Is It a Bird? Is It a Plane? No. Vestager's Visiting U.S. Again

(Bloomberg) -- Amazon, biff! Volkswagen, pow! Google, wham!

The European Union’s antitrust superhero has landed a series of trademark punches on the world’s biggest companies before she arrives in Washington this week. It’s Margrethe Vestager’s usual way of announcing herself ahead of a trans-Atlantic trip.

The EU Competition Commissioner, a steel-haired and steely Danish politician, has been tackling the widening gap between rich and poor, corporate tax strategies and the power of large Internet firms. It’s made her the star of the little-loved EU bureaucracy and seen her tipped to take one of Europe’s top roles when she finishes her stint next year.

Her job sees her police big mergers and jump on corporate misdeeds -- often by U.S. technology giants. But what marks her out is her Nordic zeal for companies to play fairly if governments are to tackle wage inequality and people’s sense that the system might be stacked against them.

As an example, her team is looking at how the rate of profit has risen by 50 percent over the last 20 years measured in terms of GDP. The data suggests that firms may be "creating value by locking in other businesses" and competition law can play a part in tackling any market concentration, she said at a Brussels conference last week.

That research might help policymakers "make sure that real wages also follow the creation of more value," she said. Regulators want to chart out what might be happening as they deal with "a big wave" of mergers, as filings in the region are on track to hit the highest level since 2007.

U.S. officials and politicians have been hearing the same debate as talk of fewer big firms and higher profit margins see some critics call for tougher enforcement of big companies. Makan Delrahim, the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division has been skeptical about the EU’s stance towards innovative technology firms.

He’ll get to thrash it out again with Vestager when they meet. She also plans to see Federal Trade Commission officials and lawmakers. She’ll speak at a Georgetown Law conference in Washington and a Bloomberg event in New York, where she’ll rub shoulders with British Prime Minister Theresa May, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and International Business Machines Corp. Chief Executive Office Ginni Rometty.

"She does use the competition powers to the full extent, at times wearing her competition hero mantle, and not concerned at all with difficult or politically charged cases," said Ioannis Kokkoris, a law and economics professor at Queen Mary University of London.

Going public with high-profile developments before her U.S. trip avoids criticism "that she played a tactical hide-and-seek with potentially tough questions on the other side of the Atlantic," he said.

For Vestager, getting companies to play fairly has also meant ensuring they don’t benefit from what she sees as unfair tax deals. Some of her biggest targets have been multinational American firms, with a back-tax bill for Apple Inc. that soared to about 14 billion euros ($16.5 billion) and lesser repayment orders for Amazon.com Inc. and Starbucks Corp. McDonald’s Corp. scored a rare win when Vestager dropped the case, blaming loopholes in local and U.S. laws that allowed it to sidestep taxes.

The quest for fair treatment online has inevitably led her to scrutinize Amazon. At the end of a briefing last week about the McDonald’s case, she let slip details of what could turn out to be her biggest probe to date.

Her team, she said, was was checking how the world’s biggest online retailer uses data it collects from smaller sellers that use its platform. While she was at pains to say the probe is preliminary, a finding that Amazon unfairly uses that information to boost its own services could attract massive fines -- just like Alphabet Inc.’s Google, which has so far been ordered to pay 6.7 billion euros and forced to grant equal treatment to smaller search rivals.

Her last big antitrust case, a fine for Google in July triggered a Twitter response from U.S. President Donald Trump that Europe has "taken advantage of the U.S." Vestager swiftly responded that she didn’t want to politicize antitrust enforcement and didn’t believe EU officials had singled out American business for punishment.

Just days later, she fined Asian and European companies, following up this week with a "priority" cartel investigation into collusion between Volkswagen AG, Daimler AG and BMW AG over suspected efforts to hold back cleaner cars.

While that case isn’t directly examining the Dieselgate scandal over the German car industry’s efforts to cheat environmental tests, the message seemed to be clear. If there’s corporate bad behavior, never fear, Super-Vestager is here.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.