EU's weird uncle spoils the party
By Florian Lang
Most people are familiar with this kind of situation. Once in a while, the family gathers round to celebrate Christmas, a baptism, or a wedding. The atmosphere’s cheery and there are plenty of drinks.
Then - maybe after one drink too many - that weird uncle of yours starts making his usual racist, sexist, or homophobic remarks. Everyone stares at their feet. Some get their coats.
If you’re lucky, you won’t see him until the next family reunion. If you aren’t, and that unpleasant old geezer is the newly designated EU budgets commissioner, then you’ll have to cope with him for the next three years.
Guenther Oettinger is taking quite a beating for his remarks at a recent gathering of the German entrepreneurs’ association, the AGA.
He warned that “chiselers and slant-eyes” will soon dictate international trade rules.
He mocked the Chinese diplomatic delegation for their uniform dress code and he said that - in his opinion - insignificant issues, such as LGBTI rights, are dominating the German political agenda.
The secretary general of the centre-left SPD party, Katharina Barley, was right to say that his loose mouth makes him unsuitable to hold a high-level EU post.
Just like the weird uncle, Oettinger was incapable of acknowledging his mistake. Instead, he attacked the person who filmed the wedding video for allegedly showing his remarks out of context.
This “out-of-context” line doesn’t work here, however.
Indeed, the context of his AGA remarks further demonstrates his unsuitability for his EU post.
Oettinger’s speech concerned Europe’s international competitiveness. He lamented that “the EU will soon have more committees than inhabitants.”
He seemed to envy China, where a single party dictates economic and trade policies without having to listen to civil society or the political opposition.
Then he criticised what he called the “communist” Wallonia region in Belgium for its audacity in challenging Ceta, the EU-Canada trade accord, by raising concerns over labour and environmental standards - concerns which are shared by millions of Europeans.
He was also baffled by what he called the ignorance of people who want greater corporate accountability and who don’t like the idea of special courts, the so-called ISDS tribunals, enshrined in Ceta, being able to enforce corporate will on national governments.
With friends like these ...
There are two kinds of pro-European politicians.
There are those who are pro-European because they believe in a more integrated and democratic European Union, and those who are pro-European because the EU structures afford them a nice job.
Oettinger is one of the latter. He is - excuse my language - the wet dream of every industry lobbyist in Brussels.
As commissioner for energy, Oettinger wrote a letter to Volkswagen boss Martin Winterkorn, proudly reporting that he had managed to water down the EU’s CO2 regulation according to the German car maker's interests.
Infamously, in his first six months as commissioner for digital affairs, he met 44 times with industry lobbyists and just two times with NGOs.
Is it a surprise that his views on the “Taliban-like issue of net neutrality” (his own words) were impossible to tell from the industry’s position on internet rules?
In Oettinger’s world, the European project means making the EU more competitive in the international arena at any cost.
In his world, national parliaments are obstacles, civil society is a nuisance, and transparency is a competitive disadvantage.
In his logic, good governance means asking big corporations what they want and then acting accordingly.
EU critics from several political camps use this type of thing as their main argument. They say the EU is obeisant towards business elites and arrogant towards ordinary people.
How can genuine pro-Europeans challenge this impression with people like Oettinger, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Jose Manuel Barroso at the top?
Oettinger’s European Commission boss, Juncker, also lashed out like an angry child against Wallonia.
His predecessor, Barroso, didn't see that taking a job with the bank that screwed Europe in the Greek debt crisis, Goldman Sachs, would be a blow to EU credibility.
Bad years to come
The year 2016 has been a tough one for the European Union.
The refugee crisis, terrorism, Brexit, and democratic backsliding in places such as Poland have shaken the Union to its core.
I don’t think the European Commission, in its entirety, has become an obstacle to restoring people’s trust in Europe, but with weird uncles like Oettinger, and others, being the VIP guests at the party, it should prepare for more bad years to come.
Florian Lang is a German post-graduate student at the University of Vienna, specialising in European far-right movements