Banks fear this woman: the outgoing EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes only grants assistance on strict conditions. Her style and her methods have always been contentious – and they still are.
EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes © EU Commission
Quite a few bank managers who are used to sitting in leather armchairs in wood-paneled conference rooms have been taught humility in Brussels.
In Neelie Kroes’ office, the ambience alone is indicative of who has the upper hand here. Bank representatives are often summoned to an unadorned courtyard around back, invited to sit down on one of a number of non-matching chairs at a cheap plastic table in a portacabin office, and given some mineral water in a plastic cup.
But it's not only the hard chairs that are making the meetings in Brussels highly uncomfortable for the managers. Competition commissioner Kroes has maintained her market economy principles in times of crisis – and refuses to simply rubber-stamp state support.
The spirited former entrepreneur from the Netherlands has taken up the mantle of creative destroyer of the banking world. In her current position, Kroes can impose conditions without having to ask the other EU Commissioners, and she is used to getting her way. Major companies, including Microsoft, have felt the heat when she hit them them with fines in the hundreds of thousands.
Banks stopped underestimating Kroes a long time ago. "You have to go along with the way this commission ticks, otherwise you simply go under," says a state bank strategist.
Neelie Kroes © EU Commission
Many a representative from finance houses from all over Europe have sat nervously in the Brussels portacabins waiting for a sign from Kroes. The Dutch bank ING, for instance, waited for weeks for approval of 10 billion euro of state capital. When a minister attacked Kroes on this topic on Dutch television, the commissioner retorted belligerently in front of the cameras: "You'll have to send me all the necessary documentation first."
Even before she went to Brussels in 2004, Kroes was an experienced minister with numerous board mandates in the Netherlands, and was considered an icon by career-conscious women. At 67, she is now approaching the end of her career; the government in The Hague is no longer putting her forward as an EU Commissioner, though that probably has more to do with party allegiance than anything else.
But apparently she’s ready to retire, too. "That's why she’s not afraid of anything or anybody," according to many in Brussels.
Not bank managers and not the politicians who want to prop them up.
Stefanie Bolzen and Sebastian Jost