Europe

Denmark's Vestager fights EU battles with corporate giants

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionMs Vestager said the Irish tax system "allowed profits to be attributed to a head office that only existed on paper."

Google, Starbucks, Amazon, Gazprom - and now Apple. The European Commission's drive for tax fairness has brought competition cases against one multinational after another.

And in the vanguard is Denmark's no-nonsense woman in Brussels, Margrethe Vestager.

A star in Danish politics, she hit the ground running when she joined Jean-Claude Juncker's Commission team in Brussels in 2014.

"When a government lets a company avoid paying its share, that company gains just as if it received a handful of cash," she said in a speech in June.

The demand for Ireland to recover taxes from Apple dwarfs previous cases. Ms Vestager says Apple owes up to €13bn (£11bn), dating back to 2003. Apple and the Irish government will appeal, rejecting the Commission's ruling.

Borgen inspiration

For Danes, Ms Vestager (pronounced VES-taya) is as renowned for knitting, bread-making and tweeting as she is for tackling issues that no-one else has yet dared to touch.

Former colleagues insist that she, not ex-Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, was the true model for the fictional woman prime minister in the hit Danish political drama Borgen.

Last year it came as no surprise in the Folketing (parliament) that she took on two major multinationals in the space of a week, first accusing Google of anti-competitive behaviour by promoting its own shopping links, then Russia's state-owned energy giant Gazprom of abusing its position in Central and Eastern European gas markets.

Because Margrethe Vestager, as leader of the centrist Social Liberals (Radikale Venstre), has played a big role in challenging the status quo at home.

Image caption Borgen's writer admitted modelling Birgitte Nyborg (C) on Margrethe Vestager

While still in opposition, she pushed the ruling coalition to cut an early retirement programme and raise the retirement age from 60 to 65 in early 2011.

Danes hated it at the time, but that major reform did her no harm. In reality, her party's fortunes soared and polled 9.5% in elections a few months later.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Visits to Queen Margrethe II at the palace in Copenhagen were paid by bicycle

Borgen writer Adam Price once attended a party convention and has since spoken of Ms Vestager as the woman who inspired the character of Birgitte Nyborg, the leader of a small party, the Moderates, propelled to the post of prime minister.

In the series, Nyborg's marriage fails as she tries to juggle the demands of running a minority government with keeping a family going.

Ms Vestager, in contrast, appears unfazed. Her whole family moved to Brussels, apart from one daughter who stayed in Copenhagen to study.

'In Brussels, no-one can hear you scream'

She wrote poetry during coalition talks after the 2011 elections and became renowned for her love of knitting and baking.

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption Margrethe Vestager was one of the first prominent Danish politicians to become active on social media

She has 160,000 Twitter followers and, since 2009, her tweets have involved a heady mix of politics and favourite hobbies.

When former Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt nominated her for the post in Brussels, tongues wagged in Copenhagen.

Was this an attempt to be rid of a troublesome minister, as depicted in a memorable Borgen episode entitled, "In Brussels no-one can hear you scream"?

That seems unlikely. Ms Thorning-Schmidt was herself being touted for a top job in Brussels. And as competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager has one of the toughest and highest-profile briefs in Brussels.

The US Treasury Department has accused the Commission of targeting US corporations, saying its actions have an impact on US tax revenue and on global efforts to combat tax avoidance. The Commission denies any anti-US bias.

Image copyright Margrethe Vestager
Image caption Margrethe Vestager tweeted this image shortly before she was grilled by the European Parliament

Political rise

  • Made chair of her party at the age of 21
  • Education minister 1998-2001
  • Becomes party leader in 2007
  • Economic and interior affairs minister 2011-14
  • Joins European Commission August 2014
  • Seen in Denmark as left of centre on immigration and gay marriage
  • Viewed as right-wing on welfare.

'Let me Google it'

One of her thornier tasks in Brussels is tackling the "Luxleaks" scandal. Top companies were given sweetheart tax deals by the Luxembourg government, enabling them to funnel hundreds of millions of euros in profits through subsidiaries in the Grand Duchy.

In October 2015 the Commission found that Fiat had enjoyed unfair tax advantages in Luxembourg, as had Starbucks in the Netherlands.

Amazon and McDonald's are still under investigation by the Commission in the "Luxleaks" case.

Ms Vestager's current boss, Jean-Claude Juncker, was prime minister at the time the deals were struck.

In June, Luxembourg prosecutors found two whistleblowers guilty over "Luxleaks". Former PricewaterhouseCoopers employees Antoine Deltour and Raphael Halet received 12- and nine-month sentences respectively for leaking documents.

When asked to describe Ms Vestager, a colleague in Copenhagen told the BBC: "She's a political go-getter who stands up for her beliefs."

Ms Vestager stresses that she is acting against market abuse - unfair competition - but not against a firm's market dominance, if that status is fair and legitimate.

"If you look for something you say, 'Let me Google it'. I think you should congratulate a company that is so successful," she said.

Related Topics

More on this story