Margrethe Vestager says the Commission is pushing the digital single market in preparation for the next, more industrial, stage of digitalisation.  Guy Wolff/Maison Moderne

Margrethe Vestager says the Commission is pushing the digital single market in preparation for the next, more industrial, stage of digitalisation.  Guy Wolff/Maison Moderne

At the end of an intense one-day visit to Luxembourg, European Commissioner for competition, Margrethe Vestager, granted our colleagues from Paperjam a brief interview at the European Investment Bank.

Europe woke up this Monday morning to the horrific images from Bucha and what is happening in Ukraine...

Margrethe Vestager: I find it very difficult to find the right words. The invasion itself... This aggression. Why is this happening? Why is this happening? It doesn't make sense.

Are we doing enough in Europe? Our dependence on Russian gas means that every day €800m go to pay Gazprombank and into the Russian economy...

The most important thing is to maintain the existing sanctions. Okay, there are holes that need to be plugged. You have to keep more people on the lists, more and more import-export bans and, of course, keep working with all the elements on the table to see what can be done and what we can agree on. The Commission wants two thirds of the member states to be independent of Russian gas by the end of the year. Of course, the member states are trying to see how they can adapt to this ambition. We have built up our dependence for decades. And now we have to get out of it in a few months. All options are on the table because we don't know what will happen. It is far from over.

Especially when you have a gas crisis, it's important to know if someone is manipulating the market. The gas market is behaving very strangely indeed.
 Margrethe Vestager

 Margrethe VestagerEuropean Commissioner

The situation is tense and yet your services have announced an investigation into the gas sector in Germany. Was this really the right time to launch such a procedure?

I cannot comment on the investigation. We confirm that it is taking place. Especially when you have a gas crisis, it is important to know if someone is manipulating the market. The gas market is really behaving very strangely. There could be competition problems and it is our role to look into these problems.

Does that imply that you don't have a good enough view of a sector, of this sector, in normal times?

What do you do in an inspection? Usually you download all the documents of a company. You can see everything it does, everything its managers do, including internal correspondence between the CEO and the CFO, marketing plans, risk analyses, and the European Commission doesn't have that kind of knowledge, on a daily basis, of every company in Europe.

The other big topic on your table at the moment revolves around European legislation for the digital sector. Do we need permanent regulation when the tech giants have made a specialty of going through the motions?

This is my eighth year in this job. I've had not one Google case, not two, but three. We have a fourth one open. We're investigating how Facebook, now Meta, constructed a deal to eject a third-party player from an advertising market. We had two Amazon cases, then two more Amazon cases, three Apple cases and a Facebook case. What I saw when I took them on one by one was that they changed. What was clear at the end of my first term is that we still need to do more. We have to complete what we are doing. That's why we decided to embark on the texts around the Digital Market Act. It allows us to designate gatekeepers and indicate how they should behave in their markets. Give people their data back. Allow people to switch app shops. Don't promote yourself at the expense of others. This combination of specific cases and legislation makes the market safer. Many more companies have a chance to reach customers.

Who is going to pay for access to this level of opportunity?

We need more resources in the European budget. And we need to make the gatekeepers responsible. The idea is simply that if you are successful, you also have responsibilities. On the other hand--the Digital Services Act--during the negotiations it was proposed that a contribution would be paid by the gatekeepers themselves to finance supervision.

A few days ago, you said that you did not see any particular problem in the cloud sector. For the past two days, we have been hearing about a Microsoft Azure case... Could you help us understand this?

There is a difference between looking at a specific case because someone complained and looking at an industry in general. General discussions are about how cloud services are delivered. Whether the user has a real choice. In the Data Act, we proposed that you should have the ability to switch providers, not be locked into one. This is a fairly general measure because there is a need for different qualities of cloud, depending on what you would like to store as data. If it's very sensitive, you'll need a very good quality cloud.

So there is a Microsoft case...

I don't know yet. We got the complaint. We are analysing it.

A complaint from another player? Or a group of players?

Yes. But I am not going to comment.

In the context of discussions about European sovereignty, can you imagine that the highest quality standard of the cloud is reserved for the most sensitive data, such as identity or health data?

There are several situations. With Gaia-X, there is the intention to develop a label. Those who have the label guarantee quality. Then my colleague [commissioner for justice] Didier Reynders is negotiating with the Americans. We have an agreement in principle on how data can be transferred. Both situations can exist at the same time. Both must guarantee that if the data is to be protected, it will be protected.

If you want to do business in Europe, you are welcome if you respect the European rules.
 Margrethe Vestager

 Margrethe VestagerEuropean Commissioner

After seven and a half years in office, you are a keen observer. All this regulation does not seem to have led to the emergence of a European super champion. Is regulation the solution, or not?

