Listen to this article
She witheringly refers to it as the “desert of mahogany”. A sprawling desk with an imperial chair, fixed just high enough to look down on the seats of petitioners. This is old-school Brussels. And one of Margrethe Vestager’s first decisions when assuming office was to banish it.
As the EU’s competition commissioner since November 2014, the 48-year-old Dane probably wields more clout than any antitrust watchdog in the world. And she has used it with aplomb. Apple, Google, Gazprom, Amazon, McDonald’s, Volvo, telecoms dealmakers — the list of bruised corporate egos is long and, as has been noticed in Washington, rather US-heavy. Vestager’s two-year tally of cartel fines is running at €3.4bn, while recovery orders for illegal state support are estimated at €16bn before interest, largely thanks to her pursuit of Apple. Cartoons depict her as an axe-wielding Viking raider, speckled with ice.
But walk into her office in the European Commission and it feels hygge — vivid modern art, rugs on light wood floors, sofas, a multitude of family photos. Only the EU flag in the corner gives away that you are in a hive of officialdom. Carefully curated personal touches are all around, and splitting the room in half is a long, narrow table on a rug. This is where Vestager welcomes guests and conducts her business.
“I wanted the meeting table to be the main thing,” says Vestager. “When people come in, I want to be able to turn my chair and face them,” she adds, pointing to a small black desk tucked away in a corner. Her use of space is a sign of how she would “like the working relationships to unfold”. “It may sound like a detail but [I want to] face them full body instead of being behind [a] desert of mahogany.”
And face them full body she certainly has. Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, sat here in January this year when he pleaded with Vestager to drop allegations that the Irish Republic had granted Apple a sweetheart tax deal. The Alabaman questioned the “fairness” of the process and called on her to rein in her wayward staff. This was more what he expected from Venezuela than Europe, Cook said. Vestager looked on, irritated but unmoved. One witness told colleagues it was “the worst meeting” they had ever experienced in Brussels.
More pressure followed. Stern warnings flooded in from Washington. The Obama administration claimed the commission was bending the law to become a supranational tax authority. No case since Microsoft’s decade-long run-in with Brussels has involved so much pushback from the US capital.
Vestager’s response? To require Ireland to collect some €13bn in back taxes from Apple— a recovery order 10 times bigger than Brussels’ previous record in policing illegal state aid. Ireland appealed. Cook said the decision was “political crap”. Asked how people should approach her, Vestager replies: “I think I am like anyone else. I respect other people and, of course, I expect that it works the other way around.”
Martin Lidegaard, a former foreign minister in Denmark and one-time party rival, describes Vestager as “a tough cookie” who “remembers like an elephant”. “When we were very young in the past, we had a small quarrel and I lost — I’ve done that many times — and she said to me, ‘OK, let’s get over this, Martin — forgiven but not forgotten.’” He adds: “Behind the very tough outside, there is also a very, very nice and warm woman with a very big heart.”
Most attempts to understand Vestager lead to the flatlands of West Jutland, and her upbringing as the eldest child of two Lutheran pastors. Here again life revolved around a meeting table. “They were both ministers and they didn’t keep office hours, so it was very open [as a household],” she recalls. From 5am to late at night, all manner of visitors would call — to celebrate, to mourn, as well as to seek counsel and shelter. “So in one day, you could have new life and death,” she says.
Some who have found themselves on the wrong side of a Vestager decision scornfully note her moral edge. She said in a speech at a conference for Lutherans in November that, in competition regulation, “what is at stake is as old as Adam and Eve. For all the economic theories and the business models, it all comes down to greed.” To some hardbitten lawyers in Brussels, this smacks a bit too much of a crusade. But it has made Vestager an unlikely hero for the anti-globalisation movement.
That is quite a position for a former economy minister who championed unpopular benefit cuts in Denmark. Her reputation then was for flinty efficiency and keeping a tight rein on spending — not a history that aligns with anti-globalisation activism. Odd as it may seem in Eurosceptic Denmark, it is Vestager’s time in Brussels that has helped her ratings soar back home. “The Danish love when the small fight against the big, [when] a little person fights Google,” said Naser Khader, a Danish MP and former colleague. “That is a part of the Danish narrative.”
