Friday

26th Feb 2021

Interview

EU anti-trust chief set for Google decision, LuxLeaks inquest

  • "There is no harm in being a big successful company" (Photo: European Commission)

After 100 days in office, EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager remains positive about her “amazingly good” job, which is among the most powerful in Brussels.

Anti-trust cases are a precise and technical area, but the Dane says she can also use the knowledge from her current dossier to help craft policies in areas like energy or taxation.

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She sits on three "project teams" led by commission vice-presidents: energy union, digital single market, and capital markets union.

She has also chipped in ideas to the "investment plan" - a European Commission scheme designed to attract €315 billion worth of investments over the next three years.

Her comments on the “digital single market” show the potential reach of her portfolio.

"If I pay for online services in Denmark, why can't I access them here? Why can't this be a pan-European market?".

The commissioner spoke of the nuisance of having to keep track of three different phones and providers - in Denmark and Belgium - and of having access to the online streaming service Netflix in Belgium, "but with a different offer to that in Denmark."

"I am not going to steal anyone's copyright. I am happy to pay. But then I would like to be able to access it. Even if I am not at home with a Danish IP address," Vestager said.

"I think there is a choice to be made. Do we want a European market, then we can have more European companies. Or do we want national markets, because then of course we will enforce competition law with that market size in mind".

Google decision approaching

Part of Vestager's anti-trust work is inherited from her predecessor and concerns the US online search giant, Google, which is accused of having abused its market dominant position to skew search results and undermine its competitors.

Since taking office in November, Vestager has met some of the plaintiffs and experts who helped draft the case. She has yet to meet Google and says, that once she does, she will take a decision "soon" afterward.

"Of course we will meet eventually, but I thought it was more prudent to meet with the plaintiffs first," she said, adding that the meetings have given her guidance on how to proceed with the probe.

"There is no harm in being a big successful company. The problem is how to be precise on what the complaints are. Can we substantiate that a very strong position is being used? That I can decide in a relatively short time span when I finalise the meetings, because I still have a few to go," she said.

As for working with Guenter Oettinger - who is in charge of the digital portfolio and often speaks about Google and the anti-trust probe against it - Vestager said: "I don't co-ordinate cases."

"My portfolio is a little special, since the role is enforcement and our investigations are and should be seen as impartial, I feel I have to be quite specific on my communication and less suggesting as some of my colleagues can be".

LuxLeaks, SwissLeaks

Taxation is another high-profile area in Vestager's case portfolio, particularly the probes into deals done by Luxembourg authorities with big corporations when her current boss, Jean-Claude Juncker, was prime minister of Luxembourg.

"We will know so much more when we close the cases, about how these schemes actually work. I plan to close the four cases by the latest in the second quarter - by June," Vestager said in reference to cases opened against Luxembourg, Ireland and the Netherlands for allowing Amazon, Fiat, Starbucks and Apple to pay very little tax.

With the publication of LuxLeaks - a trove of tax deals with other big corporations - and more recently, SwissLeaks, listing Europeans and internationals who hid their wealth in Swiss bank accounts, Vestager admits there is "a lot of material" to sift through.

She also asked all member states to file all their tax deals with corporations.

"I am trying to find a way to manage it. It is huge amounts of information. Which is why we need to find a structured approach," she said.

The tax rulings are not necessarily bad as such, says the commissioner.

"It can be a good way to give legal certainty, then you know these are the taxes I'm going to pay. The problem is when they are used in a selective way and the arrangement does not have market conformity, where the price is too high or too low compared to what you see in other places.”

She ruled out setting thresholds for what would be an acceptable tax rate and what would not.

"The point is not to go for concrete percentage points, then you should go the legislative way. The point is to use state aid tools to see if fiscal aid was given, suggesting you can have a tax scheme I cannot have," she said.

"What provokes people is that the ordinary Belgian, Danish, Italian company, who is not a multinational, maybe it's just a small enterprise who trains young people and doesn't organise itself into holding companies in low-tax areas. But they compete with the multinational who can organise itself and that's not fair competition, if one company can have advantages another company cannot have."

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