By Valentina Pop and Rochelle Toplensky
BRUSSELS -- The European Union official overseeing the regulatory push against Silicon Valley is poised to stay on the job for an unexpected second term -- a warning that the new administration here isn't backing down on global tech oversight.
Incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's decision to keep Margrethe Vestager as the competition chief -- while also giving her a new, wider portfolio to guide European rule-making related to the digital economy -- was met by audible gasps from staffers and journalists at a news conference Tuesday. Ms. Vestager had been widely expected to take a more senior role and leave the day-to-day business of antitrust probes and enforcement to a new official.
The reappointment of Ms. Vestager, whom President Donald Trump labeled the "tax lady" after her ruling to collect from Apple Inc. what the commission said was back taxes, punctuates Mrs. von der Leyen's push to be more assertive with economic and commercial competition from the U.S. and China.
Mrs. von der Leyen said she kept Ms. Vestager on because of outstanding performance in her first term and since, in her view, competition is "closely linked to the digital sector."
Ms. Vestager is slated to become one of Mrs. von der Leyen's three executive deputies, or vice presidents, providing her with extra clout in commission deliberations. Her office is tasked with shepherding new regulation on artificial intelligence by early next year, as well as with upgrading the bloc's liability and safety rules for digital platforms.
Ms. Vestager was one of the senior officials floated for the commission's top job, as a lead candidate from the broad family of European centrist politicians championed by French President Emmanuel Macron. Her promotion to commission vice president was part of the July deal in which Mr. Macron secured support for Mrs. von der Leyen.
Ms. Vestager was expected to hand over the competition role, which comes with responsibilities for investigating and enforcing antitrust issues, including through hefty fines, as she ascended to a higher post in the commission. It is very rare for commissioners who stay on to keep the same portfolio. The competition commissioner has historically been kept clear of other policy areas, so as not to influence antitrust decisions.
In an interview, Ms. Vestager said she will maintain the independence of the antitrust division. "With the more horizontal responsibility, I will make sure the integrity of our procedures and independence in the law enforcement is nonnegotiable."
She said the commission will focus on enforcing the bloc's newly established data-protection regime to ensure that users are in control of their data and on enabling businesses in Europe to share and use data for innovation.
Ms. Vestager made a name for herself by imposing record antitrust fines on U.S. tech companies, including a total of $9.4 billion on Alphabet Inc.'s Google. She also ordered Ireland to claw back $15 billion from Apple in what the commission called unpaid taxes.
The Obama administration took aim at Ms. Vestager, saying her approach to tech regulation slanted against U.S. firms, an accusation European officials have denied.
The unit she has led for the past five years has also pursued high-profile probes against Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc. and Qualcomm Inc., as well as against nontech American giants like McDonald's Corp., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Starbucks Corp.
Ms. Vestager has drawn vitriol from Washington for years. As U.S. officials pile in with their own scrutiny of Silicon Valley, some American officials, including Mr. Trump, have accused her of tresspassing on Washington's regulatory turf. In June, referring to Ms. Vestager, Mr. Trump told Fox Business she "hates the United States perhaps worse than any person I've ever met." He said "she's suing all our companies. We should be suing Google and Facebook, and perhaps we will."
Ms. Vestager has denied that she is targeting U.S. companies for their nationality or that she harbors any ill intent towards the U.S.
The 51-year-old Dane, who officials say often pulls out her knitting during discussions, first rose to prominence as an economy minister in Denmark, where she assumed a leadership role in Europe during the financial crisis. An economist by training and a skilled navigator of Denmark's multiparty system, Ms. Vestager was the inspiration for a political TV drama series in her home country. As a commissioner, her no-frills demeanor and her colorful, in part self-sewn, wardrobe helped her stand out in the Brussels officialdom.
She will now remain the public face of Europe's new scrutiny of big tech. The threat of heightened regulation in Brussels, and more recently Washington, has emerged as a key issue facing the Western tech giants, dominated by American companies.
Europe, largely under Ms. Vestager, has taken a lead role over policing Silicon Valley in recent years, despite not having many homegrown tech players. It flexed its globe-spanning sway most notably in a sweeping privacy directive last year that has forced companies inside and outside Europe to adhere to strict rules on data.
Washington has more recently stepped up scrutiny, too. Two separate groups of attorneys general are investigating Google and Facebook. Federal antitrust enforcers at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have separately trained their sites on Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple.
With some of these probes overlapping in terms of focus, Ms. Vestager said in the interview she "always appreciated the cooperation" with her American counterparts, without committing to seeking any. She said though that she will "follow with great interest what colleagues are doing on the other side of the Atlantic."
American tech companies have said they generally welcome greater oversight. Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook last year in Brussels attacked the "data-industrial complex" and called for tighter privacy regulation. Facebook has touted its new efforts to police the content on its site.
Industry watchers warned tech giants to brace for more European scrutiny under Ms. Vestager.
The commission's focus on "digital giants is set to sharpen further," said Alexi Dimitriou, competition counsel at Ashurst, a multinational law firm. "With her remit also expanding to coordinating wider digital policies, digital business should expect regulatory intensity to continue," he said.
Europe's umbrella trade group for local tech companies, which often compete with the American giants, welcomed the move. "We believe Ms. Vestager can provide the necessary proactive leadership to bring Europe to the forefront of the emerging global digital era," said Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, director general of DigitalEurope.
Ms. Vestager has also forged a reputation as a defender of European consumers, unmoved at times by government lobbying to support big mergers that many European capitals believe are key to the region's competitiveness against the U.S. and the rising economic might of China.
Under her tenure, the European Union in 2017 blocked such high-profile deals as the proposed $28 billion tie-up between Germany's Deutsche Börse AG and U.K.-based London Stock Exchange Group PLC. She also blocked the merger of the railway businesses of Germany's Siemens AG and France's Alstom SA, despite calls from Paris and Berlin for the creation of a European champion that politicians hoped would be able to take on Chinese competitors.
In another key economic appointment in Brussels, Ireland's Phil Hogan was nominated to take over the bloc's top trade post, where he will be responsible for negotiating future trade deals with the U.K. after Brexit, and with the U.S. Mr. Hogan, currently commissioner for agriculture, has been a tough critic of Brexit and the U.K.
Mr. Hogan will also inherit the looming threat of car tariffs, in addition to duties on billions of dollars of EU exports that the Trump administration has readied in a long-running U.S.-EU dispute over aircraft subsidies.
--Emre Peker in Brussels and Ben Dummett in London contributed to this article.
Write to Valentina Pop at email@example.com