Günther Oettinger dodged an evening of tough questions yesterday (9 January) about a string of his recent slip-ups when three European Parliament committees sounded out the gaffe-prone Commissioner for his new job as EU budget and human resources chief.
A smattering of MEPs asked Oettinger during the two-and-a-half-hour-long questioning about his ride on a lobbyist’s private jet and comments he made in October that mocked Chinese people, gay marriage and gender quotas.
Most questions focused on details of the EU budget, which has been under Oettinger’s control for just over a week.
In the lead-up to the hearing, MEPs had sharp words for the German Commissioner’s missteps. But Oettinger left the Parliament building unscathed after he apologised for his October comments, promised to increase the number of women in higher level jobs at the European Commission and offered a glimpse of where he stands on budget details ranging from the EU’s post-Brexit coffers to free Interrail tickets.
Ingeborg Gräßle, a German Christian Democrat who chairs the Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee, said afterwards that most MEPs in her group think Oettinger has the “necessary experience to take over the budgets portfolio”. MEPs from the committees on Budgets and the Legal Affairs were also in the room to question Oettinger.
Lawmakers from the three committees will tell the European Commission later this week whether they approve of Oettinger’s move to the budget post.
Their opinion isn’t binding—Oettinger already started the job after switching over from the technology policy portfolio—but a bad review could block his promotion to the better-paid vice president position held by his predecessor Kristalina Georgieva.
Asked by Czech ALDE MEP Martina Djalbajova if he might come up with a proposal outlining the proper use of private jets, Oettinger did not answer, telling MEPs he already explained one particularly controversial lobbyist meeting in a written response submitted days before the hearing.
In May 2016, Oettinger flew on the jet of a lobbyist who consulted the Hungarian government on a nuclear plant project, while a European Commission investigation was ongoing.
“Perhaps there’s a lobbyist you’ve been friends with for four years,” Oettinger said, suggesting to MEPs that he meets with a broad range of lobbyists from industry groups and NGOs. “Is that lobbying or not? You might run into someone in the airport, you might be sitting there reading a newspaper but people know you. You’re visible so they talk to you,” he said.
In writing, Oettinger told MEPs last week that the lobbyist whose jet he rode on did not officially request a meeting and that the Hungarian government suggested he tag along on the flight.
A group of NGOs have urged the Juncker Commission to strip Oettinger of his role in charge of its human resources policy, citing what they say are ethical blunders that should disqualify him from making staffing decisions.
“There are still open questions of whether he can be the right person to lead on this issue,” Yannik Bendel, a policy officer at Transparency International, told EURACTIV.com after yesterday’s hearing.
“It’s about the integrity of the leadership and the accountability of the EU itself,” Bendel said.
Budget sweet talk
But some MEPs who were present might have been swayed by Oettinger’s promises as budget chief. The job quickly grew in importance within the Commission as worries surged over what would happen to the EU budget once the UK, one of its biggest net contributors, leaves the bloc.
Commission officials who have been fretting over the post-Brexit budget could be relieved by Oettinger’s suggestion yesterday that he has some sway when he talks over budget details with German leaders.
“I have to discuss with Merkel and Schäuble but it should be possible that the Monti report will not be shelved,” he said, citing a budget report drawn up by a group of EU politicians led by former EU Commissioner Mario Monti.
Oettinger also told MEPs he is leaning towards leaving current EU budget plans unchanged until they expire in 2020, even if Brexit negotiations wrap up before then and the EU faces one year with significantly lower budget contributions once the UK exits.
“There have been considerations saying that if Brexit is in effect starting at the end of 2019, the MFF [Multiannual Financial Framework, the EU’s long-term budget] should be cut. I’m open to that but I have reservations. My experts say that would come with big risks,” he said.
The European Commission will this year propose a new budget plan that will span several years and replace the current framework. Germany is the biggest net contributor to the EU budget, followed by the UK.
Oettinger dodged a question on whether the UK would have to pay towards pensions for British citizens who retired from EU institution jobs once it leaves the EU and stops contributing to the common budget. But he insisted that there will be “no negative effect after Brexit for any Commission staffer”.
“We only have very few British Commission staff members unfortunately. That is unfortunately an advantage in this case,” he said.
There are around 1,730 British citizens who currently receive EU pensions for working in the institutions at some point over the last four decades.
At yesterday’s hearing Oettinger threw another bone to the budget-savvy MEPs who questioned him, telling them he wants an EU plan to cut youth unemployment to be renewed in the next budget. MEPs have clung to the plan and clashed with national governments last autumn when they tried to cut funding for a programme that helped young people find jobs.
It wasn’t the only olive branch the German Commissioner extended during his hearing. Oettinger sweetened the mood with MEPs in his centre-right party when he pledged support for a plan to offer 18-year-olds free Interrail train tickets. Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party group in the Parliament, floated the plan last year as a way to boost public support for the EU.
“I think this project will be successful but it has to be in addition to Erasmus,” Oettinger told MEPs.
Günther Oettinger was nominated by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to take over the Budget and Human Resources portfolio from his Bulgarian colleague, Kristalina Georgieva, who took up her new position at the World Bank on 1 January.
The German Commissioner has been embroiled in repeated scandals in recent months, including one where he described Chinese people as "slitty eyes" and another where he flew on board the private jet of a lobbyist with close ties to the Kremlin.
Oettinger was expected to face tough questions from MEPs during a confirmation hearing in the European Parliament. But at the end of November, leaders of the Parliament’s political groups – the Conference of Presidents – decided to break their own rules and spare the German Commissioner a potentially humiliating plenary hearing and vote.
Instead, they decided that Oettinger will face three parliamentary committees close to his new responsibilities – the committees on budgetary control, budgets and legal affairs – which will deliver their conclusions to political group leaders.
No plenary vote is scheduled.