Margrethe Vestager has acquired a “heated celebrity” since becoming European commissioner for competition in 2014, says Samanth Subramanian in Bloomberg Businessweek. She has tried to protect the European Union’s vision of a fair market by driving investigations into the tax affairs of multinationals such as Amazon, Google, McDonald’s and Starbucks. Last August, Vestager ruled that Apple had received unfair tax benefits from Ireland and ordered the US tech giant to pay over $14bn in back taxes and interest. If she also levies a multibillion-dollar fine against Google, “she will truly set headlines aflame”.
Vestager’s readiness to face off against multinationals has drawn cheers from her supporters, and provoked “a startled fury” from her opponents. Apple boss Tim Cook called the tax decision against them “total political crap”. A white paper from the US Treasury criticised Vestager’s office for acting like a “supranational tax authority”.
None of this has discouraged Vestager, who, as “one of the most visible, vocal champions” of the European Union, continues to defend its founding philosophies in decisions related to cartelisation, mergers, and state aid (the latter is considered legitimate in America, but not in Europe). “If you want to do business in Europe, you play by the European rule book,” she once said.
Yet the accusation that she has pursued a vendetta against American companies is unfounded. Of the 81 companies on which Vestager has opened antitrust investigations, only 11 have been American. And it was her Spanish predecessor, Joaquín Almunia, who opened all the “splashiest cases” of her tenure, involving Amazon, Apple and Starbucks.
The decision against Apple has been appealed and the money will be placed in escrow until European courts deliver a final decision. Vestager says the case “flared brightly” because it’s a firm everybody knows and the fine is a big number. That’s putting it lightly, says Subramanian. “No state aid ruling has ever resulted in a recovery so enormous.”