Vestager: Men have had informal quotas for hundreds of years

Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager argued that her investigation focused only on avoiding “undue distortion of the internal market”. [European Commission]

Margrethe Vestager won the European Woman of Power award last night (1 December). She told EURACTIV.com in an interview that she supports gender quotas in the public institutions. She also said Günther Oettinger was the wrong Commissioner on the wrong plane.

The European Women’s Lobby said women are “woefully represented” in European politics. The late women’s rights activist Adela Ionela Dinu was also awarded a Women of Europe award yesterday.

Margrethe Vestager is European Commissioner for Competition. She is a former deputy premier of Denmark and held several ministerial portfolios. Vestager is the former leader of the Social Liberal Party.

The Commissioner spoke with EURACTIV’s Catherine Stupp.

A lot of lobbyists in Brussels call you the most powerful commissioner here. Some of them even fear you. Do you feel more powerful than your male colleagues in the Commission?

No, I don’t. I think it would be a strange thing to walk around feeling power. The only power we have is when we act and as a Commissioner, of course, we act in the job to do our best to serve our citizens in the concrete cases that we do.

There aren’t many women in top positions in EU politics. Even in the European Commission, less than half of the commissioners are women. Do you have any idea how that could be fixed?

I think you have to do a number of things at the same time. First of all, to make it something that you want so that you promote women at the top level. But also to make sure that at any level, you promote equal opportunity for men as well as women so that women can grow up as well as men in our political system, in parliaments, in governments, in order to be available and to be qualified for these kinds of positions. I think it’s also important culturally to work with our biases as to how we see people in power. I think that still for a lot of people the person in power is the man.

Do you think female politicians have to act differently or tougher than their male colleagues to make sure their voices aren’t drowned out?

Maybe to some degree, but instead of seeing that as a barrier I’d say it’s an opportunity to see that sometimes women can do more because we don’t have these sorts of very uniform roles as someone holding power. You can be more open, more flexible, and also concretely more colourful. To some degree, I think you also have a smaller distance to people because you can embody power in a different way. And that I think is a very needed renewal of how power can be embodied.

Are there advantages to being a female politician?

I think you can turn it that way but first, it has to be part of your mindset because it’s infused, talking about cultural bias, that a person in power is a man and you’re trying to be a man. Then, of course, you can’t use any of the possibilities that come with being a woman and the multitude of roles that women traditionally have embodied.

Vice President Kristalina Georgieva is leaving the Commission at the end of the year. How important do you think it is that she is replaced by another woman from Bulgaria?

That I don’t know. It, of course, depends on the woman. What I’m very happy about is that we have not only a European CEO of the World Bank but also a woman head of the World Bank. It’s a very important position that she will take up and I think it’s a great thing that we have a woman in that role as well. On a more personal note, I know her very well and I will miss her enormously because she has been doing a very big effort, also when it comes to promoting women in middle management and senior management in the Commission.

Vestager: ‘We have Amazon and McDonald’s in the pipeline’

EXCLUSIVE / Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition Commissioner, has drawn praise and criticism regarding the Ireland-Apple case. In an interview with EURACTIV.fr, she says Ireland’s appeal will actually strengthen the Commission’s case and says more tax rulings are in the pipeline, with Amazon and McDonald’s coming next.

When Georgieva took office she said she wanted to make sure half the middle and senior management positions in the Commission are held by women. Should there be gender quotas in the Commission or in other public institutions?

I think the way that she’s doing it is very good because she doesn’t make it a rule without exceptions. It has worked so far. I think two years ago 13% were women and by now it’s not quite 30% but at least 26% or something, so it definitely works. I have been very reluctant to vote for quotas all my life, but I realise that we’ve had informal quotas for men for hundreds of years. And see how well that worked? It has worked very well so why not challenge the concept.

To approve the Paks II nuclear plant project in Hungary, the Commission applied the ‘technical exclusivity’ exemption to allow the contract to go to the Russian company Rosatom. And then it came out that your colleague Commissioner Oettinger flew on the private plane of a lobbyist who worked for Orban. Do you have any concerns regarding the closure of the Commission’s investigation into Paks II?

No, I don’t. Because this is not Oettinger’s portfolio. This is with Elzbieta Bienkowska and myself. So if it ever was to work it was the wrong commissioner in that private plane.

Some older industries like the car industry are digitising and starting to see consumer data as an increasingly important part of their business models. Is big data the next big frontier for competition investigations?

Actually, we’ve been looking into these issues from different angles for quite some time. When we dig a little deeper we find that sometimes big data is of absolutely no concern because it’s data that will have lost its value within a week or a month or six months for that matter, or it may be data that are easily copied, easily replicated, easily sold. And then it cannot take the place of a barrier to entry or an asset that will enable you to outcompete competitors. On the other hand, we’re very aware that sometimes you may find big data sets where the data has a very, very long duration. Where it’s very hard to replicate. And then we might have competition concerns, but we haven’t had such a case yet. I know that in the US I think it was the FTC that ordered a company to license out a database in order for companies to be available to address a consumer group. I think there is one other example in France, relatively recently. It was a database held by the incumbent electricity provider where for other companies to be able to address a very specific group of customers they have to be able to make that dataset available. [Editor’s note: this was a 2014 decision from the French competition authority ordering GDF Suez, now Engie, to open up access to consumer data.] In our merger control or antitrust, we have not found these kinds of issues yet, but we’re extremely focused on whether or not it may happen.

Are those issues becoming more of a risk as the Internet of Things develops, meaning as more devices become connected to the internet?

I think the Internet of Things in part of industry is already a reality because sensors are placed on all kinds of items in order to get better data, to analyse and get better feedback. Part of it is that for some industries it’s very important to be able to cooperate on the internet of things and big data coming from the internet of things. There we try to advise in order for businesses to organise in a way that doesn’t make it a cartel, but makes it a real corporation. We opened a public consultation to ask for advice as to how to get the right mergers on our working desk. We have a threshold based on turnover and for us, it’s a theory that companies might merge where you don’t have the turnover yet and very important knowledge or data that will represent or approximate a future huge turnover that may distort competition. The tricky thing is to find objective rules for businesses to know when to notify and when not to notify.

What are your big targets for next year?

One of my targets, in general, is to close cases. It’s one thing to open cases, but it’s also important to be able to close them again. Otherwise, it’s very difficult to have a learning takeaway and to give guidance for the rest of industry. But that’s not specific for 2017 because it’s very difficult to make predictions as to when the casework is so progressed that we can actually take a decision.

Vestager: We should thank the Luxleaks whistleblowers

EXCLUSIVE / Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s powerful competition commissioner, believes “everyone should thank the whistleblowers and investigative journalists” who uncovered the so-called ‘Luxleaks’ scandal and says she is “personally in favour” of country-by-country reporting on corporate taxation.