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18th Nov 2018

From Borgen to Brussels: Who is the new EU competition commissioner?

  • Vestager will have to steer clear of politics in her new role as anti-trust chief in the EU (Photo: European Parliament)

When Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt was touted as the next EU council chief, comparisons with Denmark's popular political tv series Borgen abounded.

Borgen's main character Birgitte Nyborg is a hands-on, centrist politician, who in the series became the first female Prime Minister of Denmark, only to be copied by reality a year later, in 2011, when Thorning Schmidt was elected head of government. But the real inspiration for Nyborg did not come from the blonde politician who famously took a selfie with US President Barack Obama. It came from Margrethe Vestager.

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A trained economist, Vestager entered politics at the age of 25 and soon became minister, the latest position being that of minister of economy and interior. Her credo: "Politics should enable people to make free choices."

At 46, she is the mother of three teenage daughters and married to a maths-and-philosophy teacher. As leader of a smaller centrist, social-liberal party, she was the inspiration for the main character in Borgen (also the name of Denmark's parliament) , who also tries to juggle family life and politics.

"The actress followed me around for a day when I was minister of economy, to see how it works," Vestager said over dinner with several Brussels-based journalists on Tuesday (28 October).

Like the Borgen character who consults her family when offered the Prime Minister post, Vestager consulted her family about moving to Brussels, where she is to become the next EU competition commissioner.

"It's important to discuss such decisions in a family," she said. They all agreed to the move, complete with the golden retriever. Just her eldest daughter, who is preparing for medical university next year, will stay in Copenhagen.

These days, Vestager is busy setting up her cabinet. Chief of staff will be a Danish EU official who has dealt with trade and sustainable development in the Commission, Ditte Juul-Jorgensen. She will be seconded by a Scot, Linsey McCallum, who has served as director in DG competition, in charge of information, communication and media.

The fact that men will be in minority in her cabinet is not something planned. "I simply looked for competent people."

A politician through and through, Vestager will however have the least political portfolio: going after cartels and illegal state aid.

"I want to protect the rule of law," she says. In that, she promises more transparency, especially when dealing with lobbyists and powerful companies.

Google has already sent her a "welcome" letter praising her while numerous lobbyists have approached her, trying to set up meetings for their clients.

"It's amazing how you can earn money just by setting up meetings," Vestager said. She refused to meet anybody so far noting she is "not yet commissioner." And after she takes office, on 1 November?

"I know there will be a lot of pressure. But I will publish my meetings, and this will also serve as a protection mechanism," she says.

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