Margrethe Vestager hit back Thursday against criticism that she was going overboard in trying to make markets fair, arguing that her investigators had no intention of behaving like “superheroes.”
“It’s not our job to rush around looking for people to rescue, getting involved in anything that looks unfair,” the powerful European commissioner for competition told a conference in Brussels.
As Europe’s top legal enforcer Vestager faces criticism for putting too much emphasis on the idea that companies should behave fairly.
Vestager on Wednesday handed down a billion-euro fine against U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm for abusing a dominant position, and in the past few years she has meted out major penalties against firms ranging from Google to the Volkswagen Group. In her speeches she regularly riffs on the idea of fairness — much more so than her predecessors.
But the former Danish politician argued that her office was not guided by any misplaced or naive idealism. “Talking of fairness like that doesn’t make us Don Quixote,” she told the gathering, which was organized by the Global Competition Law Center.
Instead Vestager, who is a keen knitter, argued that the only principle guiding her action in antitrust cases is European law and decades of case precedent. “In our work on competition, like any good knitter, we have a pattern to follow,” she said.
Even so, the notion of fairness in markets, she said, is more than “just communication.”
Vestager said that the principle of fairness was good to keep in mind when identifying priority cases at the early stage of procedure, as her staff worked to sort through dozens of tips and complaints and potential breaches.
She cited a case completed last year where the Commission ordered the International Skating Union to drop rules that made it near-impossible for speed skaters to compete in rival events.
Fairness is a legitimate reference point, she said, because ensuring markets are perceived as fair is also one of the overall objectives of competition rules.
“For millennia, rulers have seen it as part of their job to make sure that markets work fairly for everyone,” she said, citing the stone-inscribed laws of the ancient Babylonian king, Hammurabi.
“They’ve known it was dangerous to fail in that responsibility. Because when people feel cheated by the market, they very easily lose trust in their whole society.”