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The EU Commission's Margrethe Vestager is world-renowned for taking up the fight against tech giants. She talked to DW about informal quotas for men and what she admires about German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Margrethe Vestager is one of the brightest stars in Brussels. She is one of the continent's most powerful women — as a representative of the EU's executive body, the European Commission — and a leader known not only to the EU bubble of politicians, journalists and lobbyists but to a much bigger audience.
The media dubbed her "the world's most famous regulator" for taking up the fight against tech giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon since day one in Brussels. First serving as a commissioner for competition in 2014, since 2019 the Dane is also one of the EU executive's vice-presidents responsible for a crucial portfolio: Digital affairs. In this role, 52-year-old Vestager brought antitrust charges against Google, ordered Amazon to repay hundreds of millions of euros in taxes, and drew the attention of former US President Donald Trump, who called her the "tax lady." Showing her sense of humor, she replied by completing her "own fact-checking," as she put it: "I do work with tax and I am a woman."
We spoke to Vestager as part of the ongoing series "Merkel's Era: The Women of Power." Asked by DW if she could identify with titles she had been given, such as "a giant killer," a "dragon slayer," or "Google's worst nightmare," Vestager laughed and said: "I think it comes with the job. Because what I identify with is to enable people." Individuals and smaller businesses starting out need space in order to scale up, thrive and to be successful, Vestager said.
That space, in her eyes, is often occupied by big companies. "With size comes responsibility," is a mantra Vestager likes to repeat in press conferences and interviews. "With size also came the economic power for some companies to dominate markets in ways that threaten fair competition," she said in December 2020 when presenting a new EU landmark proposal that could curb the power of big tech companies, revolutionizing the internet as we know it.
Vestager grew up in rural Denmark as the eldest of four children. She has described herself as an introvert, a once shy girl, someone who had to learn how to conquer a room. She managed to put herself out there by realizing that "if you want to change the world, you need to be in the world," and that "you need to say who you are." Vestager told DW she started by presenting herself as a candidate for the student council in school. "It went well," she said — and was a building block. "And then when you have a small success, you can build the next success."
The Dane went into politics in her early 20s, taking on leadership roles in the Danish Social Liberal Party "Radikale Venstre" from the beginning. Vestager, who has three daughters, was the first female minister to give birth while serving in office. She was, of course, not the first parent — as many male ministers before her had become parents while in office — but reactions to a woman doing so was different. "People were like 'well, of course, it's fine, kind of alright, but can it work?'" When the baby needed to eat she had to ask the speaker of the chamber if she would be allowed to leave for a quarter of an hour. "You know, nowadays, how did I manage? But you can manage the most daring tasks if you dare," Vestager told DW.
Despite her many successes, Vestager also had to cope with setbacks. For example when a billion-dollar fine against Apple was later annulled by the EU's second-highest court. Or when German politician Ursula von der Leyen got the job as the European Commission's first female president — a job Vestager also wanted. "I considered for 10, 15 seconds if I should be bitter and resentful or support her in full," Vestager said. "But supporting her, I thought, could enable us to do wonderful things."
Margrethe Vestager next to Ursula von der Leyen and her almost gender-balanced European Commission (November 2019)
The Dane, an avid knitter and passionate baker, sticks out in Brussels not only because of her political work but also because of her unique style of wearing colorful dresses. Asked by DW if she, as a woman in power, minds talking about appearances, Vestager said she was "perfectly fine discussing any kind of clothes."
"I feel sorry for my male colleagues because they don't seem to have the same range of things that you can do. I can put on color, I can put on flowers, I can be more or less formal." She added that she feels there is still a sort of power uniform, which is a male suit. "You're supposed to dress like a man, talk like a man, cut your hair like a man in order to part of the power club." But in Vestager's view women should not force themselves to fit this pattern. "Why bother? You can bring much more into the power game, you can make it broader, you can it make it more diverse, you can make it more accessible if you remain who you are."
"Being a woman can be so much more than a stereotype," Vestager said. "As can being a man." That's also one of the reasons why the Dane considers herself a feminist, as someone who is fighting for equal opportunities.
'Men had informal quotas for hundreds of years'
Calling herself a feminist is something that differentiates her from another powerful European woman: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said in 2017 she wouldn't want to give herself that label. The two have met on several occasions. Politically, Vestager, a liberal, and Merkel, a conservative, are not necessarily on the same page, but the Dane explained she admired that the German chancellor was so calm, so considered. "She seems to be listening to all the things going on around her, all different opinions coming to the table." Vestager told DW that this was a political process she appreciated because it created ownership and therefore better solutions.
Merkel is the first and so far only female chancellor in Germany, but has long opposed women quotas in politics and in business, changing course only recently. When starting out in politics as a young woman, Vestager was also critical of the approach. "I said, oh, no, no, no, no, quotas, this is just for fish."
She thought that if women were clever, hardworking and talented they would find their way. "Then I realized that men had informal quotas for hundreds of years of 95, 98%. And it has worked so well for them."
Even if it is no longer unusual to be a woman in politics, "we still have to go very far," Vestager said. "You may be in politics. You may be on the social committee, but only when you're also balanced in the economic committee, we will see things are shifting."