While the newly-appointed set of Commissioners led by Ursula von der Leyen will have a lot on their plate by dealing with Brexit, tech companies won’t be getting a break from Vestager for another five years. The “tax lady,” as Donald Trump calls her, will continue her role as antitrust chief and will now have even more power to deal with EU digital affairs.
Margrethe Vestager, the EU regulator who is considered Silicon Valley’s worst enemy, has been reappointed to her role of antitrust chief in the European Commission. The announcement was made by President-elect Ursula von der Leyen, who also wants Vestager to be vice president in charge of digital policy and tackle issues like innovation, AI, and cybersecurity.
The Commissioner has built a reputation of slapping big tech companies with hefty fines for anticompetitive practices and other abuses of power, so it’s hardly a surprise that she’s been given another term to continue her work. Now she’ll be part of a team of 13 women and 14 men that aim to take bold and swift action to make Europe fit for the digital age.
Von der Leyen noted that “digitalization has a huge impact on the way we live, work and communicate. In some fields, Europe has to catch up — like for business to consumers – while in others we are frontrunners – such as in business to business.” Even with Trump having accused the European bloc of taking advantage of the US, the EC President is hopeful about building a strong partnership between the two powers over the next five years.
To put things in perspective, big tech will have to deal with a Margrethe Vestager on steroids, as her promotion clearly shows that technology has become one of the top priorities on the Commission’s agenda. In just five years, the regulator handed Google record fines for violating competition law and for its abusive online advertising practices.
Apple was told to pay over $15 billion in back taxes after an investigation by Vestager’s team revealed the Cupertino company had been granted “illegal benefits” by Ireland. Amazon was similarly told to pay $250 million in back taxes, and is also the subject of a new antitrust probe that could lead to a $23 billion fine.
Another company that has been in Vestager’s crosshairs over the years is Qualcomm, who was fined $1.2 billion for paying Apple for contract exclusivity. That, together with predatory pricing for modems in the European market was used by the US tech giant to squash the competition, which didn’t go unnoticed. Others like Asus and Philips tried to get away with price fixing, but ended up with a combined fine of over $110 million.
While it is unprecedented for an EU competition Commissioner to get more than one term, the job now includes several monumental tasks, such as dealing with the ethical implications of AI developments, coordinating an international agreement on taxing digital companies by the end of next year, moving beyond GDPR, and tackling fears that the US and China are leaving the EU behind in the tech race.