We are not here to have a European champion. That is not the job of a political actor. My role is to ensure that the market is open and that competition exists. Companies must come up with good ideas, good products, compete. A lot of players are already very happy with what is being offered to them... by the American technology companies. And Europe has to be open for business. If you want to do business in Europe, you are welcome if you respect the European rules. We must have sufficiently precise rules.

At a time when European sovereignty is being undermined, when data is key, it would be good, wouldn't it, to have players created in Europe?

It depends a lot on who wants to store data. It's not for me to decide. We are an enabler, in the sense that you can change providers even when you have accepted a very good offer. You should have a choice. I don't think the problem is not to have a European Google or a European Facebook, because the next stage of digitalisation is coming, which is much more industrial. Industry, agriculture, mobility, energy, everything is going digital. The public sector, health. We have very well-prepared sectors that have integrated technology and are combining it with the trends in these sectors. Europe should not miss this, because this is where we have strengths. That is what we support. That's why the deployment of 5G is so important. Connectivity is very important. We are pushing this digital single market, these different sources of available capital. All the sectors where Europe has so much to offer need to be digitised.

Do you think we are moving fast enough, compared to our American and Asian competitors, in terms of digitising all these sectors?

I am impatient by nature! So maybe I'm not the right person to answer this question because I still think we are not moving fast enough.

Many of us are impatient for Europe to play in the big league...

It's not a problem that American companies are coming here. But that the Europeans don't see that they also have a chance to be at their level! I think we are making progress here. In the US, the telecom market is very concentrated, with higher prices and less connectivity. We have to look at how the Europeans are moving forward on this. Very often we compare ourselves too much with the Americans instead of looking at what we have. To see that we have a market with several players, where you can switch to another one when you are not satisfied.

So we should have better storytellers of European success...

Yes, and they should be more assertive, more demonstrative about what we do. Take semiconductors. Europe is a must if you want to produce semiconductors because the equipment to produce them is made in Europe. The biggest and most important part of the research is done in Europe. Of course, we don't have large-scale semiconductor production launches. But if we build on the strengths we have, Europe will have a much bigger role to play in the global ecosystem.

But if you look at Intel and its plans to develop large factories in Europe, fortunately there are... tens of billions of euros of public support!

Yes, but they are going to do it in cooperation with European players. This will benefit the whole supply chain, it gives proximity between production to develop our skills. More and more European companies will be involved in these developments. We will be careful that they do not receive more aid than necessary while financing pilot production lines. In a digitalised economy, many more companies will be able to benefit.

We have to provide a signal that even our work can be improved and that we are committed to that.
 Margrethe Vestager

 Margrethe VestagerEuropean Commissioner

Let's just go back to antitrust rules for a second. You've announced that regulators are looking to update the rules, which target companies that abuse their market power and those that set up illegal cartels, to make them more effective...

Especially Regulation 1/2003, the core of our antitrust enforcement framework. We will talk to the different stakeholders and do studies. Access to documents when you are accused of something needs to be reviewed, is it possible to speed up the processes? Because for most honest companies, [the Commission] acting faster on the dishonest ones is important. Keeping the quality of our work, but faster and with tools that work better. It's going to take some time. We have to provide a signal that even our work can be improved and that we are committed to that.

Will you take on board considerations such as the criticism that, when it comes to mergers and acquisitions, you look very much at the consequences for the European regional market and not enough at the global market?

The problem is not that a merger creates a company that can compete with another company, but that the consumer does not have the possibility to turn to another player. The market is not global, but today we are at 65%. The success of European companies is not necessarily to be a giant. A company in my country, specialising in hydrogen from ammonium, has 2,000 employees, but owns 75-79% of the equipment that produces ammonium. It is a success in their market, but not a giant. It's important to recognise companies that are very successful in what they do, even when they are not giants. This idea needs to be qualified.

As a financial centre, in Luxembourg we hope that the discussions around the MiCa directive on crypto-currencies will soon be over. But in general, how do you view this “cryptoworld”, which by its very nature intends to be decentralised, and therefore not under the control of services like yours?

We are watching and learning, because so far it is in development. There is a lot to understand. We are in regular contact with our colleagues in financial services to learn from them, how they see these developments. Because it's not stable yet.

What is your understanding of bitcoin? Do you find it too energy intensive?

From an energy point of view, we understand why bitcoin has such a high value... because it is very expensive to mine. Even before the energy crisis, it used a lot of electricity.

Finally, a word about the Green Deal. How can your department contribute to achieving the European targets?

If you look at the rules on state aid, we have changed them. To support this, instead of having guidelines on aid that concern energy and environmental protection, we have guidelines on climate, energy and environmental protection. We allow 'contracts to make a difference'. When you have a renewable energy project, we try to support all decarbonisation approaches. We also look at how to help players who want to cooperate and are a bit nervous that the Commission won't find that they are forming a cartel. They might come to us with their projects before they start. And if we don't have a fundamental problem, these companies would find comfort in that.

This article was and has been translated and edited by Delano.