own shopping service, to the detriment of rivals.
“Dominant companies have a responsibility not to abuse their powerful market position by restricting competition either in the market where they are dominant or in neighboring markets,” she said.
She also announced that investigations would continue in other areas, including accusations that Google improperly uses its rivals’ content and locks out advertising competition with exclusivity deals. And she opened a formal investigation related to the company’s Android operating system for cellphones.
Bid on her elephant?
Vestager is known for knitting during staff meetings, and particularly elephants.
When she took her job in Brussels last year, she left her successor as Danish economy minister a hand-knit elephant, and this message: “I have knitted a friend for you. It’s an elephant. Elephants are social, insightful animals. They live in communities — and I have to say it — they live in matriarchal societies. They bear no grudge, but they remember well.”
The “Borgen” connection
One of Vestager’s claims to fame is that she is said to be among the inspirations behind “Borgen,” a critically acclaimed TV show that has been described as Denmark’s answer to “The West Wing.”
The show featured a female prime minister and debuted months before Thorning-Schmidt came to power.
The lead actress “followed me around for a day when I was minister of economy, to see how it works,” Vestager told a group of journalists last year, according to EU Observer.
Borgen, by the way, means “castle” in Danish and is the term used for the building that houses the Danish Parliament and the prime minister’s office.
A New York Times critic once wrote of the program: “It is remarkable how much suspense and psychological drama the show squeezes out of Cabinet shuffles and health-care reform bills.”
Things she’s said on Twitter
“Her er vi alle sammen … Så banneret på Twitter lørdag, troede ikke mine egne øjne. Der før jeg nu 🙂”
Vestager posted it alongside a picture of a large banner of her and her colleagues in the new European government that was hanging from a building in Brussels.
We’re going to proceed cautiously when trying to translate Danish, but she’s saying something like “I can’t believe my eyes.” Vestager speaks Danish, English and some French.
What else is on her to-do list?
Plenty of far-reaching cases. The commission is conducting a broad inquiry into how European member states and corporations concoct deals to reduce the corporations’ taxes.
In an interview this year she said, “If you as a company can get a deal that I as a company cannot get,” then “you can compete with me not on the merits, because the tax burden is not the same as mine.”
The biggest political hot potato is probably the commission’s investigation into the practices of Gazprom, the Russian gas giant.
“We have no quarrels with countries as such,” she said. “What we’re looking at is behavior.”