The Brussels bubble has this week been engulfed in a growing political storm over comments made by Gunther Oettinger. Oettinger is the European Commissioner for the Digital Economy, a crucial brief given the importance of digital policy to this Commission, and has also been named as the successor to Kristalina Georgieva as European Commissioner for Financial Programming and the Budget. He is thus a pretty big European fish.
The comments in question, which were made during a speech in Hamburg, seem almost calculated to offend a wide array of social groups. First, the Chinese, who he referred to as ‘slant-eyes.’ Next, women, when he commented that a group of Chinese diplomats contained only men, perhaps because there were no gender quotas in China. Finally, he turned his fire on German politicians and on the issue of same-sex marriage, joking that German legislators were so ‘woolly’ that they would soon pass mandatory same-sex marriage.
The gaffes may have an important consequence in terms of the functioning of the Commission, given that they have coincided with Oettinger’s appointment to take up Georgieva’s role in the Commission. This appointment requires the approval of the European Parliament, and there are growing signs that in the wake of Oettinger’s comments, this could be a difficult process.
Leaders of the S&D, ECR and ALDE groups, the second, third and fourth largest political groups in the European Parliament, have condemned the comments, while members of the budget committee have signalled that they will not hold hearings for Oettinger until after Georgieva officially leaves her post at the end of the year. This raises the possibility of the portfolio being unoccupied for some time, undermining the efficacy of the Commission.
Perhaps the most extraordinary element of the scandal has been the fact that, thus far, Oettinger has offered no apology for the comments. Asked about the incidents on Wednesday, Oettinger replied that ‘there is nothing to apologise for.’
He has also escaped the condemnation of his superiors, both within the Commission and the German national government. The spokesperson for Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President, stated that, as far as he was aware, Juncker had not discussed the issue with Oettinger. Meanwhile, the spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that Oettinger retains the full confidence of the Chancellor.
One of the reasons why Oettinger has been able to survive without showing contrition is that, while the comments have provoked a scandal amongst those already engaged in the European political process, there has been little sign of a wider public reaction. Although this may bode well for the survival of Oettinger’s career, it could be viewed as a reflection of a lack of public interest in the EU itself, and therefore a symptom of the EU’s ongoing public relations issues. Had such a scandal broken in relation to an equivalently senior figure in a national government, it is unthinkable that it would not have provoked popular outrage. It is a reflection of the distance between the populace and the EU that such outrage has proven absent.
It remains to be seen whether the incident will carry meaningful consequences for Oettinger. But it represents a headache for European leaders at a time when they are in desperate need of good news.