Merkel’s Gaffe-Prone Ally in Brussels Faces Parliament Hot SeatBy
Guenther Oettinger dogged by speech that caused ‘bad feelings’
Commissioner is member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic party
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s appointee to the European Commission, Guenther Oettinger, is known to have teflon qualities. He may be about to prove it.
Oettinger will face a hearing on Monday in Brussels on his new role as chief of the European Union budget, a position that carries increased influence as the bloc weighs the financial fallout of the U.K.’s planned departure. His switch from the EU’s digital-economy portfolio follows an outcry over an October speech in which he reportedly referred to Chinese people as “slit eyes,” said women couldn’t succeed professionally without quotas and questioned the merits of gay marriage.
Monday’s hearing will be in the European Parliament, where some members lashed out at Oettinger for the comments that he later said “created bad feelings and may even have hurt people.” He might also be grilled for having failed to disclose a May 2016 flight from Brussels to Budapest on the private plane of a German businessman and lobbyist.
Yet denying Oettinger the European budget job is a highly charged option that is far from given. It wouldn’t just be a slap for Merkel as she prepares to seek a fourth term; it would risk undermining the commission, the EU’s executive arm, as it gears up for crucial Brexit negotiations. Such a move would also risk damage within the EU Parliament itself, whose two biggest political families -- the Christian Democrats and Socialists -- comprise the ruling coalition in Germany.
“Oettinger will probably make it through with bruises,” said Doru Frantescu, chief executive officer of VoteWatch Europe, a Brussels-based think tank. “There will be a lot of noise coming from the anti-establishment parties on the right and the left, but the centrist political forces have strong reasons not to rock the boat.”
Oettinger’s new job puts him in charge of a 140 billion-euro ($148 billion) annual budget at a time when rich EU countries including Germany are increasingly sensitive about their net payments to the bloc. In addition to facing a Europe-wide public backlash against the EU, national capitals are bracing for a European budget blow from Brexit because the U.K. is among the net contributors.
Oettinger, a Brussels veteran who was European energy commissioner from 2010 until 2014, has history and the rules on his side as he seeks to win EU Parliament backing for his latest commission role.
The bloc’s Parliament has never vetoed a portfolio change by a standing European commissioner. In addition, because Oettinger is already a commissioner, the change of jobs faces a verdict merely by the leaders of the assembly rather than by its members as a whole.
The Jan. 9 hearing is scheduled to take place from 6 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. in front of the EU Parliament’s budget, budgetary-control and legal-affairs committees. They will then send a recommendation to the heads of the assembly’s political groups and its president, who will issue an opinion due on Jan. 12.
The portfolio shift by Oettinger might even include a promotion because Kristalina Georgieva, the Bulgarian appointee to the commission whose departure for the World Bank created the budget vacancy, was one of seven vice presidents of the organization.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has refused to say whether Oettinger will inherit the vice-presidency title, making this a possible bargaining chip should the EU Parliament kick up a fuss.
VoteWatch Europe’s Frantescu said a contest in the 751-seat EU Parliament between the Christian Democrats and Socialists to fill the assembly’s presidency in mid-January could play a behind-the-scenes role in the hearing with Oettinger. The Socialists may use the hearing as leverage to win backing for their presidential candidate -- floor leader Gianni Pittella of Italy -- or to gain other institutional perks, according to Frantescu.
Oettinger, a former leader of the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, has had a gaffe-filled political career. For example, when Japan was struggling in March 2011 to contain an accident at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant after it was crippled by an earthquake and tsunami, he jolted investors as EU energy commissioner by saying a “major disaster” may be on its way before admitting his remarks were based partly on media reports.
And in November 2014, weeks after becoming EU digital-economy chief, Oettinger riled France by writing in the Financial Times that the French government needed to do more to respect German-fashioned European rules on budget austerity.
Juncker announced his decision to make Oettinger budget commissioner on Oct. 28, days after the controversial speech in Hamburg, and cited the German’s “professionalism, capacity and expertise to assume this new responsibility.” Three days later, Merkel’s spokesman said the German government had “full confidence” in Oettinger.