21st Jan 2019


Oettinger on Italy: Like a true political commissioner

Will defendant Oettinger please rise?

Since Tuesday (29 May), the EU budget commissioner is in the dock for having allegedly said that financial markets will "teach Italians to vote for the right thing."

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  • The League's Salvini. What would his policies mean for Italy and the EU? (Photo: European Parliament)

The quote spread like wildfire on social media and even mainstream media, before being taken up by anti-system and far-right leaders in Italy and by critics of the EU all over Europe.

In fact, Guenther Oettinger never said those words. He was misquoted on Twitter by the journalist who interviewed him and who later erased his tweet.

What he actually said, however, was just less radical and more diplomatic.

"My concern and expectation is that the coming weeks will show that developments in Italy markets, bonds and economy will become so far-reaching that it might become a signal to voters after all to not vote for populists on the right and left," Oettinger told the Deutsche Welle channel.

"I can only hope that this will play a role in the election campaign and send a signal not to hand populists on the right and left any responsibility in government," he added.

The fact that the "teach them how to vote" quote was fake is now almost irrelevant.

 First, because in the age of "alternative facts", it has now become part of the debate, on the same level as the original, real quote.

Secondly because the 'success' of the quote showed that many people, and not only opportunistic, populist politicians, think that an EU politician would be capable of publicly wishing that markets imposed their will on peoples.

Thirdly, because by issuing two statements, one by Oettinger and one by its president Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU executive only made the quote look more credible.

"By referring to the actual market developments in Italy, I did not mean to be disrespectful and I apologise for this," Oettinger said in his statement - humble and penitent on the public forum.

Elites vs the people

No matter that he referred to his actual words, the commissioner's apologies will be used by his adversaries as proof that the misquotation was only the disclosure of what EU "elites" wanted and what they hid from the "people".

And the fact that the commission shied away from taking the responsibility for comments by one of its most important members' will only reinforce the view - so convenient for populists - that it is a secretive power with no accountability.

What did Oettinger actually say?

On the day when interests rates on Italian bonds suffered their worst day for a quarter of century and stock exchanges index lost ground across the eurozone, and especially in Milan, the commissioner just stated the obvious: political uncertainties have political and economic consequences.

Italians have the right to vote for the Five-Star Movement (M5S) and the League. They have the right to choose policies that would increase the country's deficit and debt, and even the right to want to leave the euro.

But they also have the right to know what the consequences would be - and neither M5S's Luigi di Maio or the League's Matteo Salvini have tried to answer that question.

The Le Pen example

Last year, when French far-right leader Marine Le Pen was leading in opinion polls ahead of the presidential election, there was a public debate about how she envisioned a euro exit.

She was questioned by journalists, by experts and by other politicians, and by Emmanuel Macron in particular. French voters had a clear view of what was at stake, they turned away from "Frexit" views, Le Pen had to abandon this part of her project and she was defeated.

In Italy, neither Forza Italia, the party of the ageing and discredited Silvio Berlusconi, nor the divided and run-down Democratic Party are in a position to challenge M5S and the League and to present a credible alternative view of the situation.

Italy is the EU's third biggest member, if we leave aside the soon-departing UK, with the power to plunge the eurozone into far more serious trouble than the Greek crisis.

Italy's fate and decisions are a European issue, and Italian voters - whom the commission rightly insist are the only ones who can decide over their future - deserve to be fully aware of what can happen.

The European Commission "takes position on European-scale issues" but is not ready to "take a stand on purely national issues", a spokesman said on Wednesday.

"Our job is not to pass commentary on political questions that play out within member states," he said, adding that "it is not what a political commission does".

Political commission

But when Juncker advocated the appointment of the commission president through the so-called Spitzenkandidat - a top politician heading the list of a political party and insist on choosing commissioners among former ministers or prime ministers - one could expect a more ambitious definition of a political commission.

When it apologises for political comments, retreating to a narrow conception of the role of its politicians, the EU executive in fact gives argument to those who see it as a bureaucratic institution that acts behind the scenes.

Oettinger, who made racist and homophobic comments in the past, is not always the model of what a responsible politician should be, but by opening his "foul mouth" on Tuesday, he brought to public debate the real stakes behind the Italian political crisis.

Right or wrong in his views, he acted as a real political commissioner - maybe the last one in the Juncker commission.

This time, defendant Oettinger should be acquitted.

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