Margrethe Vestager: The tax crusader
Margrethe Vestager, the Financial Times’ Woman of the Year for 2016, shares her insights as EU Commissioner for Competition. An interview with a crusader who fearlessly takes on Google, Amazon, Fiat, Gazprom and Apple, among many other corporate giants, over their tax arrangements.
You stated: "In business it is the law that applies and not the ethics". Can you explain this view in light of the growing importance of politics in the world of business?
I'm often asked about the values underpinning our competition policy. More specifically, people ask about the role of politics. We can look at the politics of competition enforcement from three angles, starting from whether competition policy is based on political values and principles. The answer is, obviously, yes. Our founders made political choices when they wrote out treaty. Keeping markets fair, level, and open is good for our economies and societies. It establishes a good environment for business in Europe where companies can innovate, generate wealth, create jobs, and invest in the future. The second angle is: does competition enforcement relate to wider political priorities? And does it inform regulatory and other action taken to implement such priorities? Again, the answer is: yes, it does. The Juncker Commission is a political Commission with a clear set of objectives and the College of Commissioners works as a team.
Competition policy – and I as Competition Commissioner – clearly have our own space in it as law enforcement. But there should be no doubt that I will do my part to help achieve the Commission’s broader objectives working with m y colleagues on their files. The third angle is; is competition enforcement in individual cases politicized? Here the answer is a resounding No. We enforce the law and serve the common interest. We are committed to the principles of fairness, good administration, transparency and due process. There is simply no room to spare for political interference.
In business this is the law that applies and not ethics.
What do you think of the French’s Court decision to cancel Google’s 2.4-billion-euro tax obligations?
That's a question for the French authorities applying national taxation rules. I understand that France has announced that they would appeal the court judgment. We are only in the picture, looking through the lens of EU state aid rules, if there are concerns that a Member State has given a special tax benefit to one or a select few companies. Something that distorts competition.
How do you feel about the series Borgen, where Adam Price was inspired by you for his main character?
I very much enjoyed the series because it explains very well how Danish politics work. No party has had a majority in Denmark’s parliament for over a century. So the norm is a government with more than one party. And very often, like in the series, the government even has to negotiate to find a majority for the political suggestions presented. The noble art of finding a compromise is a basic competence among Danish politicians. The good thing with the series is that they have fast forwarded the most of the negotiation and therefore there is a lot happening. I enjoy that.
If you had a magic wand, what wish(es) would you like to see fulfilled?
Well with a magic wand many things could be solved. But on a more realistic note I very much hope that people see and realise that we work to find solutions to some of our big challenges: climate change, immigration, new technologies that change our lives. A market kept free and open to everyone where we are treated fairly.