Monday

6th Apr 2020

German ex-commissioner Oettinger lands Orban job

  • Former commissioner Guenther Oettinger had bent EU ethics rules before (Photo: European Commission)

Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban has appointed the controversial German former commissioner Guenther Oettinger as co-chair of a newly formed National Science Policy Council, raising questions on the code of conduct of the former EU official.

According to Hungary's official journal, the German ex-commissioner was appointed by Orban as of 5 February for a period of three years.

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  • Screenshot from the Hungarian official journal on Oettinger's appointment (Photo: Magyar Kozlony)

But the European Commission has not yet authorised Oettinger to take up the position, according to the commission's own website.

According to the commission's rules, former commissioners have to notify the EU executive with "a minimum of two months' notice of their intention to engage in a professional activity during a period of two years after they have ceased to hold office".

The commission then examines the information provided and decides if the"nature of the planned activity is compatible" with EU rules.

Oettinger has informed the commission that the Hungarian government had discussed with him a possible function in the Hungarian National Science Policy Council, a commission official said when asked by EUobserver on the matter.

Oettinger has also indicated to the commission that he would be ready to accept the job and that he would notify the commission once he has received more information about the function from the Hungarian government, the official added.

The commission would then evaluate the compatibility of the activity with the post-term of office obligations of former commissioners.

Oettinger himself told Euronews on Friday (21 February) that so far, they have agreed in principle with the government that he would play a role in the National Science Policy Council, but he had not yet signed a contract.

The German politician said he would like to have more discussions about the post to clarify the responsibilities, which will help determine if he will receive a compensation for it.

He added he only learned on Thursday that his name had appeared in the official journal as co-chair of the council.

Ethics questions

"The fact that former commissioner Oettinger was apparently nominated for a role without undergoing any ethics assessment raises many concerns and it shows once again how the process for vetting commissioner's compliance with ethics rules is deeply inadequate," Margarida Silva with Corporate Europe Observatory, lobbying watchdog organisation, said.

"As the role has already been announced by the Hungarian government, we believe that president von der Leyen should immediately demand a full assessment from independent ethics body," she added, saying such an assessment should take into consideration the full scope of the role.

"It should also look into the negotiation and nomination process. Why is it that the Hungarian government has announced the role allegedly before former commissioner Oettinger even accepted?," Silva said.

Oettinger is the only non-Hungarian member of the council - which answers directly to the prime minister and is chaired by the minister for innovation and technology.

The National Science Policy Council "gives an opinion and makes recommendations on the government's research and development and innovation activities, and monitors the operation of [the state-funded] National Research, Development and Innovation Fund and its annual program strategy", according to the government's website.

It was created at the start of the year. Critics say it is part of the government's overhaul, triggered last year, to tighten state control over academic life.

Previous controversy

It is not the first time Oettinger's code of conduct is called into question when it comes to relations with the Hungarian government.

In 2016, Oettinger used a private plane for a travel to Budapest offered by a German businessman with strong Kremlin ties, Klaus Mangold, which possibly broke EU ethics rules - even though the commission at the time considered it to fall outside of its transparency and ethics rules.

Mangold's consultancy firm also had a contract with the Orban government at the time, and organised the meeting with Orban and Oettinger, for which he provided the private plane.

At the time, former Green MEP Benedek Javor suggested that the controversial Russian-built extension of Hungary's Paks nuclear plant was discussed by Oettinger, a former energy EU commissioner, Mangold and Orban.

He also assumed that Oettinger advised Orban on how to handle a commission probe into the Paks II project.

Both the commission and the Hungarian government denied the Paks II claim, saying the topic was digital issues.

Oettinger told Euronews on Friday that the issue of nuclear energy and science are far from each other and and he does not see a connection between his appointment and Paks.

Javor, however, told EUobserver the appointment "confirms our worst assumptions".

"It is difficult not to see it as a compensation [ to Oettinger] for the help [with Paks II]," Javor said, adding that it is "difficult to believe" that he did not know if he would be paid or not when he had already been appointed.

"This appointment is a strong signal that the connection between the Hungarian government, Paks and Oettinger can be confirmed," he said, adding the issue sheds a bad light on the commission and the German Christian Democrats (CDU).

Consultancy firm

Oettinger's conduct also raised questions last summer when it emerged that he founded a consultancy firm with a partner in Hamburg still as a commissioner.

The company was to become operational at the end of Oettinger's term, but the EU's rules call for a two-year waiting period before allowing former commissioners to return to work.

"This case might be even more serious," Silva said on the appointment.

"If there are reasonable concerns that this could be a direct result of then commissioner Oettinger's actions favouring the Hungarian government, then this would become a corruption investigation and should be assessed by the appropriate body," she said.

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