EU’s Margrethe Vestager is still a thorn in Big Tech’s side
Vestager is to get a second run at being the EU’s top anti-trust official, which will please those fighting the monopolising powers of Silicon Valley and Seattle
Margrethe Vestager, famous for slapping vast fines on the likes of Apple and Alphabet’s Google during her tenure as the EU’s top anti-trust official, has been given the chance to do it all over again. She’s been handed the same job in Ursula von der Leyen’s proposed European Commission.
Lest it be seen as some kind of consolation prize for missing out on the top job of president (which went to Von der Leyen), Vestager has also been awarded the title of executive vice-president in charge of co-ordinating the bloc’s digital strategy. That’s a huge job that goes beyond market abuse and into standard-setting on data protection, artificial intelligence (AI) ethics and mobile networks.
It’s a wise appointment that will please those who see the fight against the monopolising powers of Silicon Valley and Seattle as being at the heart of any sensible European technology strategy. Vestager herself says the two issues of who gets to own our data and fair competition must go hand in hand, something that will spook those who were hoping for a more pliant approach from Brussels.
Her hard line has caused plenty of anguish across the Atlantic, and infuriated US President Donald Trump in particular. The EU’s probes range across Google’s job search, Facebook’s crypto-currency project Libra and how Amazon treats its vendors.
The re-appointment is also a strong message to Vestager’s many critics inside the EU, including the French and German politicians whose favored merger of the train businesses of Alstom and Siemens was blocked by Brussels this year on competition grounds. She has proven admirably able to resist pressure from EU member states to bend her merger rules. She should be able to do so again.
With a bit of luck, Vestager will be able to overcome some of the possible contradictions in her role. Her remit will include both regulating the worst excesses of the US-dominated tech sector while encouraging more tech investment into the EU, much of it from American funds. This might mean, for example, beefing up Europe’s data protection laws such as its relatively new GDPR rules, even though intense lobbying from business has made the first implementation a mixed bag in terms of fines imposed.
Vestager’s liberal colleague Sylvie Goulard has become the EU’s internal market commissioner, which may help smooth any wrinkles.
Ironically, for all the talk of Europe doubling down on its anti-Big Tech crusade with Vestager’s re-appointment, this might be the point at which the EU and the US finally find common cause on technology policy. After years of inaction, American authorities are falling over themselves to investigate the likes of Facebook and Google, and the US presidential election campaign will probably see the pressure maintained by Democratic Party candidates.
Given the global nature of these problems — Facebook’s Libra has triggered a worldwide push-back from central banks and politicians — it’s a good thing that American regulators have a seasoned campaigner to talk to in Brussels.
• Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.