Margrethe Vestager said a Franco-German proposal to change EU antitrust rules would have prevented her from imposing landmark fines on Google as she began campaigning in elections that could install her as the European Commission’s first female president.
The EU competition commissioner, who fined the US internet search company €8bn for abuse of market dominance and frustrated Paris and Berlin by blocking the railway merger of Alstom and Siemens, said in an interview she welcomed a “long overdue” debate on EU industrial policy if it helped correct “market failures.”
But the 50-year-old Danish centrist politician cautioned against the Franco-German offer to reform the bloc’s antitrust policy tools following her Alstom-Siemens veto, to consider all markets under review as global.
She conceded that EU officials had been discussing the issue of market definition and that they had increasingly found that markets become more and more global.
“The term, industrial policy, has been somewhat toxic because it suggests old-school state selection of winners in an economy instead of suggesting a push to make sure that you address market failures,” Ms Vestager told the Financial Times.
But she warned that the proposed change by France and Germany would have incapacitated the Commission in the case of Google, by preventing it from establishing that the company was dominant in online search globally given rivals such as China’s Baidu and Russia’s Yandex.
“We could not have done the Google cases if we, per definition, had to assume global markets because these are not global markets,” she said.
The pushback is in character with the EU commission chief’s reputation as a forceful enforcer of EU rules who is able to resist member states and corporate lobbies. But her defence of her record could also become a vulnerability as some powerful EU countries push for the creation of “European champions” able to stave off foreign rivals, notably from China.
Ms Vestager, who last week joined the campaign of the centrist ALDE group ahead of EU parliamentary elections in May, is now officially in the running to succeed Jean Claude Juncker as Commission president.
She faces substantial hurdles to securing the position: she must be nominated by political rivals in Denmark’s ruling coalition. She also must convince EU leaders and the European Parliament to appoint her.
Access to mass data gathered by companies, the platform-based economy and artificial intelligence are areas where EU antitrust rules might need reforming, she said.
The former Danish deputy prime minister, who backs French president Emmanuel Macron’s pro-EU “Renaissance” campaign platform, said EU leaders had a long to-do list with two urgent issues: climate change and the data-led “industrial revolution”. She casts the challenge as needing to give direction to the new technologies and ensure they “still serve humans”.
“You have to figure out how can our democracies get in the driving seat — because we don’t want autonomous driving here.”
Gender balance is another battle. “Artificial intelligence will be no better than the data it is fed with,” she said, warning that “in numerous areas . . . (data are) gender biased”
It would be “even more difficult to work towards a diverse society of equal opportunities” with bias built in to AI because we would not see the bias any more, she added.
Ms Vestager said she was hopeful this could be changed, thanks to the #MeToo movement that has the “potential to change the idea about power.”
“There’s a number of, I think primarily, men who have made the mistake of thinking that the power they hold allows them to do things that are not acceptable. They think that the power they hold is about themselves and not about what they are supposed to do,” she said.
“The problem is that power is addictive, and there is a risk that you think that it’s about you being a splendid person . . . [but] it has been very important to say power is a tool that you have for lending because you have a task to do . . . [and] to realise that someday you’ll have to hand it back.”
When asked if it was time for a woman to lead the European Council or Commission, Ms Vestager said it was “long overdue” but suggested it might be more relevant to ask the reverse question to all the male candidates: “do they think it is good for a man to continue at the helm?”