Business Irish

Friday 23 August 2019

Commissioner's crusade leaves us 'offside' with EU

'Ms Vestager is nothing if not a political battler.' Photo: REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
'Ms Vestager is nothing if not a political battler.' Photo: REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
John Downing

John Downing

"The benefits of globalization do not trickle down automatically. It takes politics to make sure that there is a benefit."

That was how the EU's Competition Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, summed up her many struggles with multinational companies over their tax status in an interview with the Washington Post last month.

Viewed from Ireland, her €13bn fine verdict against Apple last August was a catastrophe.

But many people in Brussels and the other EU capitals also saw it as a first real attempt to take on the stateless multinational corporations which played one jurisdiction against the other to cheat ordinary citizens. It was styled as an attempt by the EU to hit back and deliver some of its stated mission to ameliorate the effects of globalisation.

On a purely philosophical level, Irish politicians would identify with this one in principle as a much-needed effort to reconnect the European project with ordinary citizens. But then again, pinning down multinational firms, and US multinationals especially, on taxation cuts deep into Ireland's long-established efforts to attract overseas investment with a low rate of corporate tax.

Ms Vestager (48) is nothing if not a political battler. A former Danish deputy prime minister, she was part of the inspiration for the main character in the Danish cult political series 'Borgen'.

The EU Competition Commissioner has unusually far-reaching direct powers to clamp down on cartels and restrictive practices.

But her use of these powers - in whacking Apple with a €13bn fine last August and catching Ireland in the crossfire - was without parallel.

The figure was greater than the sum of all fines, corrections and clawbacks, levied by the EU against all commercial entities since the turn of this century.

She is the daughter of Lutheran pastors and her memories are full of people coming to the family home seeking advice and support. She brushes off suggestions her work is about addressing the rising tide of Euroscepticism - insisting instead that her work concerns a battle against greed.

But she is known for her steely approach to politics and is renownedly difficult to dissuade once her mind is made up. It is noted that on a coffee table in her Brussels office is a cast of a hand with an upraised middle finger - an angry "gift" from a Danish trade union group which unsuccessfully lobbied her against plans to cut welfare payments.

She keeps it as a reminder that political decisions do not please everyone.

Colleagues have noted her background in a small niche party which did not court popularity. The focus of her politics has been about getting some specific things done, irrespective of how many others she enrages. For many in Brussels this is exactly what is needed right now.

Irish Independent

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