MEPs criticise Oettinger's 'judgement'
EU Commissioner Guenther Oettinger maintained on Wednesday (16 November) there was nothing wrong with him taking a private jet of a German businessman with strong Russian ties.
Oettinger argued in a series of tweets that due to scheduling conflicts he had no choice but to take the private plane of Klaus Mangold, which was offered by the Hungarian government, and, apparently, also paid for by it.
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"We did not explicitly ask HU [Hungary] about their payment – neither for plane nor for hotel they also offered," the German EU commissioner said.
"Governments often offer transport & accommodation for missions of Commissioners when they invite for meeting, conference," he tweeted, adding: "I was invited to a dinner with a Prime Minister to discuss EU digital policies. It is my job to explain & discuss."
Oettinger travelled to Budapest for a conference on the future of cars in May on the invitation of prime minister Viktor Orban.
His flight on board of Mangold's plane was confirmed in early November by the commission in an answer to an MEPs' question.
'He doesn't understand'
European Parliament president Martin Schulz, a centre-left German, declined to comment to EUobserver about the case.
Walking through the hallways of the EU parliament with his entourage, his aides said he could not comment because he was “going to a meeting”.
Manfred Weber, who was re-elected as leader of the centre-right EPP group on Wednesday (16 November), told journalists that he had “complete confidence” in Oettinger.
Weber called him a “very experienced commissioner” and said there was “no doubt at all whether Guenther Oettinger is doing a good job as commissioner”.
The second largest group in the EP, the Socialist and Democrats tweeted that Oettinger's actions "risk widening the division between citizens & EU institutions. It's looking more like he's the wrong man in the wrong place."
"Once again we call on @GOettingerEU [Commissioner Oettinger] to clarify his misfortunate actions and unethical behaviour," the statement of the S&D said.
"The S&D Group will use the upcoming EP hearing to question him harshly", the leader of the group, Gianni Pittella said in the tweet.
The date has not yet been set for the hearing.
Danish social-democrat MEP Christel Schaldemose told EUobserver she had not read the article yet. But she noted that transparency is extremely important, “especially if you want to be a candidate for an important position”.
“We have those rules for a reason,” she said, adding that the European institutions have enough funds to pay for their officials' travels.
Sources close to the third-largest group in the parliament, the ECR, said they would “wait and see” how Oettinger explained the case, and that they had not had any internal discussions on whether the group would support his bid for vice-president of the commission.
'Not a slip of the tongue'
The Greens are also gearing up for a grilling at Oettinger's hearing at the EP.
Rebecca Harms, president of the Green group in the European Parliament, one of the MEPs who originally questioned Oettinger's May trip, said that "Commissioner Oettinger has violated the ethical rules of the European Commission and does not even seem to understand why this is problematic."
"It is deeply concerning that an EU Commissioner sees no problem in travelling in the private jet of a lobbyist with close ties to the Kremlin, who is actively opposing EU sanctions against Russia," Harms said.
Liberal Dutch MEP Sophie in't Veld told Euobserver an EP hearing would be necessary for Oettinger, as the EU commission has tried to brush aside earlier controversies regarding the commissioner's racist comments.
"If you look at the complete picture, you really wonder about his judgement. I think there are many good reasons why he should come to parliament and answer one or two questions and certainly if he is set to take over the budget portfolio. We need somebody with sound judgement," she said.
"This whole thing with accepting the trip on the plane, I mean hasn't there been a single moment where he thought, is this a good idea? And also in making those [racist] statements, that wasn't a slip of the tongue. There seems to be a pattern there," the Dutch MEP said.
"At that this particular moment in time, we need to show, everybody is critising Trump and what is happening on the other side of the pond ... so we need to show to the citizens what we stand for and that means both in terms of values, when you talk about his remarks, and in terms of transparency and accountability and being wise with tax payers money," Sophie in't Veld said.
'A buddy to business'
To Julia Reda, MEP for the German Pirate party, the use of the private plane was no accident.
"Mr. Oettinger's has by now accumulated a track record of doubtful and unwise policy decisions,” she told EUobserver in a written statement.
“On top of it, he is continuing to endanger the integrity of the office he holds and the institution he works for," she added.
“We see a repeating pattern of him displaying lack of understanding about the ethical questions being raised, usually followed by a written apology provided to him by his staff as the situation unfolds," she said.
Vicky Cann from the Corporate Europe Observatory watchdog also thinks Oettinger's rack record is problematic.
“Trips on private jets with unregistered lobbyist; secret meetings with the German car industry; sexist, homophobic and racist remarks … how much longer will president Juncker put up with commissioner Oettinger?," she said in a statement.
"Oettinger has long been a buddy to business and has a track record of protecting the car industry from environmental regulations. Even in 2016, as Commissioner for the Digital Economy, Oettinger has met with the car industry six times, including twice the scandal-struck VW," Cann added.