Vestager entered national politics after studying economics at university and was just 21 when she was elected chair of the socially liberal yet fiscally conservative Social Liberal Party in 1993. In 1998, she became the first Danish minister to be pregnant while in office. After her party’s resounding defeat in the 2007 election, she helped rebuild its base and reclaim its historical position as kingmaker in the 2011 election. Her career served as the inspiration for hit television series Borgen.
Her biographer Elisabet Svane says: “She is not into big discussions about how society will look in 50 years. She is much more hands-on, focusing [instead] on what we can do here and now.” Svane describes a shy young Vestager at her parents’ church socials, preferring to make coffee rather than chat to the 200 guests. “She is the same as that little girl who wanted to do the practical things.”
Vestager sees her role as empowering others: “In everything that I have been doing, in different positions in Danish politics and here [in Brussels], it’s always about trying to create opportunities for people.”
Denmark’s complex coalition politics can often seem like one long, grinding negotiation, and Vestager proved more dogged than most. In the crucial negotiations with the Social Democrats following the 2011 election, “Margrethe got it all,” according to Morten Helveg Petersen, a former party rival.
“She can be very, very stubborn. It can be positive but it can be cumbersome if you don’t agree,” says Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark’s first female prime minister and Vestager’s senior partner in coalition government. “She just really wants to get things done,” she adds. “She gets up in the morning to do things, to change things, to make a difference.”
Although the relationship was scratchy at times, Thorning-Schmidt is very proud of what they achieved together in a watershed for gender politics in Denmark. It has left a mark on Vestager as well. While she was previously strongly opposed to quotas for women, Vestager is “in the process of changing [her] mind”. “We have had informal quotas for men for 1,000 years of 98 per cent and that has worked very well for them,” she says, adding that there remains “a very, very strong structural bias”.
“I remember when I cut my hair. I used to have hair to my shoulders. Immediately people said, ‘Oh, but that’s the power cut. Now she looks like a man,’” Vestager says. “It’s a very small indicator of the biases that we still have. That we see people in power in a different way and we unfortunately very often still see them as men.”
Vestager’s knack for the personal is the stuff of legend — baking buns for colleagues, cycling to parliament, knitting elephants for newborns. But she faces all the usual dilemmas of a busy working home. Married to Thomas Jensen, a teacher, she has three daughters, one of whom decided she was happier returning to Copenhagen with her father to attend school there. “The list of plane reservations I keep on my phone — it’s very, very, very long,” Vestager says. “But so far it works.
“I’ve been working a lot so far, long working hours, and people have asked me, ‘Well, aren’t you a bad mother?’ I say, ‘No, I’m not. I may be different from the way my mother did it — she was a working mum as well — and from [how] my grandmother did it. But these are just different ways of living your life. That doesn’t change your role as such.’”
Vestager’s workload may only grow. Her term ends in November 2019. The next year or so may be the “most busy for almost a decade”, she says, with a clutch of big mergers to rule on, and some vital antitrust cases to conclude, including those against Google. This second half of her term — in choppier political waters — is where her legacy will be forged. And, of course, there are the courts. While Vestager’s commission is able to impose fines and order changes to business practices, it can always be overturned. “That is a risk you have to live with, because no matter how thorough you are, of course the court can always say you were wrong.”
Unlike the last three competition commissioners, Vestager will have 20 to 25 years left in her career after her term ends. Where does she see herself in 2020? Speculation ranges from a return to Danish politics to a tilt at the directorship of the International Monetary Fund. But Vestager demurs. “Planning is like taking on blinders,” she says. “I think it is a wise thing to be open to whatever shows up on your doorstep.”
Rochelle Toplensky is an EU correspondent for the FT
Photographs: Marie Louise Munkegaard