Margrethe Vestager has fined Google billions. Now she wants to get in on the action in the European elections – as the leading candidate for the Liberals.
Uncomfortable, eloquent, fearless: Margrethe Vestager Photo: dpa
Margrethe Vestager is an exceptional figure in the EU Commission. While most of the commissioners work unobtrusively, she makes the headlines. A tough woman, eloquent, charming and fearless, who takes on tech giants like Google – that stands out. The Danish Competition Commissioner is one of the most prominent figures in the European Union.
Rumors have been circulating in Brussels for some time that Vestager is aiming higher. She could become the first female Commission president in Europe’s history – and replace the conservative Jean-Claude Juncker. It would be a small revolution. But does Vestager really have a chance of winning the office?
Actually, the German EPP top candidate Manfred Weber is considered the clear favorite for the European elections – and for the post of Commission President. His Dutch rival, Frans Timmermans of the Social Democrats, was given only an outsider’s chance in the polls. But now there is movement in the lame-duck European election campaign.
Weber has lost potential allies overnight. The reason is his maneuvering in the dispute with Hungary’s right-wing exponent Viktor Orban. Greens and liberals have made it clear they won’t work with Weber as long as Orban’s Fidesz remains in the European People’s Party. They said the suspension decided on Wednesday was not enough.
Reinhard Butikofer, head of the European Greens, spoke of a "half-baked, half-silly non-solution" that would mean a "considerable loss of credibility" for Weber. The FDP’s top candidate Nicola Beer said, "If Weber doesn’t show a clear edge with Fidesz and Forza Italia on the rule of law, freedom of expression and democracy, he can’t be a partner for us." Then Weber could not count on the votes of the FDP when it comes to nominating the successor to Commission President Juncker after the European elections.
She has been christened the "Iron Lady." But the feared commissioner can also be easy-going
With Vestager, Weber could now have a serious rival. On Thursday, the Liberals nominated her in Brussels for a seven-member top team. It is supposed to be the pool from which the Liberals nominate people for top posts when they get a chance. Vestager has already announced her intention to campaign.
If you ask around the Brussels authority, you might think she’s already number one. "This woman is the hammer," they say in the EU authority, where Vestager easily outplays all other commissioners. As recently as Wednesday, Vestager, who belongs to the social-liberal Radikal Venstre party, was again playing first fiddle.
For the third time, Vestager imposed a billion-dollar fine on Google that day. The US company is to pay around 1.49 billion euros. According to the EU’s top competition watchdog, other providers were inadmissibly hindered in search engine advertising in the "AdSense for Search" service.
That moves the markets – and annoys governments. From U.S. President Donald Trump’s perspective, Vestager may be the most powerful woman in Europe, ahead of Juncker. But she has also had run-ins with Ireland and other EU states – over unauthorized tax breaks for domestic and foreign corporations.
She has been dubbed the "Iron Lady. But the dreaded inspector can also be casual. In her private life, she likes to wear jeans and sneakers. Vestager attaches great importance to a completely normal family life. In addition to her husband and her three daughters Maria, Rebecca and Ella, golden retriever Karlo also plays an important role. To him she sometimes recites important speeches, it is said.
Reliant on votes from other parties
Most recently, however, Karlo seems to have failed. Vestager made a decision that has earned her massive anger in Paris and Berlin. She refused to approve the planned merger of the train manufacturers of Siemens and Alstom, with which Germany and France had wanted to form a "European champion." In doing so, she not only antagonized Chancellor Angela Merkel and German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier (both CDU). She has also fallen out with her most important supporter to date: France’s head of state Emmanuel Macron. Macron now even wants to change the EU’s competition rules so that Vestager’s "faux pas" is not repeated.
Does this mean that Vestager cannot count on Macron’s help when it comes to choosing the next EU Commission president after the European elections at the end of May (May 23-26)? This is a question many are asking in Brussels – but so far there is no answer. The only thing that is clear is that Vestager would have to rely on the votes of other parties. Because even together with conservatives or social democrats, the liberals would not have a majority in the European Parliament.
This is where the Greens come in. Vestager is certainly suitable as an identification figure for left-wing liberals. A woman who puts the squeeze on Apple and Google and finally puts a lid on the grotesquely powerful digital economy – that makes some Greens’ eyes light up. Vestager is becoming a projection screen for all those who want more momentum in the EU. The fact that the prospect of breaking the eternal dominance of the conservative EPP is tempting for some also plays a role.
Among the Greens, there are voices vehemently campaigning for Vestager. Their scenario looks like this: If EPP man Manfred Weber fails in his attempt to forge a majority in Parliament, anything is possible, they say. The Social Democrat Timmermans no longer expects to become Commission President anyway – and is rather flirting with the office of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Then all MEPs from left to liberal could rally behind Vestager, including the liberal forces in the EPP. "At last, a progressive majority is conceivable, breaking up the paralyzing effect of the grand coalition in Europe," says a well-connected Green.
Just mind games, nothing more
Helpfully, Vestager now sits on a top team. In 2014, the European Parliament enforced the top candidate principle. According to this principle, only those who have emerged as the top candidate in the election campaign and have the support of a majority in Parliament can be elected Commission President. Until then, the heads of government of the EU member states had been negotiating the top posts among themselves.
But these are mind games, nothing more. Officially, the Greens are keeping everything open. "There is Green support only for Green content," top candidate Ska Keller told the taz. The Greens also have a few questions for Ms. Vestager, such as why she allowed the Bayer-Monsanto deal to go through – and why she sometimes puts a stop to fair trade and ecology through her competition policy.
Keller’s co-leading candidate, Sven Giegold, added that the Liberals were undermining the leading candidate process with a lineup of seven. Macron plus seven top people – that reminds him of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."