Margrethe Vestager: The EU’s Steely Competition Cop

MV

Margrethe Vestager, a scheduled speaker at DLD 2016 in Munich, is the European Commissioner for Competition. A former Danish deputy prime minister, Vestager, described by the Financial Times as “steely” and blending “a sharp intellect with a more folksy charm,” inherited the EC’s often tricky relationship with Google. Vestager agreed to answer questions from Informilo about what’s at the top of her agenda.

Vestager: described as both ‘steely’ and ‘folksy’

One of your first jobs as Commissioner was to accelerate, and tighten the focus on, the investigation into Google and Android. What do you want to achieve?
There are two different investigations and very different work-streams. In the investigation on Google’s search services, our concern is that Google is abusing its dominant position to promote its own services to the detriment of competition. The Android investigation was also given high priority since it concerns the mobile space, where rapidly increasing use of smartphones and tablets is a central element in the digital revolution. Concerns have been expressed that certain conditions that Google may require in relation to Android and associated services may hinder the development of rival apps and services. My duty is to ensure that Google’s agreements associated with the use of Android and Google’s own applications are not abusive and allow the development of an innovative environment which benefits consumers.

In a speech you gave in October in New York you said of the EU “this means using its tools to support our collective efforts to boost the economy.” There have been many high-profile investigations into U.S. companies by the Commission. Are these the tools to which you refer?
I was referring to competition policy enforcement. Competition policy isn’t a political weapon. It is enforced under strict rules and procedures. This means that all the companies willing to do business in Europe are treated equally. Our records show that there’s no bias against U.S. firms when the Commission applies EU rules. Furthermore, U.S. companies can and do invoke EU competition rules against other U.S. companies, and as such can be the main direct “beneficiaries” of EU antitrust actions. Novell, Real Networks and Sun Microsystems complained against Microsoft. AMD complained against Intel.

You have launched a sector inquiry on e-commerce. Why? What do hope to achieve?
Even though half of Europeans shop online, less than one in six buys from sellers in other countries. Less than a tenth of SMEs do cross-border e-commerce. And we think that at least part of the problem is caused by companies themselves, signing agreements that stop retailers selling cross-border.
That seems to go against everything we’re trying to achieve in the EU. We need to understand why companies are using these types of contracts. This is where the Commission’s sector inquiry comes in. It should help us understand whether competition enforcement can help break down these barriers. I plan to publish a preliminary report for consultation in mid-2016.

One of the themes of DLD is Europe: A continent in transition. What role does the EU have in helping the tech sector achieve that transition?
Achieving a Digital Single Market is one of the European Commission’s priorities. We need entrepreneurs who will make digital Europe a reality, by developing new applications and technologies. We have the duty to help them to create new start-ups and to grow. But making it easier to raise money has to be done under a fair and non-discriminatory basis. Therefore, this financial help must comply with state aid rules for risk finance. This is possible and we are willing to help innovation boosting this way. For example, the Commission has approved two French schemes that encourage investments in innovative SMEs.

A former US National Security Advisor once derided the EU, saying it “acts as if its central political goal is to become the world‘s most comfortable retirement home.” When it comes to innovation, what should the rest of the world learn from Europe?
It’s the entrepreneurs who will make digital Europe a reality. Because if we keep markets open and competitive, entrepreneurs will have a great chance to design the future and Europeans will benefit. What we are trying to achieve is a single European market offering innovative digital services to more than 500 million people. And this will be our major contribution to foster innovation: a huge and truly connected digital market.

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