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The most powerful woman in Brussels: who is Margrethe Vestager?

The European commissioner for competition is taming the tech giants.

Visitors to the office of the European commissioner for competition are often surprised by its decor. Instead of the vast mahogany desk favoured by many top bureaucrats in Brussels, there is a modest black workstation in the corner.

On the light-wood floor are rugs, a long, narrow table and blue-grey sofas. The walls are adorned with art, including a modernist piece featuring the words “love, colour, revolution, by the people” and another with cloth butterflies made by Tibetan orphans. Numerous framed photographs of Margrethe Vestager with her family – her high-school teacher husband and their three daughters – complete the welcoming, living room feel. Almost.

On a table near the window is a white fist with the middle digit raised. Vestager, 49, calls it “the Fuck Finger”. It was a gift from a Danish trade union when she was deputy prime minister and pushing through welfare cuts.

The sculpture reminds her that hard decisions will always upset some parties – such as Apple, which Vestager ordered last August to pay €13bn in back taxes, a ruling that the company’s CEO, Tim Cook, called “total political crap”. Or Google, which was fined €2.4bn on 27 June for manipulating search results to favour its own services. Or Facebook, Gazprom, Fiat and the governments of Ireland and Luxembourg, all investigated by Vestager’s office for their business practices.

By targeting some of the world’s most powerful companies, Vestager (pronounced Vest-ayer) has become one of the most prominent and popular EU bureaucrats. Politico recently described her as the commission’s “standout performer and communicator”.

The directorate-general for competition’s role is to regulate commercial activity across the 28 member states and enforce the EU’s vision of a fair market. Its 900 staff are tasked with investigating mergers, cartels and state aid for companies, such a tax breaks. In deciding which cases to bring and how to settle them, Vestager has become a kind of arbiter of what is fair in the 21st century. She believes that the largest benefits for society accrue from a well-policed economy – and that some big companies, especially from Silicon Valley, are abusing their power.

The zeal with which Vestager has approached her job has led some to complain that she is on a moral crusade. She often uses biblical terms to explain her decisions – invoking Adam and Eve when talking about greed, for example. Considering her upbringing, that should not be a surprise.

Vestager grew up in the small town of Olgod, near Denmark’s windswept west coast. Her parents were Lutheran pastors who served the community day and night. From them Vestager learned the importance of engaging in society, if not socialising – to this day, she dislikes chit-chat. After studying economics, she entered politics at the age of 21, working for Radikale Venstre – the Social Liberals – a small party that was co-founded by her great-great-grandfather and often plays a key role in coalitions. By the age of 29, she was running two government ministries, education and ecclesiastical affairs.

Vestager was admired in Denmark for her principles and steel – Sidse Babett Knudsen, who played the fictional prime minister Birgitte Nyborg in the television series Borgen, used Vestager as one of her models. Yet her political career seemed to be drifting by 2011, when the conservative government called an election. Although Vestager backed the government’s decision to slash unemployment benefits – the Social Liberals are fiscally conservative – she supported a left-wing alliance opposed to the cuts. When the coalition won, she was rewarded with the position of deputy prime minister and the economic and interior ministries.

Seeking to explain the necessity for austerity, she used the phrase, “That’s how it is” – a remark seized upon by opponents who said she lacked compassion. But Vestager refused to back down, and later  she used the same phrase nine times in an important speech.

She also used wit to disarm her rivals. When the male-led opposition criticised her spending plans as “small”, she said that she was wary of taking judgements about size from men, and that from a woman’s perspective the effect was more important. The media dubbed her “sultry Vestager”. But she also cultivated a more folksy image: the doting mother who bakes bread, knits woollen elephants and cycles to work.

When Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt appointed her to the European Commission in 2014, several cases against the tech companies were under way. Yet Vestager pursued them with greater vigour than her predecessors. Although she describes herself as an Apple and Google customer, she is wary of the Silicon Valley giants’ reach even in her personal life. On her two mobile phones, she keeps the location tracking turned off. Her preferred search engine is DuckDuckGo, which does not customise results.

Vestager stresses that she is not biased against tech firms, and the next few months will give her opportunities to show this. She is expected to announce two major decisions: on whether Bayer’s £50bn purchase of Monsanto will stifle competition, and about Luxembourg’s tax relationship with McDonald’s. 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.