One has long had one’s doubts about Gunther Oettinger as a funny speaker; the anthology of his wittiest speeches was always likely to be a thin one. And his latest foray on October 26th in front of the AGA employers’ federation in Hamburg seems unlikely to change this perception.
For what stands out from this speech, even more than the end-of-evening saloon bar racist sneers at the Chinese, the sexist and homophobic tone or the slur about the previous Chancellor or about Wallonia (which really isn’t a communist state but which just happens to have been badly governed for generations, but I digress) is the sheer banality and vacuity of its content. Mediocrity alone should have been the bar to Mr. Oettinger’s appointment to the Barroso Commission in 2009, and to his advancement to the key digital agenda portfolio in the Juncker Commission two years ago.
To date, Mr. Oettinger has not apologized for his remarks, Mr. Juncker has not repudiated them and the parliamentary majority which underpins the Commission has been unusually circumspect with little public reaction from its leading lights.
On the contrary, as luck would have it, Mr. Oettinger is to be promoted, as Commission Vice-president and taking over the immensely influential staff and finances portfolio left vacant by the departure of Mrs. Kristalina Georgieva, the Bulgarian Commissioner. And all this before Sofia has had time to propose her replacement.
For some time now, Mrs. Georgieva has been a ‘bird on the perch’ as the French say, looking for opportunities elsewhere. Her bid for the Secretary Generalship of the UN was unsuccessful, despite the endorsement of no less an authority than Dr. Martin Selmayr, the head of Mr. Juncker’s staff, and someone to whom the usual rules about EU officials abstaining from overt political partisanship seem not to apply. The same Dr. Selmayr is held in some quarters to be responsible for Mrs. Georgieva’s disenchantment with her role in the Commission and which has now led her to accept the job of CEO at the World Bank. She has been a respected Commissioner handling a complex portfolio at a crucial time: and now it is judged appropriate to hand this responsibility to Mr Oettinger.
The second anniversary of the Juncker Commission has not been a happy one. The refugee quotas system is in tatters. Brexit looms, and with it a general upsurge in Eurosceptic, populist sentiment. The Franco-German tandem provides no leadership. Member states are bitterly divided. There could also be squalls ahead as the midterm reshuffle at the EP looms, and with it a possible challenge for the presidency of the European Council. It may be that the political groups in the EP have come to the conclusion that, come what may, the Commission has to be propped up, and criticism muted.
If so, this may be a mistake. To make the obvious point, and as an example, the Chinese will have been following this episode and the reaction to it. They will draw lessons if they see a leading Commission member make the cheapest of jibes about them not just going unpunished but getting promoted: and this at a crucial time for the commercial and economic relationship between the EU and China.
Others may feel that there is a problem of consistency of standards here. Few doubt that if the Hamburg speech had been delivered by a Latvian or Maltese commissioner, retribution would have been swift and harsh: but in the case of a member of the college from a large and powerful member state, the same rules would seem not to apply.
It is right in a more political Commission, with a President clearly chosen by the parliamentary majority following the EP elections, that the members of the Commission should behave politically and not eschew political or even partisan controversy. This is not a licence for them to behave like mini Donald Trumps on an off day. Their public comments should be consistent with the dignity of their office and the values of their institution.
It is good to see the EP assuming responsibility and avoiding artificial rows with the Commission but they will not be doing the EU institutions a service if the MEPs from the majority are seen to be too ready to condone what is clearly unacceptable conduct. The ‘European majority’ in the European Parliament should not expose itself to accusations of colluding in a cover up, however uncomfortable this may be for the good Mr. Oettinger.