Politics

Günther Oettinger: Germany's walking gaffe machine

Article published on Feb. 15, 2017
Article published on Feb. 15, 2017

Germany’s new EU Budget and Human Resources Commissioner has had a decent career, but he has also made a number of comments that would have cost other politicians their jobs. Here we paint a portrait of this controversial figure.

Günther Oettinger stands gravely in a dark grey suit and bright blue tie, in stark contrast to a bright, almost neon blue background. This portrait of the former Minister President was made by Germany’s BILD magazine for the ancestral gallery of Villa Reizenstein, the representative government seat of Baden-Württemberg. When it was unveiled, however, a surprise discovery was made: the top corner appeared to have a bullet hole in it.

The hole had in fact been painted on, but the most striking feature of the painting was the apparent shattering of glass in the upper left corner. The artist, Anke Doberauer, is well-known for her luminous backgrounds, but this is her first (and so far only) piece with this particular visual touch.

In explanation for this, she merely said: "One can often find themselves under threat and vulnerable." This is undoubtedly true for the portrait's subject – Oettinger always seems to land on the wrong side of controversy and, less than a year after the portrait was unveiled, finds himself in the crossfire yet again for comments of a homophobic, sexist and racist nature. That being said, his comments didn’t seem to affect him when he stepped into the role of EU Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources at the beginning of this year.

 

  The Commissioner who shoots himself in the foot

Oettinger has long been known as a politician who seldom misses a chance to put his foot in it. The Germans call him a 'Swabian Kalashnikov' for his rapid-fire remarks. In October, while speaking to invited guests of the Hamburg company AGA, he joked derogatorily about the introduction of a "compulsory homosexual marriage" in Germany. He also described a contingent of Chinese businessmen who had recently come to Brussels to meet EU officials as "nine men, (with) one party and no democracy," who had "slit ears" and "slit eyes" and wore "single-breasted dark-blue jackets, all with their hair brushed from left to right with black shoe polish." When the video, which was recorded in secret, became public, the politician saw no reason to apologize. However, he later appeared to change his mind and issued a public apology in which he stated that the statements had been disrespectful and that he had sought only to speak freely.

There are, of course, plenty of other incidents in which he has crossed the line. With Frauke Petry – leader of Germany’s AfD Party for example – whom he said he would "shoot" if he was married to her. This comment, however, received very little in the way of criticism. Oettinger's partner, Friederike Beyer, is 24 years younger than him and not active in politics and apparently loves him "a little more than her horse," according to an interview Oettinger gave to Germany’s Bunten magazine back in 2008 when their relationship became public.

Oettinger was also heavily criticized during his time as Minister President for Baden Württemberg. Most notably, for the time when he declared that one of his predecessors, Hans Filbinger of the Christian Democrats, was not only the Minister President but also a former Nazi-Marinerichter (naval judge).

The Kalashnikov comes under fire

The media, along with various NGOs, were outraged, and published an open letter protesting Oettinger’s promotion to his current role of European Commissioner for Budget and Personnel, one of the most important roles within the EU Commission. This role oversees the management of the Commission's human resources, and as such it is argued that the person occupying it should set a good example.

But Oettinger spoke out, in spite of the mounting criticism surrounding his position. At a hearing held by the EU Parliament before he took on his new post on 9 January, he managed to win over his critics and appease the media. And so the phrase which made an appearance at the unveiling of his portrait gained relevance once again: "A target,  healthy, but still vulnerable."

Speeches aside, Oettinger's ascent to his current position was generally smooth but also steep. Oettinger was born in Stuttgart and grew up in Ditzingen, a small town in the surrounding area. He remained close to home, choosing to study in Tübingen, a mere 50 kilometers away. On his return to Ditzingen, he followed in the footsteps of the father and became co-owner of hi father’s accountancy firm. At the age of 21, he joined the CDU, and founded the party’s Junge Union or youth division in his hometown. This was followed by his election to the municipal council, then to the state parliament, then to the chairman of the CDU in Baden Württemberg in 2005.

He has kept up his contact with the municipal council while in the role of EU Commissioner and he is praised for that. David Wagner (25), a member of the CDU since 2010 (Baden-Wuerttemberg), likes Oettinger’s down-to-earth attitude, and especially the fact that it is not beneath him to shake the hand of someone who is less well-known. The young CDU politician especially likes Oettinger’s sense of humor and ability to laugh at himself stating an example when Oettinger remarked: "New glasses? New lid, old pot." He certainly seems to come across well, in his own unique but funny way. He is definitely a character and often described as self-confident, energetic, purposeful and sympathetic. The majority of the members of the Junge Union and the CDU have a good impression of him as "very competent and pragmatic."

In 2010, Wagner said, "Many of us, including myself, regret that he went to Brussels." As Minister President, Oettinger, was often in Brussels at the EU and he was not received very well here, either by the EU or by his colleagues in the CDU especially when videos began to circulate of his speeches in Brussels, because his English was so bad.

