You could tell that a leader of the Danish Radical Left party – nicknamed the “Radicool” party – was in the European Parliament. Margrethe Vestager, the commissioner-designate for competition, charmed and humoured MEPs in equal measure.
MEPs laughed when she said she would be pestering them to chat about competition issues over coffee – which Danes apparently drink in great quantities now they can no longer smoke. She regretted, to laughter, that a “double Irish” tax avoidance scheme was not as enjoyable as an Irish coffee. She surprised MEPs by munching chocolate during the hearing – a “merger” of liquorice and dark chocolate, she explained.
The hearing went well for Vestager, a Danish liberal and a former trainee in the European Parliament. Several MEPs on the committee for economic and monetary affairs congratulated Vestager on her introductory statement. It was “very remarkable” said Jeppe Kofod, a Danish socialist MEP.
Andreas Schwan, a German centre-right MEP, applauded her for being “extremely clear”. Indeed, Vestager herself said she would place great emphasis on communicating to consumers the benefits they derive from competition law.
Denmark’s former minister for interior and economic affairs was polished when it came to matters of policy. She stressed that she would, above all, be impartial: “Investigations will be conducted and decisions referred to the college regardless of the [company’s] nationality or size.” She re-affirmed the position of the current commissioner on the subject of relaxing competition rules for some European companies to create European champions on the world stage: “I think we can compete better on big markets if you have already competed in small markets.” Vestager also appeared to promise some big cartel fines (although you would have to go a long way back to find a commissioner who did not): “We should never underestimate the benefit of deterrence. It is very important to keep fines at a level…. where they are not just another line in the spreadsheet.”
It was hardly a surprise, but she reassured several MEPs that the Commission’s ongoing investigations into alleged tax deals between EU member states and powerful multinationals will continue. Vestager promised this with a reference to ethics and described tax deals as “offending” people. She often portrayed herself as someone who would stick up for European small and medium-sized companies, a constituency that is close to the heart of MEPs.
At the end of the hearing, a number of senior EPP MEPs gathered in the hearing room and appeared to gush with praise. Burkhard Balz, a German centre-right MEP could be heard exclaiming “very good” and “no problem”. Veronica Lope Fontagné, a Spanish centre-right MEP agreed, as did Ramon Tremosa I Balcells, a Spanish liberal MEP (albeit from the same political family as Vestager).
Despite the positive reaction, Vestager’s performance was not flawless and she left many questions unanswered. In some circumstances this was legitimate, as with the ongoing and confidential antitrust investigation into Google. On that she offered: “There will be next steps, but what kind they will be? It is too early for me to say.” On other occasions it was less legitimate. Other commissioner-designates might not get away so easily with comments like “that is not a very good answer to the question you asked” or “I do not remember the second question, what was the third?”
Vestager was not particular impressive on the subject of how to apply competition law to the fast-changing digital sector. This is a subject that is certainly dear to the hearts of many MEPs. She did state clearly that she believed that the collection and use of big data was something that ought to be looked at by competition law. When Marcus Ferber, a German centre-right MEP, asked “do you think existing competition rules are right for the digital society?”, she spoke about fax machines, before venturing a rather bland: “The challenge is to keep up with market developments.”
That pales in comparison with the aggressively interventionist statements made about the online market by Günther Oettinger, the commissioner-designate for the digital market. Yet Vestager certainly gave the impression that she had enough character to be able to make up her mind by herself.
Read the live blog from the hearing – as it happened