Rachel Idzerda for The Globe and Mail
Breakfast with the Iron Lady of Brussels
European Union Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager has repeatedly shown she is unafraid to provoke disagreements with the most powerful companies in the world – and in the process, has placed Europe at the centre of a global debate about corporate power
It's a blustery winter morning when I arrive at Margrethe Vestager's office on the 10th floor of Berlaymont, a towering building with a curved steel façade that embodies the European project.
Inside her office there is a desk and a long table nicely set for breakfast. Near the door, there is a sitting area. It's a place where one can imagine Ms. Vestager, the competition czar for the European Union, settling in to talk with executives whose companies she is currently investigating – firms like Google, Gazprom, Apple, Amazon.com and Starbucks.
On a low table, amid the tasteful art books, there is a white plaster sculpture. It's a surprisingly life-like rendering of a human hand, the middle finger raised in a gesture that is both unmistakeable and unambiguous. Ms. Vestager received the hand as a gift from members of a trade union who opposed the reforms promoted by her political party back in Denmark.
When visitors arrive and see the sculpture, "they don't really know where to look," Ms. Vestager, 47, says with a smile. "I kind of like it because it keeps you reminded that people will not necessarily agree with you."
Since Ms. Vestager became Competition Commissioner for the 28-nation EU in late 2014, she has repeatedly demonstrated that she is unafraid to provoke disagreements with the most powerful companies in the world – and in the process, she has placed Europe at the centre of a global debate about corporate power.
A tall woman with silvery cropped hair, Ms. Vestager's actions have earned her all manner of monikers in the media – "The Iron Lady of Denmark," "The goblin under Google's bed," "The enforcer," and even "Margrethe III," (The current queen of Denmark is Margrethe II). She is often described as "steely" and "unyielding" and "combative."
Ms. Vestager says the fact that she has been labelled an "Iron Lady" says more about the people doing the labelling than it does about her personality. At the same time, she allows that it can serve a purpose. "I defend European values and European law, so obviously there are limits as to how soft you can be," she says, picking at a breakfast bun studded with pearls of sugar. "People should respect the portfolio and what we represent."
For Ms. Vestager (pronounced Vestayer), her role in Brussels is only the latest chapter in an unusual political career. At age 29, she was the youngest woman ever to be named a government minister in Denmark and later went on to serve as both finance minister and deputy prime minister. A version of her exploits as a politician made its way onto the small screen: She is considered the inspiration for Borgen, the hit Danish television drama that centres on the trials and tribulations of a female prime minister.
In person, Ms. Vestager doesn't quite live up to her steely reputation. Instead she is composed, thoughtful, bemused, and a bit inscrutable. Like many Danes, she has little use for hierarchy or pretense: We sit down for breakfast and talk with no handlers or assistants present. It's also clear that she is intent on enforcing Europe's rules.
Just as they are big companies and they represent their interests, well, I represent 506 million people. Very often, things are quite balanced.
The daughter of two Lutheran ministers, Ms. Vestager remarks that the issues raised by competition cases are as old as the story of Adam and Eve. "Very often it boils down to very ancient and very human feelings," she says. "Either greed – that you want to have something but you don't really want to work for it – or fear – 'I'm about to lose my share of the market. How can I do something for this not to happen?'"
Ms. Vestager made her mark last spring when she filed a landmark antitrust case against Google. The formal charges were a break with the approach adopted by her predecessor, who had spent five years trying to negotiate a settlement with the Internet giant. The charges accused Google of stifling competition and harming consumers by "systematically favouring" its own shopping service in violation of European law. Ms. Vestager's office – which is part of the European Commission, the executive body of the EU – also opened an investigation into potentially anti-competitive practices involving Google's Android mobile operating system.
Google disputes the charges and now has an opportunity to respond to them. Depending on the ultimate outcome in the case, the American company could be forced to change its practices or pay a fine, or possibly both.
