Brussels: Exile or opportunity for German politicians?

The southwest German state of Baden-Württemberg has about the same population as Belgium, and is considered one of the major drivers of the German economy. Its outgoing Prime Minister, christian democrat Günther Oettinger, might not be a bad choice to fill the role of a European Commissioner.

Oettinger is a contentious figure in his home country, having downplayed the role of one of his predecessors, Hans Filbinger, under the Nazi regime (a stance he later retracted under public pressure). He is also a fervent European with a clear commitment to the EU’s Internal Market, a widely respected economic expert, and has promoted the use of the English language for business and education.

In concrete terms, Oettinger has won plaudits for deftly managing negotiations within the complex German system of 16 federal states, although he cannot claim much political experience at European level (besides a run-in with Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes over restructuring Baden-Württemberg’s state bank). Often labelled a technocrat, he chaired the commission that put a constitutional limit on German national debt, which is even stricter than the provisions of the Maastricht Treaty.

So in all, 56-year-old Oettinger’s qualifications seem to meet the requirements of his prospective new job quite well: a high-level background in politics and public administration, expertise in economy, and a knack for coolly managing multi-lateral relations. He is a quintessential conservative German pro-industry candidate for the second Barroso Commission, albeit an unexpected one.

Belittling Brussels

What is most unsettling about Oettinger’s nomination lies not in his person, but in the way the German political sphere has handled it. The quality newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung cynically summed up the three prerequisites to become a German Commissioner in Brussels: (1) The person must not have much of a political future in Germany; (2) the person must be selected strictly for reasons of domestic or party politics, yet not for European ones; and (3) the person cannot have significant EU experience.

All this is pretty clearly the case here. CDU-chairwomen Angela Merkel and her fellow party member Oettinger have had a tense relationship after he helped derail Merkel’s first stab at becoming chancellor in 2002. This came to light once again during the Filbinger scandal in 2007, when Merkel publicly and sharply told him off. Oettinger is clearly one of Merkel’s adversaries within her own party, and she most likely welcomed the opportunity to move him to a post that will keep him busy outside Germany.

The entire manoeuvre went down with suspicious speed: just hours after Oettinger learned about his nomination and had – apparently not over-enthusiastically – agreed to it, his successor in the office of Prime Minister was already in place; only a day or two later it was made known that he would also step down as the chairman of CDU’s Baden-Württemberg branch. This seems a bit overhasty, seeing that Oettinger needs to be confirmed by the European Parliament first before assuming his new duties, and underscores the impression that he was moved on in a hurry. It is not even clear which Commission portfolio he would take, except that it would have to do with economy – meaning either Enterprise and Industry, Internal Market, Competition, Energy, Trade, or Economic and Monetary Affairs (the first two being the most likely).

Also telling is how the German media reacted to Oettinger’s ‘career move’ – it is headline material that one of the largest states gets a new Prime Minister who will also take over regional party leadership; but the Commission post in Brussels receives merely passing mention and is hardly noticed or appreciated by the general public.

Brightest and Best?

This is part of a sad German tradition regarding the European Union. While many other Member States send their best and brightest to Brussels – ranging from promising youngsters to former national leaders – and while many countries’ high-ranking EU officials tend to get summoned back home for top government positions, Germany has misused Europe too often as a convenient opportunity to push figures who have fallen out of grace at home off the domestic political map. Thus Germany consistently underestimates and undervalues the impact of Europe, which is a striking contrast to the actual power wielded by the EU’s biggest country and its key role in the European single market and many more EU landmark policies.

Embarrassingly, Germany is the prototypical case of the chicken-and-egg problem of European political communication. Voter turnout for European elections is equally low as general public and media attention for European matters; so primarily low-profile politicians voluntarily go (or get diverted) to Europe, which in turn deprives European politics of recognisable and popular protagonists. This serves to further fade out European affairs in favour of the domestic scene. Instead, just imagine what would happen if the likes of Joschka Fischer, Gerhard Schröder or Angela Merkel would deign to become European leaders.

It falls upon Gerhard Oettinger to now prove that he is indeed fit for the job as a Commissioner. The fact that he has put his domestic career prospects behind him could provide him the independence to become a truly European politician rather than a mere lobbyist for German interests.