How Margrethe Vestager went after Google

The call went out late Monday night Brussels time — early afternoon in California.

On one end of the line was Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s commissioner for competition. On the other was Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google.

Vestager, a steely Danish politician, was delivering a blunt message. The next day, in some 12 hours, she would go public with her ruling: the Silicon Valley tech giant had manipulated its search results to unfairly bolster its bottom line.

The transatlantic phone call was the first formal notice to Google that the European Commission had concluded its probe, according to people on both sides of the case. The conversation was short, cordial and businesslike, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation.

Vestager told Pichai that she had considered his company’s arguments but was nonetheless going to fine the company. What she didn’t tell him was the size of the penalty Google faced: a record-breaking €2.4 billion fine.

That, along with a courtesy copy of the 242-page decision, wouldn’t be provided until the next day, just a couple of hours before Vestager took to the stage at midday on Tuesday.

After an inquiry that had stretched for 2,401 days and concluded after months of meticulous planning, Vestager was determined not to let anyone steal the show.

Utmost secrecy

Tuesday’s announcement will go down as one of the defining moments of Vestager’s career, a moment in which she and the EU stamped their authority on one of the world’s most powerful companies after years of setbacks and reversals.

As recently as a year ago, the case against Google seemed bogged down in a Brussels bureaucracy. The Commission was struggling to grapple with one of the world’s largest and richest companies. Vestager had to bolster her case with a fresh set of charges — a move many saw as a sign of weakness. Her computer systems were struggling to handle Google’s data dumps. And there were indications of internal divisions within her department.

Officials from Vestager’s team have spent much of the time since then under intense pressure by the commissioner to deliver, working long hours to pull together one of the most complex cases in EU antitrust history. They did so, with little news of their progress leaking out.

As recently as Monday, just hours before Vestager spoke with Pichai, Google’s key Brussels advisers were unaware a decision was imminent — only learning through the press that a verdict that had been predicted to land at the end of July was suddenly expected by the end of the week, by Wednesday, by Tuesday evening, and finally on Tuesday at noon.

They were not the only ones in the dark. Vestager’s tight information control extended even to members of her own team. Hours before the announcement, the scale of the fine was known only to a small circle of insiders close to the commissioner — not to the wider team investigating Google. The date of the announcement was kept from officials in Vestager’s antitrust division not working on the case.

Google’s rivals — the companies bringing the case before the Commission — were none the wiser. Many of them were busy preparing for upcoming meetings scheduled with competition investigators, consultations in which they expected to provide the last of their input before the decision was announced.

The scheduled meetings were just one of several misdirections — intentional or not — that kept the wider world guessing at Vestager’s intentions. In the weeks ahead of the decision, rumors of a fine just over €1 billion circulated among advisers and journalists.

Vestager even managed to keep a tight lid on the information exchanged when she consulted national competition enforcers on the verdict a few weeks ago.

At the podium

Behind the scenes, in Vestager’s office on the 10th floor at the Commission’s Berlaymont building, preparations for the big day had been taking place for months. A formidable communicator who places a premium on preparation, Vestager spent weeks listening to briefings by senior officials, probing the case’s strengths and weaknesses, running through mock questions and preparing the responses she would deliver from the podium.

One particular concern was that the case would become a flashpoint for transatlantic tension — potentially attracting the fury of U.S. President and tweeter-in-chief Donald Trump. And so Vestager’s office prepped figures and scripted responses so that she would be ready to debunk accusations that the Commission was unfairly targeting U.S. companies.

On the day of the announcement, Vestager gathered the heads of Europe’s 28 national competition authorities in Brussels for a meeting. The symbolism of presenting a united front, given the potentially explosive nature of the case, was striking.

At 12:06 p.m. a smiling Vestager strode out onto the podium in the Commission’s large press room, built deep into the basement of the Berlaymont. After taking a customary photo of the assembled press (and being photographed doing so), she served herself a glass of water and began: “Today, the Commission has decided to fine Google €2.4 billion for breaching EU antitrust rules …”

After all her meticulous planning and secrecy, a media outlet had revealed the figure despite an agreement to wait until the official announcement. But Vestager delivered an assured performance, with characteristic touches of light humor: “Before reaching our conclusions, we have analyzed huge quantities of data. This includes 5.2 terabytes; [it] would take me more than 17,000 years to read them out.”

Asked about allegations of protectionism, she said: “We have heard accusations of being biased against U.S companies, so I have been going through the statistics…”

Brokering support

After the press conference, she joined her colleagues from the national competition authorities for lunch, where she once again presented her case.

Vestager’s effort to involve the national competition authorities is telling: the Danish commissioner is aware of the need to broker support within the wider regulatory community, and she’s adept at doing so. As a courtesy, MEPs following the case were told of the decision and the fine a few minutes before the public announcement.

And while Vestager did not put her decision before her fellow commissioners for full debate, as is customary, her cabinet briefed the chiefs of staff on Monday (though they did not reveal the scale of the fine).

Following the announcement Tuesday, fellow Commissioners Violeta Bulc, Pierre Moscovici and Věra Jourová tweeted their support. Andrus Ansip, the commissioner in charge of digital affairs, was a little more muted, simply retweeting the official announcement.

On Wednesday, Vestager followed up her announcement with a marquee presentation of the case to the weekly meeting of commissioners.

“It wasn’t the most transparent process but it certainly shouldn’t be in these cases,” said one cabinet-level Commission official.

Vestager’s star continues to grow brighter. Tuesday’s announcement confirmed her as the Commission’s stand-out performer and communicator, strengthening the consensus in Brussels that she is destined for even bigger things — perhaps at an international body like the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund, or even returning at the helm of the Commission if, as a liberal, she can ride an Emmanuel Macron-inspired wave in the 2019 European election.

“For sure, she feels the connection with EU citizens,” said an admirer in the European Parliament.

In a rare feat, Vestager even managed to breach the Brexit divide. On Wednesday, the rabidly anti-EU Daily Mail, a U.K. newspaper, offered rare support for a European official: “After Brexit, we need watchdogs of the caliber of Miss Vestager.”

Bringing the case to a successful — and dramatic — conclusion is a political victory for Vestager and the Commission. But the story is far from over. Google is expected to train its legal firepower on what experts say is a bold decision built on untested legal theories, challenging it in the EU General Court in Luxembourg.

Pursuing Google has boosted Vestager’s career. But a court defeat could prove shattering for her legacy and political prospects.

Ryan Heath and Harry Cooper contributed reporting.

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