Wednesday

7th Dec 2016

German EU commissioner used Kremlin lobbyist's jet

  • Oettinger (r) with Mangold (l) and Hungarian PM Orban (c) at the Car of the Future conference, in Budapest, on 19 May 2016. (Photo: MTI)

EU commissioner Guenther Oettinger used a private plane offered by a German businessman with strong Kremlin ties, raising questions whether he broke ethics rules.

He flew from Brussels to Budapest on 18 May, with Klaus Mangold, an honorary Russian consul in Germany, who advocates lifting EU sanctions on Russia.

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  • The Commission has promised more transparency on contacts with lobbyists (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

He went to the Hungarian capital on the invitation of prime minister Viktor Orban for a conference on "the car of the future".

News of his trip first emerged in June on the Hungarian website 444.

It was confirmed in early November after a parliamentary question from Hungarian and German Green MEPs, Benedek Javor and Rebecca Harms, which they had filed in July.

The commission is meant to answer MEPs’ questions in six weeks.

In this case, it took four months and it published its reply on the same day (3 November) that Oettinger was also forced to apologise for making racist and homophobic comments at a dinner event.

In its response on Oettinger’s plane trip, the commission said that, “due to the lack of commercial flights to arrive in time for the meeting with prime minister [Viktor] Orban [of Hungary], the commissioner responsible for digital economy and society [Oettinger] joined Mr Mangold’s private plane.”

Javor, the Hungarian Green MEP, disputes that version of events, however.

He said that on the afternoon of 18 May, the time of Oettinger’s travel, there was a choice of four commercial flights from Brussels to Budapest.

“It’s simply not true what the commission is saying … that there was no available commercial flight on that day,” he told EUobserver.

If it was a gift from Mangold, then it would have broken commission rules that forbid accepting gifts worth more than €150.

If the commission did pay, the question still arises why Oettinger chose to fly on Mangold’s plane instead of another private jet.

The commission signed a framework contract with airlines in April to provide private planes for commissioners when needed, but Oettinger plumped for Mangold instead of using any of the other available planes.

Javor, last Tuesday (8 November) submitted a formal “request for information” to the commission to find out who paid for the Mangold trip. The commission is meant to answer in 30 days.

“If the commission did not pay, this could count as a gift, which means Oettinger broke the code of conduct for commissioners. If the commission did pay, the questions arises if this was the most effective way to spend European taxpayers’ money,” Javor told EUobserver.

Contacted by EUobserver, the commission said it had "no further comments to give on top of the answer of the commissioner to the MEPs."

The Mangold controversy and Oettinger’s racist gaffe come amid EU plans to upgrade his portfolio.

Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker has tipped him to replace Bulgarian’s Kristalina Georgieva, who is leaving the EU executive, with Oettinger to become commission vice-president in charge of budgetary affairs and human resources.

Javor said that he would give him a hard time when he appeared at a European Parliament hearing on his new post in the next few weeks.

He said the Mangold irregularities were “especially concerning” because Oettinger’s new job would put him in charge of financial and staff conduct issues.

Carl Dolan, the director of Transparency International EU, told this website: “There is a clear obligation on commissioners to decline hospitality and expensive gifts from private individuals. Since it appears that commissioner Oettinger has broken this rule, we would expect president Juncker to be asking some hard questions”.

Germany’s ‘Mr Russia’

During his trip to Hungary, the German commissioner went to a conference about the automobile sector and also visited two German firms, Daimler and Bosch, according to the commission’s log.

Mangold, the German businessman who accompanied Oettinger, is visible in pictures and in a video (wearing glasses, a blue suit, and a green tie) taken at the automobile event in Budapest.

Mangold has close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a German newspaper, in a recent profile described him as the ”Mr Russia of the German economy".

He has served on the board of car firm DaimlerChrysler and is currently a board member of the TUI travel company.

He has his own consultancy firm, which advises clients on doing business in Russia, and is the Honorary Consul of the Russian Federation in Baden-Wuerttemberg, a German region.

He has also advocated lifting EU sanctions on Russia imposed over its invasion of Ukraine.

Nina Katzemich from LobbyControl, a German NGO, described him as a go-between for Western CEOs and former Soviet leaders.

“If you want to do business in Russia and Eastern Europe, you cannot, practically speaking, do it without him,” she told this website.

Katzemich said Mangold was “clearly a lobbyist” and that he had no official reason to meet Oettinger in his capacity as honorary consul.

The Oettinger-Mangold meeting was not mentioned in the commissioner’s log and only came out after the MEPs’ enquiries, however.

Mangold has also declined to register in the commission’s lobbyist register, but Oettinger met him despite the fact that EU guidelines, from 2014, forbid meetings with unregistered lobbyists.

The guidelines say that “as a rule, members of the commission must not meet professional organisations or self-employed individuals which are not registered in the Transparency Register”.

“The fact that Mr. Oettinger flies amid suspicious circumstances in the company of a lobbyist is another proof of how much influence the lobbyist world has on the commission,” Javor said.

Rosatom deal

The MEP suspects that Oettinger’s trip to Hungary in May was about more than cars.

Based on other reports by the 444 website, he believes that Oettinger and Mangold went to Budapest to advise Orban on how to handle a commission probe into the Paks II project - a controversial plan to expand Hungary’s nuclear power plant together with Russian firm Rosatom.

Oettinger had tacitly approved the scheme back when he was the EU’s energy commissioner.

The EU competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, later launched a probe into allegedly illegal state aid for Paks II.

The commission also launched separate proceedings on concerns that it may have violated public procurement laws.

Orban concluded the deal in January 2014 in Moscow with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The aim is to have Russian state firm Rosatom build two 1,200 megawatt reactors at the old Paks facility.

Besides building the reactors, Moscow is also to provide Hungary with a €10 billion loan to finance the investment, with construction to start in 2018.

In its response to Javor’s questions, the commission said “the Paks II nuclear project was not discussed” by Oettinger and Orban.

If Orban had wanted someone to smooth the way for the project, then Mangold would be a good contact.

Germany’s “Mr Russia” has cultivated ties with high-level EU figures for years.

He already held a meeting, in December 2012, with Orban on how "to review Hungarian-German, Hungarian-Russian business relationships”.

He became Russia’s consul in Baden-Wuerttemberg even earlier, back when Oettinger was still prime minister of the German land.

MEP barred from questioning Oettinger on plane trip

The Hungarian Green MEP who uncovered EU Commissioner Oettinger's flight to Budapest on a private plane of a lobbyist was not allowed to ask the German politician on the issue in the EP.

Column / Rem@rk@ble

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