by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Here’s a name to conjure with: Margrethe Vestager. Ring a bell with you? An old girlfriend from your backpacking days around Europe maybe? Or Emmanuelle’s best friend in the 1970s “sophisticated” series of sex movies perhaps? No? Nothing else come to mind? Okay, I’ll give you a clue. She’s Danish and she’s just told the Apple Corporation to pay the Irish government $13 billion in back taxes that Ireland says Apple doesn’t owe.
“Crazy name, crazy gal” as Private Eye writes from time to time? Not really. Apple, Ireland, the U.S. government, and the world’s multinational corporations all take Ms. Vestager very seriously indeed. She has clout. Ms. Vestager is the competition commissioner in the European Union.
That’s why you’ve never heard of her. Nor Neelie Kroes? She was one of Vestager’s predecessors as competition commissioner. Anonymity goes with the job of EU commissioner.
There are 28 of them, none elected, all appointed by their national governments, all wielding great power over everything from trade to justice throughout Europe, and none of them known outside their own families or the (often small) political parties in which they rose from (and to) obscurity. An exaggeration? Well, here are a few of their names: Kristalina Georgieva, Maros Sefcovic, Jyrki Katainen, and Neven Mimica, running the EU budget, energy, jobs, and international development commissions respectively. Not convinced yet? Well, Martin Durkin, who made the documentary Brexit: The Movie, showed photographs of leading EU officials to passers-by in the streets of Brussels and no one recognized them. In Brussels!
Becoming an EU commissioner is a little like joining an FBI witness-protection program. Yes, you have job security, a pension program, and people looking after you day and night, but you disappear from public view into a wilderness of committees — emerging again only if you have to appear in court.
Ms. Westager may shortly have to appear in court to defend her decision to define a tax arrangement between Apple and Dublin (which doesn’t come under EU authority) as a form of “state aid” (which does) in order to hit Apple and other U.S. and multinational corporations with huge tax bills. Much EU business is dull beyond belief. But Ms. Westager’s ruling, supported by the entire European Commission, has really upset the Apple cart.