Who’d be a politician? Despite being dubbed the most powerful woman in Brussels, Margrethe Vestager may soon be out of a job.
Her five-year mandate as the EU’s Competition Commissioner comes to an end in October. Regardless of her high profile it seems unlikely that she’ll win enough support for her recently declared candidature for the EU’s top job of European Commission President.
To add insult to injury, there have been no messages of support from the leadership of Denmark’s Social Democrats, victors of the recent national elections there, meaning she is unlikely to remain in her current role.
Commission appointments are ultimately political, meaning it would be no surprise if the Danes opt for another candidate when the new European Commission is being appointed later this year.
Ms Vestager has, undoubtedly, left an indelible mark on the Competition Commissioner role. Fines totalling over €8bn levied on Google for multiple abuse of dominance findings, as well as illegal State aid decisions against tech giants such as Apple - in the amount of €13bn - and Amazon have set a high bar for her successor.
The recent opening of significant investigations by the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice - the two bodies which enforce competition laws in the US - into the activities of the so-called 'GAFA' – Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple; the four most powerful American technology companies – is also telling.
For a long time, Commissioner Vestager ploughed a lonely furrow withstanding accusations of bias in her enforcement priorities against US businesses.
The question remains - what will happen to European competition policy in Commissioner Vestager’s absence?
Ms Vestager followed the mission statement of her predecessor, Joaquín Almunia, and will likely look to set the tone for her own successor. It is now a tradition in Brussels for departing commissioners to end their mandates by attempting to set the agenda for those who will follow after.
Mr Almunia exited stage left in 2014, but not before setting the wheels in motion for the provision of greater enforcement powers to all national competition authorities across the EU.
He wanted to ensure that all national authorities could enforce competition law rules with the same level of effectiveness, and we’ve seen significant legislative strides in this area.
This is a long-anticipated measure that may have significant effects in Ireland as it should, in principle, allow the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) to levy administrative fines on companies breaching competition law without the need to pass via the DPP and the Irish courts system.
So, what might Commissioner Vestager leave on the agenda for her successor?
Her actions, thus far, suggest that she’ll look to keep any new commissioner focused squarely on the technology sector and the digital world. This overlaps with her flagship cases against the likes of Google, Apple and the microchip's manufacturer Qualcomm.
From a policy perspective, technology is changing so rapidly that existing methods of enforcement can seem outdated quickly as platforms and algorithms change and we struggle to keep pace.
Commissioner Vestager took a series of measures to counteract this potential threat during her mandate, including appointing a number of digital experts to consider the challenges that digitisation poses to competition law policy. Their findings became the subject of a detailed, lengthy report which was recently published. Commissioner Vestager will want to see the findings from this report implemented and forming the basis of the competition agenda in the digital era going forward.
Her legacy will largely depend on her successor having the courage to follow the trail she has blazed and implement the plans she has set in motion.
- Ronan Dunne is partner and head of competition, regulated markets and EU law at law firm Philip Lee