He became the butt of many jokes online, and also within the CDU: "We definitely laughed at his English," says Wagner. Before moving to Brussels, Oettinger, who speaks only German and English, had lived almost exclusively in Stuttgart and the surrounding area, and so, when he moved to Brussels he left much of his international and multilingual support behind. The commissioner does, however, see the funny side of this: "I could have spent lots of money on continuous ads but I got so much recognition free of charge." Although many have made fun of him, his way of speaking has become his trademark.

Nevertheless, he does not seem to be as comfortable in Brussels as he does in his home faction of the CDU. He often comes back to Stuttgart and can be seen at the political celebration of Ash Wednesday as well as at parties, jubilee events and election campaign events, as the young party members will tell you. He also just celebrated his 60th birthday, not in Brussels, but in Baden-Württemberg, with well-known businessmen and politicians. The CDU in Baden-Württemberg threw a big party for him, for 600 guests which apparently cost 40,000 euros.

"Broadband? I’d rather have a bottle of Bordeaux!"

In Brussels, Oettinger held the role of Vice President of the European Commission for Energy, before moving into the role of commissioner for digital affairs, where he had very little to do. Network activists, in particular, consistently questioned his competence and were clearly very happy to see him move to a different department. Commenting on his departure the Gründerszene said: "a sigh of relief is felt throughout the digital economy." This is in part due to the fact that he said that he once said he would prefer a bottle of Bourdeaux in his home over an internet connection.

Many others have also benefitted from the fact that the Oettinger performed well as an energy commissioner and made an important contribution to the department of digital affairs, with the ban on roaming costs. Wagner is also convinced of Oettinger’s competence as a politician and is confident that he will bring a lot to the table in his new role as the commissioner for Budget and Human Resources: "He has a good grasp of different topics. The commissioner also has a large staff made up of experts with specialist knowledge. His craft is politics. I think he has a good political sense and political perspective. Further, as Minister President, he was inevitably responsible for everything so he brings a lot of experience to the role."

It is precisely this, however, that makes *Jasmin, a young woman and former long-time member of the CDU and Junge Union in Baden-Württemberg, not want to see their real name mentioned in this article. "He is not sympathetic. His manner is very smooth, but it’s not authentic and he doesn’t take responsibility. But, that being said, there are a lot of people with whom he has great relationships and who like to spend time with him."

Committed to partying

This is probably due to his many popular parties: "Everyone knows that you can celebrate with him and drink beer. This is what he is known for, and there are many who swarm to Oettinger for evening celebrations," says Jasmin. The German daily press has repeatedly reported on Oettinger's celebrations, during many of which he has been "more or less carried to bed," as reported by Germany’s Stern magazine. The Sudkürier described him as "somewhere between a swot and a bon vivant." While it is speculated  that this image was not good for him at the time, the Junge Union are sure that "he gained a lot of respect within the CDU for his staying power."

It is likely that he trained this characteristic while studying in Tübingen, as he was an active member of the university’s oldest student-run society – Landsmannschaft Ulmia, which celebrated its centenary in 2015. The society, which is only open to male students, is heavily criticized across the political spectrum because it often produces inside deals and relationships that are thought to encourage nationalist, sexist and racist behaviour.

The society has had its fair share of scandals in the past. The students in Tübingen, living in the villas on the Österberg just above the town, are famous for their drinking habits and nationalistic behaviour. It was at one of these festivities that Oettinger sang the first verse of the German national anthem, something which was strictly forbidden in Germany because of its abuse by the Nazis. In politics, too, Oettinger joined a men's club, which afforded him great advantages, through this he was invited by the CDU to join a group of young, promising men to go on a trip to Venezuela and Chile. Over the Andes, they swore to support each other and the Andean pact was born.

Comments made while drinking

Oettinger learned to drink and to casually throw around questionable comments during his time as a member of the Junge Union, as Jasmin relates: "Whether it was a wine festival, a club evening or a joint excursion, the meetings usually ended with alcohol in male-dominant settings. Sexist and morally questionable jokes were very much the order of the day."

Women either chose to go along with them, or risked being considered boring, says Jasmin, adding critically: "As a young, inexperienced woman you don’t even notice what is going on, at first. Everyone is in a good mood, you joke and laugh a lot and you just laugh too." The CDU has long been criticised for having a problem with sexism within its ranks, an issue that was flagged up in an open letter written by 26-year-old member of the Berlin faction of the CDU, Jenna Behrends, just last year. But neither Jasmin nor David Wagner recalled hearing explicitly sexist comments and neither of them was able to enjoy a beer with Oettinger himself. All thing’s considered, David does not take this to mean that such comments do not exist, "comments like that could come up at the Stammtisch. But that should be seen as a very different setting and not indicative of a general phenomenon, it really depends on the people present."

But even if he was caught saying such things there is no doubt that Oettinger would surely be able to convince people that it was OK, as was announced on his satirical  Twitter account - in his characteristic English - in a tweet to Donald Trump: