Günther Oettinger has never been one to bite his tongue.
There was that time back in 2000 when he broke into the banned “Deutschland,-Deutschland-über-Alles” verse at a celebration of his German nationalist fraternity. Or the time as Baden-Württemberg premier he lamented that Germany was surrounded by friendly neighbors: “The unfortunate thing is, there won’t be another war,” he joked. Then there was the time this year he said he would “shoot myself” if Frauke Petry, the populist leader of the Alternative for Germany, were his wife.
Then, as now, Oettinger’s folksiness was central to his appeal. With a Swabian accent so thick it could be mistaken for a speech impediment, he has survived by being what most politicians aren’t — himself.
That explains why he will, in all likelihood, withstand the present uproar over his off-color remarks about the Chinese, gay marriage, Walloons and women with careers.
As her spokesman made clear this week, Angela Merkel has no interest in letting him fall. The Commission, taking its cue from Berlin, refused to comment on Oettinger’s remarks. Jean-Claude Juncker’s spokesman Margaritis Schinas said that as far as he was aware, the Commission president hadn’t discussed the matter with Oettinger, much less demanded an apology.
Speaking at a business event in Hamburg, he called Chinese people “slant eyes,” joked that German legislators would soon introduce a law for “mandatory gay marriage,” called Wallonia a “micro-region ruled by communists,” and noted that a recent delegation from China to Germany had “no women,” perhaps because there are no quotas for women in top jobs in China.
“There is nothing to apologize for,” a defiant Oettinger told a EurActiv reporter Wednesday.
“That’s just how our Oetti is,” a columnist for Oettinger’s hometown paper, the Stuttgarter Nachrichten, concluded this week, dismissing the commissioner’s critics as “Twitter horny” and “politically correct vultures.”
While the support for their hometown boy isn’t surprising, the reality is that for all the outrage among Brussels cosmopolitans over the comments, neither Germany nor Europe seems particularly bothered by them. So far, none of Germany’s main television news programs have devoted much attention to the controversy. Claus Kleber, a popular public television anchorman, offered a typical German reaction via Twitter, saying he had no time for the “polished talk” one hears from “image consultants, defenders of political correctness and lawyers.”
The real question is whether the affair will impair Oettinger’s effectiveness in his new role as budget commissioner and vice president. Unlike with the digital portfolio, which he came to with almost no background, Oettinger, a trained tax lawyer, possesses all the technical skills to be the Commission’s top number-cruncher. Whether he has the political acumen to navigate tricky budget negotiations is less clear.
Oetti’s Brussels adventures
For all his shortcomings and propensity to put his foot in his mouth, Oettinger counts within the Commission as one of its more competent officials. That wasn’t always the case.
Back in 2014, Brussels didn’t have high hopes for him when he shifted from energy to take over the digital economy portfolio. He could be curt, tearing up his notes if he deemed a subject unworthy of his attention. In the often pretentious world of Brussels officialdom, he came across as unintellectual and unserious — more likely to obsess over cars or football than trade deals or European Union directives.
To make matters worse, as a die-hard Luddite, he seemed uniquely unqualified for his new position. His more tech-savvy boss, Commission Vice President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip, was at ease on social media or on the trendiest apps, like Pokémon Go.
Oettinger, as he told the crowd at his now-infamous Hamburg speech last week, preferred an old-fashioned newspaper to Twitter and document printouts to a tablet or iPhone. As he settled into his office, his aides rushed to install a computer and carry away piles of paper stacked precariously on every available surface.
In the 22 months since his appointment, Oettinger has changed little. He continues to express more interest in breakthroughs in the automotive industry than the more abstract areas of his portfolio, such as data flows or ICT standards. His home in Brussels, he told a group of reporters and tech lobbyists recently, is not set up for Wi-Fi — something he attributes to his long hours at the office. At home, he prefers “a nice bottle of Bordeaux” to a broadband connection, he added.
Nonetheless, Oettinger has arguably had more influence on European digital policy during the Juncker Commission than any other official, including Ansip.
While Ansip has struggled to push forward his ambitious agenda centered around breaking down digital barriers, often referred to as geo-blocking, Oettinger has used his negotiating skills to deliver for his allies in industry, like the German publishing sector, a series of high-profile victories.
During the summer, he strong-armed his way into negotiations on boosting European startups, infuriating his more innovation-focused colleagues. Before that, he bulldozed past Vodafone to accept a plan that would keep some power over German copper network cables in the hands of giant Deutsche Telekom.
And when the Commission unveiled its epochal overhaul of copyright law in September, it was clear that Oettinger had won again.
Following intense lobbying from the likes of German media giants Bertelsmann and Axel Springer — which is a co-owner of POLITICO’s European publication — the Commission swatted aside the concerns of American internet giants like Google and Yahoo and introduced a new measure that would allow publishers to better control and monetize snippets of their works used online.
