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EU's new budget chief shoots himself in foot - again

EU commissioner Guenther Oettinger was forced into a belated apology over his latest controversial comments.
EU commissioner Guenther Oettinger was forced into a belated apology over his latest controversial comments.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
EU commissioner Guenther Oettinger was forced into a belated apology over his latest controversial comments.
Frauke Petry

Commissioner stirs up controversy with jibes against Chinese, gays and ex-German leader

He has been called the "verbal Kalashnikov" and described as "simply incorrigible". True to form, Germany's European commissioner Guenther Oettinger had only just been given a promotion in the European Union before he shot himself in the foot with remarks that took aim at Chinese officials and gays.

A video emerged of the 63-year-old calling the Chinese "slitty-eyed" in a speech to business executives in Hamburg on Oct 28, after European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker named him the new budget commissioner - giving him the reins over the bloc's budget of €140 billion (S$215 billion).

"All in suits, one row, dark blue. All their hair combed from left to right with black shoe cream," said Mr Oettinger of Chinese officials, to the laughter of the audience. "Nine men, one party, no democracy. No female quota, no women."

But his jibes were not reserved for the Chinese. He also targeted gay people when he joked that Germany might make same-sex marriage compulsory.

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was also not spared. According to Mr Oettinger, Mr Schroeder now has "lots of time" to mediate in a supermarket takeover row as "his wife is gone". Mr Schroeder separated from his fourth wife last year.

SAYING ALL THE WRONG THINGS

All in suits, one row, dark blue. All their hair combed from left to right with black shoe cream.

MR GUENTHER OETTINGER, on the Chinese in a business speech.

Anyone stupid enough to put a naked photo of themselves on the Internet cannot expect us to protect them.

MR OETTINGER, blaming celebrities for leaks of racy photos online while he was the EU's digital commissioner

If the strange Petry were my wife, I would shoot myself tonight.

MR OETTINGER, on populist leader Frauke Petry

His comments sparked an uproar in Brussels and Germany, with calls for him to apologise and even resign from his commissioner post.

A spokesman for the Chinese government said his remarks revealed "a baffling sense of superiority entrenched in some Western politicians". 

But Mr Oettinger initially said he saw no reason to apologise, telling German broadcaster SWR that his description of the Chinese was "uncouth but not malicious", and that if heard in full, his speech did not carry a disparaging message. 

It took a week before he apologised, saying he could "now see that the words I used have created bad feelings and may even have hurt people".

"This was not my intention and I would like to apologise for any remark that was not as respectful as it should have been," he said.

It turned out that the U-turn came after he was slapped on the wrist by Mr Juncker, who told him "he had to apologise". 

Nevertheless, Mr Juncker told Belgium's Le Soir newspaper that it was only "clumsiness" on Mr Oettinger's part and that the German "is a liberal on social issues".  

The German government has refrained from stepping in. Asked if Mr Oettinger still had the full confidence of the government, spokesman Steffen Seibert said "yes, of course", refusing further comment.

Centre-right daily Die Welt also defended the commissioner, saying it is the "hypocrites who are suspecting the Swabian CDU-man of being a homophobic racist".

"We should be less alarmist about punchlines that have not obtained the 'amen' of the church of the civil religious," it said in a front-page editorial of the man who has also said he finds "Donald Duck better than Donald Trump". 

For German Marshall Fund analyst Hans Kundnani, the episode "may have something to do with the way Germany is somewhat behind on issues around race and racism". "This kind of language seems still to be acceptable, or at least excusable, in Germany in a way it would not be in the United Kingdom or the United States," he told The Straits Times.

But Mr Oettinger has also shown the ability to bounce back from storms over his sometimes off-colour comments. 

Many had predicted his career was over in 2007 when he gave a stirring eulogy of former Nazi navy judge Hans Filbinger, who had sentenced deserters to death. Mr Oettinger had insisted Mr Filbinger was an "opponent of the Nazis". He was later forced to apologise.

As the EU's digital commissioner, he was ridiculed when he blamed celebrities for the online leaks of photos of them in the nude. "Anyone stupid enough to put a naked photo of themselves on the Internet cannot expect us to protect them," Mr Oettinger had said.

More recently, he raised eyebrows at home when he attacked populist leader Frauke Petry. "If the strange Petry were my wife, I would shoot myself tonight," said Mr Oettinger.

Despite his verbal misfirings, he has steadily advanced his political career. Born in 1953 in Stuttgart, Mr Oettinger is a trained lawyer and economist who rose to become state premier of one of Germany's most prosperous states - Baden-Wuerttemberg. 

After five years as state premier, he was nominated by Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2009 to represent Germany in the European Commission. Mr Oettinger was presented as an economics expert, and his nomination came after his state posted a balanced budget and as he was pushing for a debt limit to be inscribed in the Constitution. 

But with little experience in EU affairs, Mr Oettinger's surprising nomination sparked talk that Dr Merkel was seeking to remove a thorn in her side amid tensions between the two. 

With a limited command of English that was heavily accented with his native Swabian, Mr Oettinger had initially looked like he was unlikely to succeed in the mega bureaucracy of Brussels. But he good-humouredly poked fun at himself, saying: "We can speak everything other than foreign languages."

Diving into this first portfolio as energy commissioner, Mr Oettinger soon began to win respect as he gained a reputation as a "document devourer" (Aktenfresser) - someone who knows his files by heart.

At the height of the Ukraine conflict in 2014, he was key in negotiations between Kiev and Moscow over a gas dispute that headed off an energy crisis in Europe in deep winter. Spiegel weekly then said the political winner of the gas negotiations was Mr Oettinger, who had perhaps obtained the "biggest victory of his career". 

The resolution of the dispute likely contributed to earning him another term in Brussels that year - as digital commissioner.

Once again, a surprising post for someone who has said that "at the airport, I'm often the only one who reads a newspaper - everyone else is looking at their screens".

But he has won over big telcos for favouring them in access to developing new generation IT infrastructure, and publishing houses for overhauls in copyright rules.

His new nomination as budget commissioner would bring him back to familiar territory given his economic training. 

The question this time, though, is whether the fires over the Hamburg speech have been put out by his apology, as the appointment still has to be approved by the European Parliament early next year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2016, with the headline 'EU's new budget chief shoots himself in foot - again'. Print Edition | Subscribe