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Margrethe Vestager dares take the fight to the giants

Margrethe Vestager dares take the fight to the giants

| Text: Marie Preisler Preisler, photo: Jennifer Jacquemart/EU

EU’s Danish Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager fights against the big ones bullying the little ones. It brings her respect at home and abroad.

When Margrethe Vestager served as Denmark’s Minister of the Economy and the Interior, unemployed Danish construction workers gave her the middle finger – literally, in plaster – as a “thank you” for her and the government’s decision to cut their unemployment benefits. 

Today she is the darling of the trade unions as a result of her work as the EU Commissioner for Competition, where she fights against big companies and tech giants undermining Danish and Nordic core values; the welfare state and a balanced labour market.

It is a remarkable turnaround, believes Henrik Kjerrumgaard, owner of consultancy firm White Cloud and a former advisor to Margrethe Vestager. He also used to run campaigns for the Danish Social Liberal Party. Before her EU career, Vestager was the party’s youngest ever leader.

Henrik Kjerrumgaard

Henrik Kjerrumgaard is a former special advisor to Margrethe Vestager. He was also campaign leader for the Danish Social Liberal Party. 

“The left of Danish politics and the trade unions have radically changed their view of Margrethe Vestager after she became an EU Commissioner. There is now real enthusiasm for her as a defender of welfare and jobs, but her ideological platform remains unchanged – to fight the unjust abuse of power,” says Henrik Kjerrumgaard. 

A new view of the EU

He points to four things Commissioner Margrethe Vestager has done that have been particularly important to labour markets and welfare in Europe. Perhaps the best known is the many cases the EU, led on by the Danish Commissioner for Competition, has been bringing against multinational companies and their failure to pay taxes. 

Several of these cases were already in the EU system before Margrethe Vestager started in her job as Commissioner, but none of her predecessors had chosen to take action. Perhaps they worried about the consequences, muses Henrik Kjerrumgaard. The Danish Commissioner dared to take action. 

“Meanwhile, she has also influenced the actual conversation about the tech giants – which have used to enjoy iconic status – to the extent that even in the USA there is now a debate about the necessity for some sort of regulation of technology businesses to stop things developing beyond control.”

The Danish Commissioner is also trying to prevent the platform economy from creating a proletariat of workers with no rights. Henrik Kjerrumgaard also believes it is thanks to Margrethe Vestager that the EU now has a better reputation among the Danish public.

“The EU has typically been seen as a large bureaucracy, but when Margrethe Vestager as Commissioner for Competition takes on some of the largest companies in the world people see that the EU is also a body that can make decisions.”

He believes that Vestager now enjoys more or less undivided support at home. She was reappointed as Commissioner by Denmark’s Social Democratic government despite the tradition of governments giving commissioner roles to someone from their own party.

Tax lady and verbal beatings

She is also a well-known and respected profile on the international stage, although more well-known than respected among certain state leaders. Former US President Donald Trump called her Europe’s “tax lady” and ”perhaps worse than any person I’ve ever met”.

Margrethe Vestager

Margrethe Vestager is safe in her chair at her office at Berleymont in Bruxelles. She was re-elected in 2019. Photo: Xavier Lejeune.

Yet Margrethe Vestager has stood tall in the face of verbal beatings from political opponents throughout her political career. She thanked the construction workers for the extended middle finger in plaster by meeting them in person a few days later. She called their “present” “an example of our democratic rights and opportunities, but also a reminder that our rights only survive if we make use of them. So let us debate and discuss.” 

Margrethe Vestager’s career has been characterised by her willingness to push through difficult decisions, something which has only been possible because she is brave, has integrity, shows leadership and a measure of determination, said Svend Thorhauge, leader for the Social Liberal Party in his speech at Margrethe Vestager’s 50th birthday.

He also mentioned her energy and debating talent:

“One really has to get up early to have a chance to keep up with you. Your work capacity is phenomenal. And you are able to explain the most complicated of issues.”

Others have accused her of carrying a certain amount of arrogance and brutality behind an apparently open and friendly attitude. 

Working around the clock

At the start of her career, some of the public clashes hurt, says Henrik Kjerrumgaard, who was her special advisor between 2011 and 2014. During this period, she was responsible for securing political agreement on major policy reforms – including a halving of the time people could claim unemployment benefits and longer working hours for teachers.

Both these reforms were met with tough criticism. What was most uncomfortable for Margrethe Vestager was that her children were also confronted with this in school, remembers Henrik Kjerrumgaard. He says she can be personal in media interviews without becoming private, and she never accepts interviews in her own home.

Margrethe Vestager’s husband lives in Denmark, and Henrik Kjerrumgaard therefore thinks she will return at the end of her term at the EU Commission. But she will probably not go back to Danish politics. Her brand, international results and drive are all too big for that, believes Henrik Kjerrumgaard.

“We will see her in prominent international positions for many years to come. Her skills will be needed in the face of the many changes the world is facing, and she can work around the clock. When the rest of us on team Margrethe were exhausted, she was always ready to carry on – and if there was no more work to be done she set about baking buns.”

A self-declared feminist

Margrethe Vestager is also a knitter and a self-declared feminist. She told Femina magazine that we are moving towards gender equality in the workplace “at a completely unacceptably slow speed”. 

In that same interview she said this about leadership and boardroom gender quotas: 

“If you had asked me 15 years ago I would have said ‘QUOTAS? No, that is for fish’. But I have come to realise that we have had an informal male quota of around 95% for a few hundred years now. And that has worked really well. For the men. This points to the fact that quotas do, of course, work. So I think they should just accept the offer of balance and say ‘super’ if it is to be fair at all. If not we will have 70% men in powerful positions for the next 100 years."

Margrethe Vestager
  • EU’s Commissioner for Competition and Executive Vice-President of the EU Commission. 
  • Former Danish MP and a government minister at 29. She has served as Minister for Employment, Minister of Education and Ecclesiastical Affairs, Minister for Economic and Interior Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister. 
  • Former leader of the Danish Social Liberal Party
  • She has three daughters – Maria, Rebecca and Ella – with her husband Thomas Jensen, a lecturer. 
  • 53 years old.

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