Some have called her ‘the most powerful woman in Brussels’. Now famous for fining Google $2.7 billion and finding that Apple owed the Irish state $14.5 billion in unpaid taxes, Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager has brought a new dynamism to the European Union. Over Skype, I asked her about her work dragon-slaying mega-corporations and how movements like Volt can slowly gain the hearts and trust of Europe.
Margrethe Vestager: It’s a little extraordinary, seeing you like this, because normally I would ask you if you’d like a cup of coffee.
Noah Vickers: I would have said yes! Thank you so much for agreeing to speak to us, it’s a huge honour. You’ve become famous, in the last year particularly, for your work taking on massive corporations like Google and Apple. And we live in a time of great Euroscepticism - I’m part of a movement trying to slowly counter this. How would you explain the relevance of your work to a Eurosceptic? What is it that you are able to do, and I suppose, by extension, that the EU is able to do, that a national anti-trust agency would struggle to do, or perhaps in some cases, would be less willing to do?
MV: Well, I think it’s just an illustration that there are some things that we can do together, that you cannot do alone, because I don’t even think that a national competition authority would be able to do it - it is a cross-border issue and it concerns the entire European market. The strength of what we do comes from the fact that we are, give or take, 500 million people, who are doing this together. Just as well as there are things we can do together, there are things that you can do in each member state that are relevant there. But I think that the miracle of developing a democracy as we have done, I think that is ideal.
It doesn’t change the fact that we need a regional part of the democracy and a national part, but we would truly miss having our European democracy as well.
NV: So, would you say that corporations like Google or Apple have more reason to be afraid of a united Europe perhaps than the member states themselves?
MV: Well I indeed think so, because, actually right now we are trying to empower the national competition authorities so that they can better protect citizens (and their computers). Because what we see, is they don’t have the same powers as we have, for instance, to give out fines that are sufficiently high to have a deterrent effect. And it has a different impact, when you do things together. I see this very clearly because I used to be the Minister of Economics and the Interior in Denmark, and we were not even close to starting to ask questions of some of these corporations about what they were doing – about their whereabouts, about their taxes, about whatever it would have been, so I feel personally very strongly about the fact that we have decided to have competence together – that is what is changing things.
NV: Speaking of working together, the movement I’m part of, Volt, are trying to be the first truly pan-European party (rather than just parties working in blocs in the European Parliament, co-operating with one another). You are of course yourself a member of a political party, but if you had no political ties, and you were starting from scratch, in a similar position, in establishing a pro-European, pan-European party – what would you do? What would your advice be to us?
MV: Well, it’s a very tricky question, because I think one of the reasons why so few people are a member of a political party, (in my own country, it’s less than 5%), is because I don’t think they find it relevant. They have so many other things to do, and yet at the same time, you find massive numbers of people who engage in NGOs, in being a volunteer at an elderly home or helping refugee children do their school work, you know, all kinds of stuff. So, I think it would be important to be not only a political movement, but also to be a movement that encourages you to engage in your local society, in order to make those ties between engaging in a local democracy and needing a European democracy – necessary if we are to grasp the bigger problems, because I think it’s that combination that we lack. Also, to be able to kind of shortcut the national movements that are using the European democracy as a scapegoat, for what they themselves cannot achieve.
MV: I think there has to be an element of engaging with other people directly. Otherwise I think you may find that you aren’t making sense or being relevant to someone volunteering, helping refugee children or visiting elderly people, to say, “well, I can do this and it makes sense for this person” (the child or the elderly person). But, it’s important for them as well that the European democracy is working, because when you see the political parties in Europe, such as my one, the ALDE group, it contains so many different parties, and the groups themselves contain very different families.
NV: Yes, I was surprised to see that the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic’s party [Andrej Babiš’s ANO 2011] are part of ALDE as well and they’re known for being somewhat Eurosceptic, whereas in the UK we tend to think in the context of ALDE as being centrist, liberal pro-Europeans because we have the Liberal Democrats here.
MV: Well of course, the Liberal Democrats are members of ALDE and the Group President of ALDE in the Parliament is a federalist if anyone was ever a federalist! So, you find that it’s very diverse family. It is not a coherent movement and it has only just begun to have individual members, so I think you have to do something else if you want a pan-European movement to appear, to take into account that a lot of people want to do something. They don’t just want to dream and discuss and decide, they also want to do something.
Our interview continued in the video below: