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23rd Feb 2020

German commissioner provokes French wrath

  • Is Oettinger's communication under control by Juncker's spin doctors? (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

German commissioner Guenther Oettinger has drawn ire from French politicians after urging budget rigour and calling France a "deficit recidivist", in an op-ed published in French daily Les Echos on Thursday (20 November).

The same text, but using the phrase "the issue of France and its high budget deficit" instead of "recidivist" appeared in the Financial Times a few hours later.

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The message comes a few days before the European Commission is to give its opinion on 18 national budgets, with France's growing deficit fast-becoming a question of credibility for the EU executive's post-crisis role in economic scrutiny.

Oettinger's words struck a nerve in France because he is German and because his portfolio has nothing to do with budget deficits - it is "digital economy and society."

Instead, it is a Frenchman and former finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, who is the commissioner in charge of economics and potential sanctions for deficit sinners.

French finance minister Michel Sapin said Friday that Oettinger's comments were "not constructive". Other voices within the French Socialist Party went further.

Oettinger's "off-topic diatribe deserves a resignation", said the French Socialist Party's secretary general, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis.

"This aggression goes beyond his prerogatives and especially beyond the necessary reservation of a commissioner. This attitude reinforces those who want France to leave Europe. It should be punished," he added.

French Socialist MEP Pervenche Beres also criticised Oettinger, saying that an "EU commissioner is not the spokesman of his country."

A spokesman for commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said on Friday that he "was aware" of the text.

He noted that commissioners are "politicians who can express themselves freely", but also that the commission takes its decisions, whether on budgets or other issues, as a group-of-28.

It is not the first time that Oettinger has behaved more like a German politician than an EU commissioner.

In 2011, he told German tabloid Bild that EU institutions should put the flags of the deficit countries at half mast as a "deterrent effect". Over 150 MEPs reacted back then, asking for his resignation.

But it is unlikely the gaffe-prone German acted on his own initiative this time around, Brussels insiders told EUobserver.

"I'd be very surprised if it wasn't co-ordinated with Juncker's cabinet," said one EU source, noting that Oettinger's line was the same as the commission's official one - that France needs to rein in spending.

Another EU official had "the same suspicion".

The contact said that acting alone on this topic - publication in Les Echos and the Financial Times when it's not his portfolio - "would mean that the German commissioner does not accept that his communication is controlled by Juncker's spin doctors".

As for the commission's public verdict on the national budgets of eurozone countries, this will have to happen next week, before 30 November.

Juncker's spokesman Margaritis Schinas on Friday said "there is a debate that will come" on Tuesday in the college of commissioners when they discuss the eurozone budgets.

He said the date is not yet fixed on when Brussels' final decision will be published.

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