“It’s specific sectors. He has the ear of specific businesses,” said Dutch liberal MEP Marietje Schaake. And in leaning on these players, Oettinger continues to cross things off his digital to-do list. “He has learned a lot about the digital economy going from someone who is new on the issue,” said the vice president for Europe at the Computer and Communications Industry Association, James Waterworth. “He is clearly a powerful commissioner.”
He declined to comment for this article, but after publication issued a statement Thursday saying, “I had time to reflect on my speech, and I can now see that the words I used have created bad feelings and may even have hurt people. This was not my intention and I would like to apologize for any remark that was not as respectful as it should have been.”
Oettinger was born in 1953 in Stuttgart, where his father was a local politician. After earning a law degree from the University of Tubingen, he worked as a small-town lawyer and a district councilor in Ludwigsburg, a town of fewer than 100,000 inhabitants in his home state of Baden-Württemberg.
In his twenties, he quickly started getting involved in the local political scene in addition to his legal profession.
Oettinger signed up to the youth wing of Germany’s leading conservative political party, the Christian Democratic Union. And that’s when his political aspirations began to take off.
One of the formative moments of his early political career, and that of many of his CDU brethren, was a 1979 trip to Venezuela and Chile organized by the party. The trip was intended as a bond-building exercise for young promising CDU politicians.
The other travelers included Roland Koch, who would become the prime minister of Hesse, where Germany’s financial capital Frankfurt lies; Peter Müller, who later become the head of the state of Saarland; and Christian Wulff, who became premier of Lower Saxony before being elected Germany’s president in 2010. On a flight over the Andes, the young men formed a political alliance, swearing to work together and never to run against each other.
Oettinger joined a lifelong exclusive club. “He was networked in,” said Professor Ed Turner, a specialist in German politics at Aston University.
From there, he became the head of Baden-Württemberg’s Junge Union, or youth chapter, which propelled him to a position in the state’s parliament. By 1991, he was leading the region’s entire CDU unit. That same year, he was caught driving under the influence of alcohol and his license was revoked. The setback did little to halt his ascent. He continued to build his influence within the party until in 2005, his colleagues selected him as state premier.
In his new position, Oettinger was in charge of running a state far larger than many European countries, and he quickly obtained a reputation as one of the most pro-business politicians in Germany. The state is home to the headquarters of carmakers Porsche and Mercedes, as well as auto-parts giant Robert Bosch. By developing close ties with these industrial powers and others, Oettinger could promote the region’s economy. And with their support, he could push through difficult legislation.
“He is a real fan of monopolies and a fan of supporting the bigger companies, and not looking at all at the smaller players,” said German Greens MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht.
His life in German politics seemed charmed. He was a celebrity at local beer festivals and industrial fairs. His position at the head of Baden-Württemberg made him one of Germany’s most powerful men, and he was a sought-after guest at many of the country’s most important political events.
Then Merkel took over.
She was a new figure in the CDU’s power structure — an underdog from East Germany with few connections and much to prove.
“Undoubtedly Merkel sat outside of this West German Junge Union network,” said Turner. “She may have had something to prove and had to establish herself.”
In Merkel’s stiff, calculating, hyper-effective CDU, there was no time for backslapping or beer-swigging — and no place for the old boys’ club of the Junge Union.
Oettinger clashed with Merkel on budget policy and other issues. His star seemed to be fading.
At home, a scandal involving the delivery of a eulogy that was widely seen as the defense of a former Nazi politician eroded his popularity.
At the same time, he faced an ambitious internal rival for his job. In 2010, Oettinger surprised everyone by taking the post as the EU’s energy commissioner.
Whether Merkel saw the move as chance to get rid of a meddlesome critic or an opportunity to lift Germany’s influence on the Commission isn’t clear.
For Oettinger, what many viewed as banishment to the soft Siberia of Brussels turned out to be a gracious exit with propitious timing.
Soon after he left, demonstrations over an expensive new railway station in Stuttgart erupted and his party struggled to deal with the public backlash. A year later, the CDU failed to win enough support to build a coalition and was out of power in the state.
‘I don’t like McDonald’s’
Not that Brussels was easy for the German. For the first time in his career, Oettinger found himself living outside of Germany.
European commissioners tend to be multilingual and worldly. Ansip, for example, speaks English, Russian, Estonian, some Finnish and German, and is now studying French. European Commissioner for Research and Innovation Carlos Moedas went to the Harvard Business School, speaks English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, and has lived in the U.S., U.K., France and Belgium on top of his native Portugal.
At the time of his arrival, Oettinger could barely speak English and had never really ever left Baden-Württemberg. “I never needed English [in Germany],” he told a Brussels audience at the DLDeurope conference in early September. “I don’t like McDonald’s.” He knew enough to make small talk, he added, and for his purposes that had always been enough.