Google isn't the only corporate giant in Ms. Vestager's sights. She has also filed charges against Russian energy giant Gazprom for abusing its dominant position in several European markets. Meanwhile, another group of multinationals – including Amazon, Apple, Starbucks and Fiat – are under investigation for the tax deals they struck with various European governments, which may represent an unfair advantage. More companies are likely to join that list: Ms. Vestager's office is now examining more than 300 tax rulings across the bloc in search of irregularities.
Ms. Vestager doesn't appear the slightest bit intimidated by the idea of going up against the world's most powerful firms. "Just as they are big companies and they represent their interests, well, I represent 506 million people," she says matter-of-factly. "Very often, things are quite balanced."
She notes that Denmark is a country where minority coalition governments are common. In other words, negotiation is constant. "It is very demanding to get things done, to find a majority, to pass laws," she says. "You need very big ears and the ability to find a third solution – not yours, not mine, but the one that we can both live with."
Of course, Danish political observers have noted that Ms. Vestager is a very tough negotiator. When the political party she led, the centrist Social Liberal Party, entered talks to join a coalition government in 2011, Ms. Vestager ceded almost no ground. The final joint platform included her party's major budget reforms – reforms considered harsh in the Scandinavian context.
We take turns pouring each other cups of coffee from a stainless steel cafetière. In true Northern European style, several small candles flicker on the table, pushing back against the sombreness of winter.
Ms. Vestager was born near Copenhagen but grew up in Olgod, a small town in western Denmark, a region of flat landscapes and enormous skies not far from the North Sea. Her parents were the town's ministers, which made for an interesting childhood for her and her three siblings. The phone or the doorbell could ring at any hour of the day or night, she remembers, as parishioners sought help with everything from births to sickness to marriage counselling.
At university in Copenhagen, Ms. Vestager studied economics and met her husband, who is now a math teacher. They have three daughters. In 2007, she became the leader of the Social Liberal Party, which, in a coincidence, her great-grandfather had helped to found.
Her toughest moment in politics, she says, came after the 2007 elections when her party threatened to splinter and lose its place in parliament ("It is a success for a company if it can do spinoff companies," she says wryly. "It's not a success for a party when you do spinoffs.").
I defend European values and European law, so obviously there are limits as to how soft you can be. People should respect the portfolio and what we represent.
Facing increasing criticism, Ms. Vestager says the turning point for her came when she recognized that she didn't have to remain in the fight – that "I could roll up my carpets, put them on the shoulder, and leave," she recalls. That knowledge gave her both freedom and confidence. "Once you realize that the world is open and you don't have to stay, well, then you can take more chances." Her party nearly doubled its share of the vote in the next round of elections in 2011.
Ms. Vestager is a Twitter aficionado and an avid knitter – her most famous creations are colourful knitted elephants, which is no accident. Elephants, Ms. Vestager has noted, don't bear grudges but they have a long memory. They also live in matriarchal societies.
While she enjoys living in Brussels, Ms. Vestager misses the daily interactions she would have in Copenhagen, where she is a well-known figure. Once, she recalls, a woman insisted that she knew Ms. Vestager from a jazz ballet class. "I said, 'No, I have never done jazz ballet.'" Ms. Vestager bursts out laughing, for the first and only time during our meeting. "It's quite nice when people relate to you like that."
Ms. Vestager, who is wearing a dark blue long-sleeved lace dress, gives me a small tour of her office. There is a row of photos of her family – children, husband, siblings, parents, grandparents. There are several paintings by Danish artists, including a portrait of a woman with a slightly melancholy air looking out into the distance. "I like her expression," says Ms. Vestager. "I think every once in a while you feel like that." Perhaps the woman has just prepared a huge family meal and is taking a short breather before the guests arrive, she speculates.
Our interview ends on a philosophical note. We talk about her love of photography. It's an art that teaches you about light and ways of seeing, she says, but also about the impact of selecting one particular image to highlight from a series of shots. "It's a very good reminder, again, that everything you see has been chosen for you, and if you just lift your gaze or look the other way, then you will see something else," she says.
A lesson that's true both in photography and in life? She smiles, with a brief nod. "Exactly."