Günther Oettinger, Germany’s EU Commissioner, has apologised to members of the European Parliament for calling the Chinese “slitty-eyed” and for mocking gay marriage and women during a speech in Hamburg.
Oettinger’s second apology for the gaffe-strewn address was made ahead of a 9 January Parliament hearing about the Digital Commissioner’s suitability to take up the budget and human resources portfolio.
That post was vacated this month by Kristalina Georgieva, who has joined the World Bank. In the wake of the speech controversy, it has been unclear if Oettinger will inherit Georgieva’s title of Commission vice-president, which would bring a €2,000 a month pay rise.
“I very much regret that the words used in my speech may have hurt people. This was not my intention,” Oettinger wrote in comments published yesterday (5 January).
“Respecting people that are different and learning how diversity can enrich our perspectives is an experience that I have made constantly in my political career and especially in the European institutions,” he said in answer to questions from the Parliament’s Budget, Budgetary Control and Legal Affairs committees.
But Oettinger also revealed he has not written an official letter of apology to the Chinese Mission to the EU, despite his comments having been criticised by China’s foreign ministry.
euractiv.com exclusively revealed in November that the 9 January meeting will be an exchange of views and not the hearing that is usual before a Commissioner gets a post. That will spare Oettinger’s appointment being subject to approval by plenary vote in the Parliament.
Yesterday, ten NGOs, including Transparency International, wrote to MEPs urging them to oppose Oettinger’s appointment. They cited his “racist, sexist and homophobic remarks”, and his patchy record on lobbying transparency.
On 26 October in Hamburg, Oettinger used the term “Schlitzaugen” – slitty eyes – in reference to the Chinese. The former Energy Commissioner later characterised the remarks as “sloppy” rather than racist.
He said, “Last week Chinese ministers visited us […] nine men, one party, and no democracy.
“All of them in suits, single breasted dark blue jackets. All of them had their hair combed from left to right, with black shoe polish on their hair.”
To nervous laughs, Oettinger ploughed on, unaware that the speech was being filmed.
Discussing German politics, he sarcastically said, “Perhaps obligatory homosexual marriage will be introduced.”
No written apology
Oettinger’s anti-Chinese rhetoric drew a sharp rebuke from the country’s foreign ministry which said the remarks revealed “a baffling sense of superiority entrenched in some Western politicians”.
The centre-right politician, who described the Chinese as “chisellers”, told MEPs, that “negotiations with China have certainly not been affected by any of my declarations.
“Let me underline that I regret very much that my speech gave rise to the impression of disrespect for the people of China.”
But when asked if he had sent an official letter of apology to the Chinese Mission to the EU, Oettinger revealed he had not.
“I regretted that the words I used during my speech had created bad feelings and may even have hurt people…I apologised. I did not send any official letters.”
“Racist or hate speech including homophobic and transphobic hate must be firmly condemned and combatted,” Oettinger later said in his written answers to MEPs.
“It should also be backed by credible and deterrent disciplinary action should staff fail to abide by the rules.”
Oettinger has faced no penalty beyond the possible loss of his promotion to vice-president.
First apology seven days in the making
The footage of the speech caused headlines across Europe but it still took Oettinger a week to apologise for the first time.
Just 24 hours before his mea culpa, he had exclusively told EURACTIV “there is no scandal” and refused to apologise. Soon afterwards he was ordered to say sorry by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Weeks later, it emerged that Oettinger had used a Kremlin lobbyist’s private jet to arrive on time for a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
In the response to the written questions from MEPs, Oettinger said that the controversial jet ride did not qualify as a gift under EU rules and that the lobbyist in question never requested a meeting with him.
Oettinger has met 270 business representatives out of the 336 lobby meetings he has held since December 2014. According to MEPs, this is more meetings than any other Commissioner.
“NGOs have not requested meetings comparable to the meetings requested by associations and businesses,” he replied in his written answers.