Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s commissioner for competition, who last week took on the colossus that is Google, has a reputation for toughness.
She is also an accomplished knitter.
Last year, as Ms. Vestager was leaving her job as Denmark’s minister of the economy, she gave her successor a hand-knit toy elephant — she often works on them during staff meetings — noting that the animals “bear no grudge, but they remember well.”
That is something of a motto for Ms. Vestager, who was in Washington last week meeting with government officials, making television appearances and public speeches — and being barraged with questions about Google.
In Brussels last Wednesday, she filed formal antitrust charges against the company, saying that the search engine giant had abused its market dominance by systematically favoring its own comparison shopping service over those of its rivals. If Google fails to refute the charges, the company could face a fine of more than 6 billion euros.
On Thursday afternoon, Ms. Vestager, 47, was sitting with notably confident bearing on a stage in Washington and listening to an audience of policy wonks and technology trade group executives challenge that decision.
Why pursue Google for anticompetitive practices, her American interrogators wanted to know, when antitrust regulators in the United States had closed a similar inquiry without formally finding wrongdoing? And why bother with the online shopping sector at all, they asked, when Google was competing with the likes of Amazon?
Ms. Vestager delivered her standard, steely, it’s-not-personal rebuttals.
“We have no grudge, we have no fight with Google,” she told an audience after a speech at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “We have a focus on a certain conduct, a certain behavior, which, if our doubts are going to be proven, we would like to change because we believe that it hampers competition.”
Ms. Vestager took over as the European antitrust chief last fall after having served as Denmark’s minister for the economy and the interior. The fact that she had the mettle to take on Google comes as no surprise to her political colleagues and rivals back home. In certain circles, she is known as the “Iron Lady of Denmark.”
As minister of the economy, for instance, she pushed for changes to Denmark’s generous social welfare benefits, including substantially curtailing unemployment benefits. Subsequently, a group of jobless builders presented her with a gift: a life-size sculpture of a hand with a raised middle digit. She keeps the artifact prominently displayed on a coffee table at her office in the European Commission.
“You can accuse Margrethe Vestager of many things,” said Bo Lidegaard, the editor in chief of Politiken, a Danish newspaper, “but not of being afraid.”
When asked about her reputation for toughness in a phone interview last week, Ms. Vestager acted taken aback.
“I don’t think of it as toughness,” Ms. Vestager said. Of her approach to her new job, she added: “Consumers depend on us to make sure that competition is fair and open, and it’s my responsibility to make that happen.”
The charges Ms. Vestager leveled against Google jump-start an antitrust case against the company that had been percolating in Brussels for more than five years. The overarching issue is whether Google abused its market dominance. In some countries in Europe, Google has a 90 percent or larger market share, giving it greater dominance than in the United States.
Ms. Vestager’s predecessor, Joaquín Almunia, had pursued a wide-ranging investigation into the company’s practices. But he tried and failed three times to reach a settlement with Google.
She has taken a narrower and more assertive approach.
“It was obvious that a negotiated solution was not a possibility,” Ms. Vestager said in the phone interview. “So I felt we should go in another direction.”
That direction was filing formal charges, called a statement of objection, accusing Google of favoring its own comparison shopping service, called Google Shopping. In practical terms, the commission found that when a consumer used Google to search for shopping-related information, the site systematically displayed the company’s own comparison product at the top of the search results — “irrespective of whether it is the most relevant response to the query,” Ms. Vestager said in a commission-issued statement about the charges.
Google has 10 weeks to respond, she said, and has the right to call a hearing to present the company’s views.
In a blog post last week, Amit Singhal, senior vice president for Google Search, disputed the charges. “While Google may be the most used search engine, people can now find and access information in numerous different ways — and allegations of harm, for consumers and competitors, have proved to be wide of the mark,” he wrote.
Ms. Vestager may have a wider agenda. In addition to the formal complaint related to Google Shopping, Ms. Vestager said her office was still looking into accusations that Google had restricted its advertising partners from using rival platforms and that it scraped online content from competitors. She also announced a separate “in-depth investigation” into accusations of anticompetitive company practices regarding Google’s relationships with device manufacturers that rely on its Android operating system.
