Sunday 25 October 2009

Oettinger German EU Commissioner – Is the Spree freezing over?

From the heady days of the famed Franco-German twin engine of European integration and from Joschka Fischer’s Humboldt speech, we had arrived at a Germany, which is the European mainstream, but with little fire, vision or engaging dreams, with little more than a determination to do the daily chores in a responsible manner.

This was my assessment last spring, in the blog post “And Quiet Flows the Spree – Merkel’s Germany in the EU” (29 May 2009).

Now we have to ask: Is the quietly flowing Spree river starting to freeze, with the arrival of Angela Merkel’s second coalition government?


German EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger

CDU leader Angela Merkel has caught observers inside and outside Germany by surprise, by nominating the Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg to become the next German member of the EU Commission.

First, some background on Günther Oettinger: The English Wikipedia article on him and the article on Baden-Württemberg, the third largest of the 16 states (Länder), both in area and population (10.7 million). More about Baden-Württemberg on the state portal (Landesportal).


German press reactions

The first German press reactions I saw, were fairly measured, if we leave predictable denouncements by political opponents aside.

Der Tagesspiegel seems to imply a sideways “promotion“: „… nun wird der baden-württembergische Regierungschef wegbefördert nach Brüssel“ in “Zwingendes Angebot für Oettinger” (25 October 2009).

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung notes Merkel’s words that Oettinger will strengthen German representation in Brussels, as well as the general astonishment concerning the appointment, in „Oettinger soll deutscher EU-Komissar werden“ (24 October 2009).

According to a comment in Die Welt, Oettinger’s disappearance will make life easier for the Christian Democrats in Baden-Württemberg, but he will also strengthen German interests in Brussels: „…Günther Oettinger als EU-Kommissar. Eine taktisch kluge Wahl. Sie entlastet die CDU in Baden-Württemberg, kann Deutschland aber in Brüssel stärken, da Oettinger sehr viel von Wirtschaft, aber weit weniger von Menschen versteht.“


Eurobloggers shocked

If German mainstream media were restrained in their comments, known Eurobloggers have been appalled by what they see as a devaluation of Germany’s EU engagement.

Hajo Friedrich (Europa-Transparent) on doubts that it is a good choice to send a failed politician to such an important post in Brussels, in “Öttinger – step back” (24 October 2009).

Julien Frisch concludes that Germany is sending a failure to Brussels, in “Günther Oettinger will be the German EU Commissioner: A catastrophe!” (24 October 2009).

Kosmopolit on the Kosmopolito blog sees Oettinger as a local politician, without EU experience or language skills. The choice is a less than auspicious indication of the EU attitude of the new German government, in “New German EU Commissioner: Günther Oettinger” (24 October 2009).

Jean Quatremer, on the Coulisses de Bruxelles blog, notes that Oettinger is unknown on the international and European scene, in “Günther Oettinger, futur comissaire allemande” (25 October 2009).


Own musings

There are few indications that Oettinger has experience or interest in European affairs, or that he speaks foreign languages, but is it correct to describe him as a local or regional politician?

Out of 27 EU member states, 16 have a smaller population than Baden-Württemberg, although they have foreign policies, armies and other trappings of sovereign states, including comprehensive EU relations.

On the other hand, even if we chose to believe in Oettinger’s “general competence” (economic governance), there is nothing to show his “European commitment” or that his “independence is beyond doubt”, the other criteria for EU Commissioners (Article 17(3) TEU, as amended by the Lisbon Treaty).

The same question marks have become stronger with regard to Germany’s European commitment and the country’s support for an independent EU Commission.

On grounds of principle, Oettinger’s hearing by the European Parliament could become interesting, but the outcome can hardly be in doubt because of the strong link between the CDU and the EPP, the largest parliamentary group, with a heavy German contingent of 42 MEPs.

Even if the Spree river has not frozen over yet, we may begin to see thin ice forming along the edges.

Ralf Grahn

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