In Brussels, a taste of 'Trumpified' speech from one of EU's own

Günther Oettinger, an EU commissioner, disparaged the Chinese and others in a recent speech. But a reprimand from the German government has not been forthcoming.

­Stefan Boness/Ipon/SIPA/Newscom
Günther Oettinger, commissioner for digital economy at the European Commission, at a press conference in Berlin in September.

Most European leaders have viewed Donald Trump’s presidential bid with varying degrees of disdain. The word “Trumpifed” has made it into European lexicon - and it is not meant kindly. French President François Hollande went so far as to say Mr. Trump’s antics made him want to “retch.”

But now the European Union is dealing with its own loose cannon, in the form of Günther Oettinger, a German Eurocrat who has been slated for promotion as EU budget commissioner, a powerful position at the heart of Brussels.

Last week he kicked up a firestorm for labeling the Chinese “slitty-eyed” in a speech to German business leaders in Hamburg. The EU digital economy commissioner also took a swipe at gender quotas and joked that soon gay marriage would be “obligatory” in Germany.

Only Thursday, nearly a week later, has he issued an apology: “In my speech I had chosen some examples (and once again my apologies if my words caused negative feelings).”

Rights groups and opposition politicians have pilloried Oettinger for a career marked by unpredictability and lack of political correctness, but he has not been reprimanded by top European or German leaders. That not only threatens the credibility of the EU, which prides itself on inclusiveness. But it is also seen by some, especially in Germany, as a worrisome erosion of norms and standards that has gone increasingly mainstream on both sides of the Atlantic.

Jan Philipp Albrecht, European parliamentarian for the Greens in Germany, took to Twitter to sum up the stakes. “This is the moment where EU leaders can prove that they won't let someone like Trump become or stay top decisionmaker,” he wrote.

'Simply not the way you talk'

Neither in terms of power nor provocation does Mr. Oettinger match Trump. And of course Europe sees much intolerance in its midst, especially in the wake of terrorism attacks and the migrant crisis. This week Geert Wilders, the far-right leader in the Netherlands, was put on trial on hate speech charges for leading a chant calling for fewer Moroccans. The leader of Poland’s Law & Justice (PiS) party, Jarosław Kaczyński, said that migrants bring “all sorts of parasites and protozoa” to Europe. The leader of Slovakia said he would accept Christian refugees but not Muslim ones.

Still, this rhetoric has mostly been limited to the fringes. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned against the “Trumpification of the mind” after the terrorist attack in Nice. Birgitta Jonsdottir, of Iceland’s Pirate Party, told Democracy Now this week: “We have now a new saying called being ‘Trumpified’ when it comes to bizarre things in the election campaign.” 

The EU considers itself a beacon of political correctness – a characteristic that is often mocked. English style guidelines from the European Commission updated last month, for example, emphasize a preference for “gender-neutral language.” “We now write firefighters instead of firemen and police officer instead of policeman or policewoman,” it advises.

In that spirit, many have pushed back against Oettinger. The French group SOS Racisme issued a statement that said “racism, homophobia, and sexism cannot have any place in official discourse of the European Union.”

The group also urged EU Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to take measures against Oettinger. That they haven’t worries Sabine Witte, who works as a kindergarten teacher in Berlin and says taboos of post-war Germany are no longer holding.

“It is like a slightly open door. Someone pushes it a little more every day, while nobody else tries to hold it or close it. Soon the door will be wide open,” she says. “This is simply not the way you talk.”

Dormant feelings

Korbinian Frenzel, a senior editor at Deutschlandradio Kultur who runs his own current affairs radio show, says that Oettinger – who has long been prone to gaffes, which Politico in Europe listed in a post this week – does not represent mainstream thinking. Still, as hate rhetoric from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) finds more expression and popular support, dormant feelings can surface.

“There is a growing, yet small, opposition that fights [mainstream political correctness],” he says. “Its presence is increasingly giving more representation to something that, I fear, has been always there.”

Oettinger, who had originally backed away from an apology, including telling a EurActiv reporter Wednesday that there is “no scandal,” issued a one-page statement of apology Thursday. But so far he hasn’t faced any repercussions. Bombarded by journalists at a daily briefing, EU executive spokesperson Margaritis Schinas said he would "refrain from any characterization or value judgment that one can make on the explanations” for his speech. Chancellor Merkel’s spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, said Oettinger had her “full confidence.”

Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist of the Free University Berlin, dismisses Oettinger as “old-fashioned and out of time,” and not a worrying sign of the “Trumpification” of German society. In fact, the longtime observer of Merkel says her statement of “full confidence” might signal a demotion on its way.

“When Merkel says she trusts someone, this usually means she is ready to get rid of them,” he says. “I would not be surprised if she now tried to prevent him from becoming the EU budget commissioner.”

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