European Hustle

European Elections: can Vestager define a new approach for a changing Europe?

Another edition for the beady eyed followers of European politics and the current Spitzenkandidaten race for the EU Commission president. This time, we look at the centreleft liberal candidate – Margarethe Vestager – leading the charge for ALDE. A pragmatic and well-respected politician on the European stage: is it just what Europe needs now, or is her offer out of touch with Europe’s reality? 

Margarethe Vestager seems to have it all. A glowing track record in the prestigious post of EU Commissioner for Competition has illustrated her grasp of EU politics and policies, proving the Danish Commissioner to be more than competent in using the limited powers of the EU to their full potential. She is also an excellent communicator (just hear her speak English!). Her pro-European, pragmatic and get-on-with-it reputation has also won her the backing of French President Macron and you may actually even have heard of her. But what does Margarethe Vestager foresee for Europe and will it ring in tune with the ensemble of Europe and its Member States? 

In spite of being fiercely European, Vestager hails from a non-Euro Member State. This means she could represent a happy compromise for non-Eurozone Member States who may have felt under-recognised by recent Commissions. She stands for many of the values of the liberal establishment, but does harbour some conservative views – particularly on finance. In her time as Danish Minister for the economy she ruthlessly cut welfare spending whilst in coalition with the socialists. All this could be important if she is to win over some of the Member States sitting further to right. 

During her campaign, Vestager has been keen to stress the importance of good implementation of existing EU rules. This could simply be careful positioning around the finger-in-the-air commitment by one of her competitors to slash 1000 regulations in office, but it does echo her tendency towards pragmatism. It doesn’t seem to add anything new to the debate however around EU bureaucracy, simply restating the Better Regulation Agenda that has been a guiding principle of the EU since around 2012. 

She also has an international reputation, although perhaps not always the best one. As Competition Commissioner she visited the USA during her antitrust campaigns against the dominance and tax avoidance of big American firms, seemingly to make peace with Trump on the issue. However, her visit ended with very negative press on the west side of the pond. In contrast, where it was reported, she was largely praised for her principled, pro-European and tough stance towards Europe’s American friends. On the other hand, whether this would be a positive characteristic for the Commission President and face of Europe for the 5-year duration of the next Commission remains to be seen: and could have big ramifications for the EU’s stance on any developments in Brexit which promises to cast a shadow over Europe for the foreseeable future. 

A fine string to Vestager’s bow is her clear understanding of Europe, both politically and practically. Her record for impact as Competition Commissioner has been impressive: during her term as Commissioner for Competition, taking on giants such as Facebook, Google and famously Apple, who has recently begun paying a €13 billion fine for state aid in the form of legitimate tax evasion in Ireland. She has a welcome grasp of EU politics and a knack for using its relatively weak tools for maximum impact. This experience and understanding could be invaluable driving priorities forward in turbulent waters as the EU’s position is weakened by an ever-more right-wing and Eurosceptic picture across Europe. 

Beyond better implementation of the EU’s laws (which, she does have a point on – compliance is far from 100%) she has also been quite vocal on the environment. Although ALDE only scored 38% in Climate Action Network’s recent report ‘Defenders, Delayers and Dinosaurs’ on the performance of EU political groups on climate change votes, compared to 61% for the S&D and nearly 85% for the Greens; Vestager has been keen to stress the importance of climate mainstreaming across the entire EU budget and not just the 25% allocated currently. She indicates that we may need to move to a new economic model based on resource efficiency and integrating the sustainable development goals into all areas of action. 

Vestager’s principled stance on the environment sounds great. On the other hand, like many of her policies, it’s not yet 100% clear how exactly we should move to a new economic model and system. As a liberal, she is keen to have the market take action, citing simply the need to better implement EU law and to set in place new targets. She has vocally supported the net-zero emissions goal for 2050 and seems to have an understanding that goes beyond the buzzwords about what environmental protection really means. Whether this would be enough, and whether it could gain the support of enough Member States remains to be seen. 

She essentially embodies the centre left views of what the European establishment has become known for. Her approach is not hugely new, echoing past efforts at better Regulation, but she may have the skill and aptitude to implement it with greater effect than ever seen before. 

Vestager also champions diversity and gender equality, presenting a fresh break from the older, white male statesman that has characterised Commission Presidents of the past. She is a better communicator than most, having had a real impact in her exchanges abroad and bringing a fresh way of working with her staff (she’s known to knit toy animals for her team). 

For all her bows, Margarethe Vestager is, however, a career politician. She appears to be able to grasp complex subjects quickly and commands a great deal of respect from colleagues who have worked with her for her ability to deliver. Her approach is conservative, but takes on fresh a perspective and focus, evolving from, rather than breaking with, the past. But Europe is changing. Will better implementation and new targets really be enough to set Europe onto a renewed track to unity and prosperity, or will her pro-Europe stance clash too strongly with an increasingly Eurosceptic Europe threatening to shatter into 28 or more fragments at any moment? 

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