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Is Margrethe Vestager championing consumers or her political career?

 |  September 17, 2017

Posted by The Economist

Is Margrethe Vestager championing consumers or her political career?

Even her enemies admire the bloody-mindedness of Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner in charge of competition policy. Last autumn, not long after she had ordered Apple to pay €13bn ($14.5bn) in back-taxes to Ireland, to the fury of many in America, she flew across the Atlantic on a charm offensive. The Americans were not charmed; Ms Vestager was unmoved. Buckling up for the flight home, she tweeted that she had never felt so European.

Since she assumed her current role in November 2014, Ms Vestager has had several high-profile clashes with American tech firms. In May she fined Facebook €110m for misleading EU trustbusters about its takeover of WhatsApp, a messaging service. In June a long-running investigation resulted in a €2.4bn fine on Google for using its search engine to promote its own comparison-shopping service. EU trustbusters have also charged Google with using its Android operating system to promote its mobile-phone apps and services over those of rivals. That investigation continues.

Ms Vestager has said the job of agencies like hers is “not to get too cosy with special interests but to have the courage to defend the public interest”. Few would quibble with that. All too often regulators and trustbusters come to see the world as big business sees it, to society’s cost. But a long-standing concern is that the commission acts as prosecutor, judge and executioner in cases against dominant firms. The courts in Europe have been a weak check on its powers in recent years in this regard.

That may be changing. Last week the European Court of Justice asked the lower courts to look again at the economic merits of a case against Intel, which in 2009 was fined €1.06bn for abusing its dominant position in chipmaking. But the courts move slowly. Some worry that a number of Ms Vestager’s recent, crowd-pleasing victories over big tech firms may come back to haunt the commission. And by then she might have moved on to a bigger job.

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