Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager became very possibly the first serving European Commissioner to speak at a TED Conference on her recent visit to New York on 20th September 2017.
Mme Vestager is somewhat of a bête noire in the United States having only earlier this year levied a record $2.4bn fine against Google, and the Commission’s ruling that Apple pay €13bn in tax charges to Ireland gained as a result of illegal Irish State Aid the year before that. Not for nothing has Vestager been described by CNBC as “the woman taking on Silicon Valley tech giants, one fine at a time”.
In her speech Vestager makes the connection between how fairness in the markets — and the corrective action to ensure it exists undertaken by DG Competition — can establish trust in society and each other. Citing the example of car components and parts, she highlighted how the Commission has taken corrective action against several European car part cartels, with others under current investigation with the US Department of Justice now also involved.
Margrethe Vestager at TEDGlobal NYC, September 20, 2017, The Town Hall, New York. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED
However, it is not only companies forming illegal cartels, price fixing and otherwise undermining competition, but Governments, she declared, do it too when they hand out tax-payer financed subsidies to “a few favoured businesses”, specifically mentioning Fiat, Starbucks and Apple as beneficiaries of preferential tax arrangements with a number of European governments which the Commission has ruled to be illegal State Aid.
Continuing her theme, she said:
“Those subsidies stop other companies competing on equal terms. They can mean that the companies that succeed are the ones that get the most subsidies or are the best connected. And not – as they should be – the ones that serve consumers best.”
Competition rules, she declared, together with regulation can help to make sure that market technologies treat people fairly and by doing so ensure that all participate on a level playing field so trust by consumers (and, by extension, taxpayers) contributes to the continued benefit of society. Mme Vestager’s TED talk concluded with:
“And [this] starts with enforcing our competition rules.”
By Alun Williams, ETCP Lecturer and Senior Expert in ESIF & Competition rules (State Aid, Public Procurement, Public-private partnership), Founder and Managing Director at Arfon Consulting Ltd