The Friday Slot (15)- Commissioner Margrethe Vestager
It had been a while since our last Friday Slot interview, and many of you had requested its return. In order to revive this section of the blog we decided to invite the person who is these days the most sought after interviewee in EU competition law, Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who very kindly accepted our invitation. We are honoured and grateful for her availability to be interviewed for Chillin’Competition (and for the increase in visits that this interview will bring to our site).
- How are you enjoying your new job so far? And Brussels?
My job is challenging and demanding – and I like it very much. I have a profound respect for the consequences of the decisions the Commission take – so I take it seriously. And I enjoy working in different languages, in an international environment and with very skilled people. Brussels is also nice. I enjoy the walking to the office and to get to know the city again. More than 20 years ago I spent 6 month here as a stagiare – so the outlines of the city were familiar although much has changed since then.
- What would you say are the best and worst things about your job?
… many! The work in itself make sense: The Commission has a big challenge to contribute to a dynamic and innovative Europe. And on the everyday basis that vision can be boiled down to analysis, dialog, listening, deciding – and that in a setting of very skilled people.
- Many consultants make a living drafting background memos on your background, personality, tastes, etc. They are probably reading this; what would you tell them?
I always strive to be present as a person in whatever situation I am in – private or professional. When you are responsible for decisions that influence many people you have to be thorough and you have to understand the perspectives of a given matter so I take my job seriously. I often request more information, food for thought and conversations about how things should develop. In the end, as a minister or as a Commissioner you have to give directions and you often have the final say. But that should never prevent you from listening.
I find it important to know other peoples’ opinions just as I find it important for them to know mine. I’d rather disagree with someone knowing what they represent.
- What do you think about competition lawyers so far? In full frankness…
That they come in just as many varieties as everyone else.
- How did you “train” in competition matters prior to your arrival in office? Was reading Chillin’Competition enough?
It took a lot of reading and introduction to the area through preparatory meetings. Especially up to the hearing. The composition of my cabinet and the people I work with every day have also participated to the build-up of knowledge.
- What is your favorite book?
I enjoy to read and think it is difficult to pin point “the one and only”. However, one of the books that I found very inspiring is The Alexandria Quartet, which is actually three books. I am fascinated by the author’s description of different perspectives of the same set of events, with the same people involved. And right now I read “Looking at photographs” by John Szarkowski – 100 photographs from the Museum of Modern art. It is about the same – how seeing and the change in perspective can change everything.
- And favorite music?
I listen to a large variety of different types of music and I love to sing along which may be of mixed pleasure of my surroundings! When I run I mostly listen to the Danish singer Tina Dickow. It is probably not the most typical for running but I like the almost meditative mood in her music.
- Favorite movies?
I love to watch television. All types of series and movies. I have intensely followed the Danish version of The Great British Bake Off and do even re-watch favorite episodes J. Other than that I enjoy movies of all different types. Lastly I went to the cinema to watch the Polish/Danish drama Ida. But the movies I have seen the most are the “Die Hard” movies. I always look forward to when John McClane says Yippee ki-yay.
- We would have asked you about favorite food, but following your confirmation hearings at the European Parliament we all know about your taste for chocolate; how’s your chocolate market investigation evolving?
You are right about my strong taste for chocolate! And Brussels is a good place to be for that. I will indeed now investigate a chocolate merger: the acquisition by Cargill of Archer Daniels Midland’s industrial chocolate activities that was notified to us mid-January.
- Average working time/week?
I do not count my hours of work but of course they add up.
- And what do you like to do when you’re not working?
I spend time with family and friends. Love to cook, plan and prepare a meal – the process of the preparation: maybe consult cook books, get inspired in the shops and then come back home and begin the cooking and look forward to when friends come over later. I read books, knit, run and, as already mentioned, I am very fond of watching television.
- Why did you first decide to get into politics?
It wasn’t really a conscious choice. It started at school when I joined as a student council representative on order to us go get a fruit booth at school. Then one thing took the other and here I am.
- Most interesting, intense or funny moment of your career?
Cannot chose – there are many.
- What career/personal achievement are you most proud of?
I would not say proud but touched. Lastly that was when I went to Ikea to shop some days after the Hearing in October. The cashier said to me: “I saw you on TV Thursday – you did really well. I am proud of you”. She probably has a million different things in her life to take care of and still she had that extra to say that to me – it really touched me!
- Who do you admire?
Madeleine Albright and the personal responsibility she took as Secretary of State during the Balkan Wars in the 90’ies.
- Your favorite motto?
At Christiansborg Castle where the Danish Parliament resides there are friezes with different sayings. One of them says: Lev i dit værk mens det øves and translates more or less into “Live your life whilst you practice it”. To me it is a good reminder that we should look ahead but that it is equally important to remember to be present right now. To participate in your own life here and now.
- Websites that you visit the most (besides Chillin’Competition)?
I visit a lot of different news sites – mostly a mixture of English and Danish ones. And I do a lot of shopping online. It is very practical because online the shops are always open!
And now three harder ones:
- Your predecessor was not a man afraid of commitment; many observers have nevertheless criticized the use of Article 9 to secure concessions in unclear cases or in cases where procedural efficiencies haven’t been achieved; what is your stance on the pros and cons of commitment decisions?
Commitment decisions are one powerful tool in the Commission’s enforcement toolbox, a tool that can swiftly restore competitive conditions on the market, while allowing for procedural efficiencies. However, it is not the only powerful tool in the hands of the Commission. Prohibition decisions have a strong deterrent effect and precedent-setting value. As competition Commissioner, I will use any of these tools, when I consider they’re appropriate to solve the case at hand.
- In your view, should the Commission limit itself to applying the law or should it also try to develop and advance it?
Our main task is to enforce the competition rules on a case-by-case basis and to define and implement the orientation of the EU competition policy. The Court of Justice has been very clear on this. In fulfilling these duties we can only act within the boundaries of the law. If the Commission wants to advance the law to the extent of changing it, for example in order to fill a clear enforcement gap, it has to make a proposal for legislation.
However, new types of anticompetitive behavior or unusual market circumstances may require an assessment that has not been made before and for which there are no precedents in case law. In these situations the Commission still has the duty to take action if competition in the internal market is endangered. And of course we will set priorities for the enforcement activity and possibly also evolvement of the law.
For instance: not long ago the Commission had to tackle the misuse of standard essential patents – a novel phenomenon. On this occasion, the Commission made a new type of analysis and advanced its thinking while applying existing case law under Article 102. Any novel reasoning in Commission decisions is of course subject to the full and careful scrutiny of our Union Courts.
- How much law, how much economics and how much politics should there be in competition law enforcement?
Competition enforcement should be based on sound legal and economic principles which ensure a level playing field, give legal certainty to businesses and of course make good sense from an economic standpoint. When it comes to concrete cases, impartiality, neutrality and fairness are extremely important. All companies should not only abide by the same rules but also be treated equally. Competition cases should not be politicized, nor should political considerations obstruct the aim of competition policy which is to ensure fair competition, not to protect individual companies. I also believe that competition policy should not be used to pursue policy goals that can be better addressed with other legal and policy instruments.
That being said, competition enforcement remains crucial for attaining our internal market objective. It also makes European businesses stronger and more competitive and, in the end, competitive businesses in functioning markets will bring growth and jobs.