Oettinger: Markets will show the way to shun populists in Italy

EU Budget Commissioner, German, Gunther Oettinger gives a press conference on 2019 draft EU budget at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium, 22 May 2018. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

European Union Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger apologised on Tuesday (29 May) after comments suggesting Italian voters would be punished by markets for voting for eurosceptic populists caused an uproar in the country.

“I fully respect the will of voters being left, right or centre and in every country. By referring to the actual market developments in Italy, I did not mean to be disrespectful and I apologise for this,” he said in a statement.

Markets will persuade Italians not to vote for the two populist parties that have tried and failed to form a government this month, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S) and the anti-migrant Eurosceptic League, the EU’s budget Commissioner said earlier in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

Günther Oettinger made clear that he does not share the fear that the populist parties could become even stronger in possible new elections and that it could result in an exit of Italy from the eurozone or the EU itself.

On the contrary, the Commissioner raised the expectation that the markets and the Italian economic development would be a signal for the voters not to vote for populists from the left and right: “The negative development of the markets will lead Italians not to vote much longer for the populists.”

“We have confidence in the president of Italy, who points out to coalition partners of potential governments their rights and obligations, which result from the membership in the European Union and the euro area,” Oettinger said in the interview, expressing confidence in the new technocratic government.

The comments made in the interview created a buzz on the social media and provoked outrage from commentators,  leaving the Commission with some explaining to do.

European Council President Donald Tusk slammed his Commission colleague, tweeting: “My appeal to all EU institutions: please respect the voters. We are there to serve them, not to lecture them.”

This came after an earlier translation of Oettinger’s comments suggested an even stronger wording, saying markets will “teach the Italians to vote for the right thing.”

The journalist subsequently deleted this translation, explaining he had mistakenly “misquoted” Oettinger.

The first version of the comments caused an immediate reaction by Italy’s Lega Nord leader, Matteo Salvini, who demanded that Oettinger should resign, accusing him of intervening in the country’ election procedure. “Can you imagine such disdain for democracy? … He should resign this afternoon,” Salvini wrote on Facebook.

In the interview, Oettinger at the same time voiced hope that Italy would continue to be a net contributor, as many Italian companies would benefit from the single market, while the EU has in recent times increased resources such as earthquake relief or border management, adjusting “the budget to the needs, also in the case of Italy.”

Oettinger defends conditionality clause in MFF proposal

The Commissioner noted that the citizen’s support for the EU is significantly increasing: “This has to do with Erdogan, with Trump and with Brexit. People indeed notice that one is able to act in the European team.”

Especially when it comes to a “foreseeable trade dispute” with the US, the advantages of being part of the community would be obvious: “What would a country like Italy, like Germany be on its own? But as a European single market, as a Union, we have the opportunity to react to Trump.”

Asked if was upset that leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán scold the EU back home but at the same time hold out their hand for money in Brussels, he answered: “We must take note of this. But it is unacceptable. Governments in all member states tend to nationalise successes and Europeanise problems, and that is an unfair division of labour.”

In this context, the German Commissioner defended the new conditionality regulation in the forthcoming EU budget, which aims to make rule of law compliance a condition for future allocation of EU funds:

“It is about the interests of the European taxpayer, we are investing billions and we need to be sure that the member states and their administrations properly manage the funds and then properly settle them.”

“To prevent fraud and corruption in the European budget, it may be necessary to go to court, which is why we need the guarantee that judges are independent, that no one can bend the third power, that justice is dispensed and judges do not depend on their government.”

United front against Trump

In the interview, Oettinger also made clear that despite the strained relations with the Trump administration, America remains Europe’s closest partner and friend.

However, he emphasised that if Trump should impose punitive tariffs on European goods, the Union ought to stay united: “If cars are affected, then everyone else must help – if Bordeaux is affected or if products from Italy are affected, then others must step in.”

“We must stand as a Union. If we leave somebody out in the rain, in the end all are disadvantaged,” the Commissioner concluded.

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