He wasn’t particularly charming, either. He had a penchant for going off-script at speaking engagements, ranting about seemingly random issues unrelated to the event at hand. This made his aides and his fellow commissioners nervous. “He had quite an individual way of giving a speech,” said one energy industry source. “It was often a stream of consciousness.” He quickly earned a reputation for ending meetings abruptly when he lost interest.
As the criticism mounted, Oettinger realized that if we was going to accomplish anything, he’d have to make some changes, say sources close to him. He signed up for English classes, started listening to the experts on his staff, and began reading up on energy policy.
“He was basically pushed off his high horse,” said an ex-Commission source. “He probably realized: I might have to start listening to people and learn something new.”
As energy commissioner, Oettinger was responsible for negotiating with some of the biggest businesses and biggest countries in Europe, and as he began to figure out how to navigate the Commission, his old skills — and workaholic habits — started to come in handy. And in deal after deal, he started to earn the respect of the most powerful players in the world of energy policy.
He was credited with breaking down long-stagnant barriers to ease the flow of gas across European borders. His work arbitrating a gas dispute between Ukraine and Russia around the time of Crimea’s annexation in 2014, for example, won him respect in EU and Russian circles alike. Among those he stood up to were Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin, when he championed the EU becoming more independent of Russian energy supplies. “If he can take on Gazprom, he can take on anyone,” said Gregoire Verdeaux, international policy director at Vodafone.
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It’s also when his reputation for favoring big business started expanding across Brussels. As the EU started to try to bring in higher standards for fuel efficiency and a low carbon energy system, Oettinger pushed back. “He stood up for the classical fossil fuels industry interest,” said Wendel Trio, the director of the Climate Action Network. “I think he was seen as defending the status quo and the big companies.”
But his successes kept mounting, along with his political clout. As the Greek financial crisis unfolded, he became a leading source of commentary in German and European media, cementing his stature not just as an energy heavyweight, but as a leading political figure.
“Oettinger realized he could reinvent himself, and he’s done that in the Commission,” said a German think tank source.
By the time the next Commission was being formed, Oettinger had racked up an impressive four years. German media speculated that he was headed for a more senior role. Perhaps he would be given the trade portfolio, or maybe one of the coveted vice presidential positions.
Instead, he was assigned the digital portfolio, a subject for which he could hardly be less qualified.
Julia Reda, the European Parliament’s sole Pirate Party member and a vocal critic of his, remembers the exact moment she first heard about Oettinger’s impending appointment as digital commissioner. She was at a conference when a lobbyist floated the rumor. Reda remembers that a conservative parliamentary colleague sitting nearby reacted with a “facepalm” — the colloquial term for slapping one’s forehead with despair.
Oettinger at first seemed completely uneducated on his portfolio and out of sync with his colleagues. He compared net neutrality activists to the Taliban. He ranted about connected cars but didn’t appear to understand how they worked.
And in one of his most egregious trip-ups, he blamed celebrities for their own naked photo leaks. “Anyone stupid enough to put a naked photo of themselves on the internet, cannot expect us to protect them,” Oettinger said at a parliamentary hearing.
The backlash was swift. The celebrities, victims of a crime, had done no such thing. But while he may never have grasped the intricacies of digital policy, he seems to have approached his job with a better understanding of what makes Brussels work: power.
While the other commissioners theorize about data flows and virtual reality, Oettinger is more likely to be attending an industry event, talking late into the night with the CEOs of major telecom companies or publishing houses. “While Ansip sees the need for reforms to create new companies and sectors, Oettinger is more comfortable with reforms that help current companies and sectors,” said Fredrik Erixon, the director of the European Centre for International Political Economy.
“If you talk to German telecom or others, they’re happy with him because they got a lot of access,” said a German think tank source. “He was more open to engaging what he perceived as big players in his field, [including the] big publishers.”
Meanwhile, inside the Commission, Oettinger has used his position to place himself between his boss and the drafting of legislation, according to three sources with firsthand knowledge.
The results are best seen in the copyright overhaul, in which Oettinger’s allies in the publishing world triumphed over their digital counterparts. “The copyright review reads like it was copy-pasted from German media law,” said Reda, who was on the other side from him in this debate. Similarly, Oettinger has promised leaders in the telecoms industry the power to build new networks and compete for coveted 5G real estate. A new overhaul of communications rules will give more incentive to companies to build up sophisticated digital infrastructure.
What worries some media and telecom industry executives about Oettinger’s new assignment is that all of the work he did on digital will go out the window, especially if Ansip, who is regarded as less friendly to industry, takes over. “If Oettinger goes away, many things might be put into question,” one senior telecom lobbyist said.
Ryan Heath and Zoya Sheftalovich contributed reporting.
This story was updated to add a statement from the commissioner, issued after publication.