In a blog post last week, a Google executive said the company’s partnerships with manufacturers that relied on Android were voluntary and offered benefits to consumers and manufacturers.
Longtime observers of Ms. Vestager theorized that she had chosen to initially pursue a narrow case in which she had the most confidence, while keeping pressure on her adversary to settle by opening parallel lines of inquiry.
“It’s about power. Any deal she makes, it’s about how much power she has and how much power her adversary has,” says Martin Krasnik, the host of a late-night current affairs show on Danish national television who describes Ms. Vestager as the most impenetrable politician he has ever interviewed. “She’s totally unsentimental,” he said.
Ms. Vestager came to Washington last week ostensibly to participate in antitrust meetings of the American Bar Association. But arriving the day after announcing the charges against Google, she was bound to attract attention. Despite the ruckus, she stuck to her routines.
On her first morning in the capital, she rose early and went for a jog. She came up with a regular route on earlier trips to attend meetings of the International Monetary Fund.
“I run past the White House, down the Mall and out 21st Street,” she said.
Ms. Vestager had a marathon official schedule in Washington on Thursday that started at 8 a.m. and ended more than 12 hours later. After lunch with a high-ranking State Department official, she and three aides headed to an interview at Fox Business.
As she listened to her staff brief her on the latest news about Google, Ms. Vestager juggled two phones, reading email on one while updating her Twitter audience of nearly 100,000 on the other. Her job often requires strict adherence to political protocol, but Ms. Vestager said she allowed herself some informality on social media, often posting photos of her travels and the people she met.
“Once in a while, you can bring people backstage to see what is going on there,” she said.
She also uses social media to turn the tables on journalists. Last summer during an annual political conference in Denmark, Ms. Vestager caught Mr. Krasnik, the Danish news show host, napping on a lawn with his head propped up against a tree trunk. Naturally, she snapped a photo of him snoozing and posted it on her Twitter account.
“That was very amusing,” Mr. Krasnik said. “It also puts a human face on her, which might be seen as a necessity, because she is seen as a very tough, coldhearted politician.”
Ms. Vestager grew up as the daughter of two ministers of the Church of Denmark. Her parents made themselves available to comfort the afflicted at all hours.
“You could always come over in the middle of the night or in the early morning; it was open to anyone from the most self-important people to the most vulnerable citizens,” she said. “I think this very open way of doing their job informed my view of what a society should be like.”
She learned how to knit from her grandmother, and one of her elephants is being auctioned this weekend in Brooklyn to benefit the Danish Seamen’s Church there. She holds a master’s in economics from the University of Copenhagen and served in the Danish Parliament and in a number of high-level government posts. Her husband, Thomas Jensen, teaches math.
Ms. Vestager came to prominence in Denmark as the leader of the centrist Social Liberal party. During talks to form a coalition government in 2011, she insisted that her counterpart, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the leader of the center left Social Democrats who is now Denmark’s prime minister, agree to major budget reforms.
“When they emerged” from the talks, Mr. Lidegaard, the newspaper editor, said, “there were countless points on which you could accuse Helle and the Socialists of giving up promises and not one major point where Margrethe had lost, or where she said she had to compromise.”
Ms. Vestager says there’s no mystery to why she chose to grapple with Google. After she arrived in Brussels, she says, she simply asked the commission’s staff to update the files on the Google case and then she met executives at companies who had accused Google of anticompetitive practices, as well as with Google executives. After that, she decided that the case had merit.
“It was my responsibility to take the case forward,” Ms. Vestager said.
But tackling Google first was also a strategic move. If Ms. Vestager prevails against Google, some antitrust experts say, it could make it easier for her to bring a case against Gazprom, the Russian national gas behemoth, a company whose market power her office is also investigating.
“There is a new marshal in town,” says Christian Bergqvist, an associate professor of competition law at the University of Copenhagen. “She wants to send a signal that she is tough on crime.”
Among antitrust regulators, Ms. Vestager may be the only marshal self-assured enough to carry around half-knitted elephants in her purse.