On October 22, 2014, the European Parliament approved the College of Commissioners set forth by European Commission (EC) President–elect Jean-Claude Juncker. The new EC will take office on November 1.
Margrethe Vestager, formerly Denmark’s deputy prime minister and minister for economic and interior affairs, has been appointed as Competition Commissioner. She has lined up Ditte Juul-Jørgensen, a former DG Trade official, as Head of her Cabinet and Linsey McCallum, currently Director of DG COMP's information, communication, and media unit, as Deputy Head of her Cabinet.
Verstager’s announced enforcement priorities include:
- The digital market – including not only the pending Google investigation, but also, importantly, the ongoing consolidation of the telecom sector, as well as restrictive practices and mergers affecting big data, e-commerce and audio-visual services
- The energy sector – notably, the resolution of the ongoing Gazprom case and the allegations of oil price benchmark manipulations, as well as the acceleration of the liberalization of the energy market and the transition to a green economy
- Financial services – including the ongoing benchmarking investigations, and the recovery and stabilization of the banking sector
- The fight against tax evasion – in this regard, the antitrust arsenal is being used to challenge a series of tax rulings granted by authorities in Member States with favorable tax regimes
Vestager’s three-hour confirmation hearing before the European Parliament on October 2 revealed her stance on several hot topics.
Like all of her predecessors, Vestager plans on being tough on cartels. She noted that fines should be “so big that they will ruin any undue profits” made from a cartel.
In response to a number of questions, which relate to telecom operators’ requests for more relaxed competition rules, Vestager stood firm on the position that EU competition law would not be relaxed to create “European Champions.” When asked about how personal data rich companies are able to enjoy near monopoly positions, Vestager acknowledged that policymakers need to quickly improve their understanding of the relationship between personal data and EU competition law. She noted, “I very much recognize the profile of big data as being the new currency of the internet.”
From a practitioner’s point of view, the former Competition Commissioner, Joaquin Almunia, faced mounting criticism over his enforcement style. Procedurally, Almunia’s term saw an increasing use of cartel settlements and opaque commitments to resolve antitrust disputes. On substance, his term was marked by an attempt to stretch the boundaries of hard-core violations (restrictions by object) to complex sets of fact and/or untested theories of harm, sometimes to the detriment of robust legal and economic analyses. It remains to be seen whether and, if so, how Vestager will address the above concerns.