The most powerful German in Brussels — a man with seven political lives — just pulled off his latest comeback.
After a week in the spotlight laying out his proposal for the bloc’s next long-term financial plan, EU Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger received some welcome news from home.
Exploratory coalition talks in Berlin between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats had produced a position paperlaying out policy priorities for the coming years. Among them: a statement that Germany was “ready to pay higher contributions to the EU budget.”
For Oettinger, 64, tasked with convincing national governments to expand the EU budget in the face of Brexit, it was the cap to a remarkable turnaround.
In less than a year, the eagle-nosed German had climbed back from a potentially career-ending scandal over what critics saw as racist and homophobic remarks to being in a position to shape the future of the EU. A signal of willingness from the bloc’s largest contributor can only make his job easier.
He was roundly ridiculed by the Brussels elite in his early days, for his poor mastery of English and the ways of the Bubble.
Throughout his political career, Oettinger has demonstrated an ability to land on his feet. His sometimes-up-sometimes-down-but-inevitably-upward trajectory began in Baden-Württemberg. From his start in the Christian Democrats’ local youth wing, he steadily climbed the party’s ranks to eventually become the region’s premier.
It was in Baden-Württemberg — home to Porsche and Mercedes — that he developed the close ties to German industry that may have helped him recover from a series of political setbacks and scandals. He clashed with local power brokers and weathered outrage after he delivered a eulogy at a funeral that was widely seen as an attempt to rehabilitate a Nazi politician. Merkel dispatched him to Brussels in 2010.
His early days in the EU capital were rocky. He was roundly ridiculed by the Brussels elite, for his poor mastery of English and the ways of the Bubble. After five years as energy commissioner, the mockery had died down. Criticism was instead reserved for his policy positions — in particular his successful defense of the German car industry from strict emissions standards.
Others praised his skill at negotiating with Russia over gas imports or lauded his aggressive stance toward Greece during the country’s sovereign debt crisis.
After Jean-Claude Juncker’s election as Commission president, he was given the digital portfolio — a job for which he seemed laughably unsuited. Old fashioned when it came to media, the German prefers stacks of precariously piled paper to touch screens or even computers.
Oettinger’s approach to the job seemed at first to be unenthusiastic — he displayed far more interest in self-driving cars than the intricacies of digital policy. But he quickly grew into it, delivering another victory to his country’s business interests when he sided with German publishers over copyright reform, against the wishes of his nominal boss Andrus Ansip.
It was shortly after he was promoted to budget commissioner that Oettinger stumbled once again into scandal. He was caught on tape at a business event in Hamburg calling Chinese people “slant eyes” and joking that German legislators would soon introduce a law for “mandatory gay marriage.”
After at first refusing to apologize, Oettinger acknowledged he could “see that the words I used have created bad feelings and may even have hurt people.” But he was once again denied a vice presidency (the traditional rivalry between France and Germany may have also contributed to Juncker’s decision not to elevate Oettinger).
Convincing national governments to boost the budget might require Oettinger to use up the rest of his lives. The EU is not allowed to run debt, and the budget has to be agreed unanimously by all 27 countries. And, in what would be a terrible fate for a politician, there’s a chance he will do the lion’s share of the work only to have his successor push the dossier over the final line.
Oettinger said on Tuesday that he was willing to work during the summer holidays if it meant finalizing the trillion-euro budget before the end of the Commission’s mandate in May 2019. One year should be enough, Oettinger said.
The challenges are myriad. Brexit will blow a big hole in the bloc’s finances and there’s little agreement among national governments over what to do about hot-button issues like migration or defense, not to mention agricultural subsidies and development aid for recalcitrant members like Poland and Hungary.
But a German budget commissioner can be a powerful figure in the EU, especially if he has both the backing of his government at home and the leeway to occasionally oppose its views. And this week, Oettinger had every reason to believe he has both.