Oettinger: €60 billion Brexit bill ‘not totally wrong’

Commissioner Oettinger intents to avoid deep cuts to research in the aftermath of Brexit. [European Parliament]

EXCLUSIVE / EU Budget Commissioner Günter Oettinger has told euractiv.com that the €60 billion bill floated as the price of Brexit is “not totally wrong”, just days before Britain triggers Article 50, the legal process to leave the bloc.

The €60 billion figure has been contentious, especially in the UK, but the Commission has, until now, refused to confirm it.

As controversy rages around Jeroen Dijsselbloem’s remarks about bailout countries wasting their money on “alcohol and women”, Oettinger praised the acting Dutch finance minister’s “very important” work as Eurogroup president and defended his “balanced” approach to eurozone members.

Günter Oettinger is Commission Vice-President for Budget and Human Resources. Prior to that, he was responsible for the Digital Economy and Society (November 2014-January 2017), and Energy portfolios (February 2010-November 2014).

Oettinger spoke with EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero.

It is well known that connected cars are your pet project. How involved are you, despite now being the Budget Commissioner?

Firstly, we need some money. Connected cars should play a role in the 2018 budget and the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). Secondly, as long as there is no digital Commissioner, as is the case for the moment, I offer my help to my colleague [Vice-President Andrus] Ansip. No doubt, as I come from Baden-Württemberg, an automotive region, and I know many of the suppliers, it was quite easy to connect them. It is an ongoing story.

Looking ahead to the next MFF, the discussion will be highly influenced by the Brexit talks and the financial hole Britain will leave. I think you estimated in an interview that the hole would be around nine billion euros…

At least, nine to twelve billion euros

Not only would cuts be needed but also additional resources from the remaining member states. Firstly, where do you think Europe could make cuts, given that new priorities keep emerging?

For the MFF we need unanimity from 27 heads of state and government and from all Council members. To get a yes from net payers and from member states using our programmes and funds in an intensive manner, we have to find a balanced solution and a compromise. I am currently talking to many ministers to prepare the ground to ensure the Commission proposal, in general, is accepted. No programme can have a guarantee that it will not get cut. On the other hand, no net payer can have a guarantee that it will not have to pay more than it currently does to the MFF.

Will your approach be to make cuts across the board instead of erasing programmes as a whole?

I would say we have to check heading by heading, programme by programme. The percentage for cuts must not be always the same. For example, I would try to avoid deep cuts to our research programme, Horizon 2020 or the next generation. I am convinced that European research projects are efficient.

Would the Common Agricultural Policy suffer a deeper cut?

Let’s see.

When it comes to net contributions, will it be half of this nine to twelve billion euros or will there be more cuts than additional funds, given the lack of appetite among member states to contribute further to the EU budget?

Fifty-fifty for the moment is not totally unfair. But I would like to give an answer once I have met all of my colleagues, all the relevant ministers and the Parliament. But a balanced situation means being in the centre of these two fundamental options.

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Do you think the €60 billion figure estimated as the Brexit bill to be paid by London is accurate?

We are checking all the finances again. But I think €60 billion is not totally wrong.

What is your favourite scenario of those outlined in the Commission’s White Paper?

It is a mixture of five [More Europe], three [Multi-speed Europe] and four [Doing less more efficiently].

In that order?

A mix. In a mixed drink, there is no difference if you take vodka first and Red Bull afterwards. Or take Red Bull and Vodka together.

Some of the most controversial proposals to deepen the EU, like those related to the Economic and Monetary Union, could be unblocked after the German elections. A concrete example is the European Deposit Guarantee Scheme. There is a European Commission proposal and we know the German position. Do you think after the elections either Chancellor Angela Merkel or Social Democratic candidate Martin Schulz will give the go-ahead?

Indeed this scheme you mention is critical. But it is an ongoing discussion. For a solution, we need a transition phase. First, all member states have to fill their own national schemes for their banking sector. If there is a comparable level, then we could bring them together. Our proposal was for 2024. Now they are discussing 2028.

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Still, the German government is reluctant to progress. Would you advise Merkel to facilitate a solution?

My advice must be not to block the proposal. [German finance minister] Wolfgang Schaüble is not blocking the proposal. I think not having a scheme at European level would be the wrong outcome. So to integrate Germany, what feasible changes can be made? It could be a smart strategy for the next weeks and months.

Speaking of Schäuble, he said Schulz was acting in a “populist way” because he championed “Make Europe Great Again.” Do you think Schäuble went a bit too far?

He went far — not too far.  But I think some clear and outspoken differences in a campaign on a national level are good for a high level of participation of our citizens and are good to highlight the differences between candidates and parties. The problem in Germany was that a common coalition between CDU and the Social Democrats brought advantages for the far-right populists. Now, we have more differences.

Do you think Schulz is a populist?

We are all populists. But I think that he’s populist in an acceptable manner, and I’m sure that it will be a very interesting campaign. But it’s good for our democracy. I am expecting Angela Merkel to stay in the chancellery, but these two big elephants, Merkel and Schulz, are making difficulties for smaller groups, such as the AfD. In general, it’s a good constellation for our German democracy.

Do you plan to continue working toward your predecessor’s goal of having 40% women in senior and middle management positions in the Commission by 2019?

Month by month we are checking the situation, analysing the state of play and what progress is feasible. And 40% is ambitious but not unrealistic. It was a common decision of the whole college, so I’m willing to do my best to fulfil it.

Last year you made remarks about leadership in China being largely male because there are no quotas for women. Some have suggested you meant that women can’t accede to power through their own merit and need quotas. How would you respond to those who see it that way?

A legally-binding women quota is very difficult from a treaty point of view because discrimination is not acceptable. I think to support women, therefore we have many political options and instruments, and we will use these. And more than 50% of our staff is women, and they are, I think, five years younger than our men on average. It’s very clear where the momentum has been in recent years. And one last point: in 2017, we are finishing our programme to reduce our staff by 1% per year. It will be complete by the end of this year. So from next year, every post that is available can be offered.

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Speaking of women, Dijsselbloem accused bailout countries of spending their money on “alcohol and women” before asking for financial aid. Do you think that he should apologise? [Dijsselbloem finally apologised after this interview was made]

It’s not up to me to comment on his comments. Beyond these comments, his work as eurozone chairman, have been very important and very convincing. I think this has to take centre stage in our analysis.

But as a Commissioner, you also represent every member state, not only Germany. Does this remark weaken his voice or role as president of the eurozone as a whole?

Let’s wait and see. I think his work has been well balanced, considering the different expectations in the eurozone between Greece, Portugal, Cyprus and Ireland on the one hand, and the Netherlands, Finland, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany and Austria on the other hand, with France in between. He has not just been the Dutch voice in the Eurogroup. He has been a moderator and negotiator to integrate all the different positions of our 19 eurozone members.

You also had to apologise for some comments you made. You were also involved in the approval of Paks II nuclear power plant in Hungary. You travelled to Budapest…

My trip was to Hungary, yes, but as a speaker in a conference to digitise the industry and autonomous driving—no more, no less.

But you meet also with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Did you discuss the Paks II project?

We discussed Hungary as an automotive country, just like Slovakia and the Czech Republic. For Orbán, it is really interesting to be involved in the development of test fields for connected cars. In July, Hungary will chair the Visegrád group and his main point for his presidency is autonomous driving, digitising the automotive sector.

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So does that mean you didn’t discuss the project, given it is a very important project for Hungary and you were representing the Commission?

I am not involved in this game. It was totally a game of DG Competition. Nothing to do with me.

Do you think some things could have been done in a better way from your side in order to clear up any sense of controversy around this trip in the private jet of a lobbyist?

Mr Mangold is not a lobbyist — he is an entrepreneur advising companies and governments and he is a contracted part of the Hungarian government.

And the Russian government, which is financing the Paks II project…

I don’t know. He’s an honorary counsel of the Russian Federation in Germany. He’s a counsel, so a diplomat. Not a lobbyist.

Would you say that Paks II approval helped to improve Budapest’s relationship with Brussels and Berlin?

With Berlin, I don’t know. Again, in Paks II, our European law was the legal basis. Let me say that I was involved in nuclear matters as a Commissioner for energy. Several times member states with nuclear energy said to me: “You are so aggressive against nuclear with your stress tests”. Member states with no nuclear said I was a lobbyist. I have been in between. But what I know is the following: the decision to have nuclear or not under our treaty is not up to us as at the Commission — it’s totally up to member states.

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