EU antitrust chief Vestager gets another five-year term with more powers

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe’s antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager will retain her job for another five years but with more powers to go after Facebook, Apple and Amazon and their massive hoovering up of consumer data.

European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager addresses a news conference on an antitrust case in Brussels, Belgium July 18, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Incoming European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen on Tuesday named Vestager as European competition commissioner tasked with making Europe fit for the digital age for the 2019-2024 period, giving her an unprecedented second term in an influential position.

Appointed to her post in 2014, the former Danish economics minister quickly set her sights on U.S. tech giants, eventually handing out more than 8 billion euros in fines to Alphabet unit Google for throttling rivals.

She also launched a crackdown on tax avoidance by multinationals and ordered i-Phone maker Apple to pay some 13 billion euros in back taxes to Ireland related to an illegal sweetheart tax deal. Similar orders also went out to Starbucks, Amazon, McDonald’s and others.

That earned her the ire of U.S. President Donald Trump who called her Europe’s tax lady.

Vestager said she did not intend to rest on her laurels.

“It’s a big task. And the other thing is also that the next five years of the competition portfolio will be different from the last five years,” she told Reuters TV.

Ongoing cases which Vestager is looking into include Facebook’s use of data to its proposed Libra cryptocurrency and Amazon’s use of merchant data to make copycat products to Apple’s apps fees.

The tech industry should beware, said James Aitken, partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

“Vestager will be particularly well placed to take forward the proposals made by the panel of digital experts, published in April this year, to strengthen scrutiny of digital markets and companies,” he said.

The telecoms industry could see a tougher line toward mergers, said a trader.

“She has blocked a number of telco deals... and just when they really need consolidation to get better economics and to reverse the trend of declining ROIs over the last decade this is really bad news for the industry,” the trader said.

Microsoft, forced to change its business practices and penalized close to 2 billion euros after a 10-year battle with EU antitrust enforcers, welcomed Vestager’s reappointment.

“We congratulate Executive Vice President designate Vestager on her nomination to oversee a Europe Fit for Digital Age,” the company said.

Vestager, together with other candidates for other posts, will be grilled by the European Parliament and the entire Commission must secure EU lawmakers’ approval before taking office in November.

Reporting by Foo Yun Chee, additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and John Chalmers in Brussels and Josephine Mason in London; Editing by Ed Osmond