Europe Letter: Misquoted remarks from German commissioner spark fury in Italy

Günther Oettinger issues grovelling apology as Italian parties outraged

EU commissioner Gunther Oettinger: the hint that Italians were not masters of their own fate was enough to spawn a hurricane of rage. Photograph: John Thys/Getty Images

EU commissioner Gunther Oettinger: the hint that Italians were not masters of their own fate was enough to spawn a hurricane of rage. Photograph: John Thys/Getty Images

 

‘The markets will teach the Italians to vote for the right thing,’ Günther Oettinger, the EU’s budget commissioner, is reported to have said on Tuesday.

The comment was like dynamite in Italy. A commissioner daring to tell the Italians how they should vote. A German at that . . . the jackbooted rulers of the EU, in the current demonology of the Italian street.

But he didn’t say it.

And by the time the quote, which had been mistranslated from German, was corrected, he had been rebuked by his boss, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, and president of the European Council, Donald Tusk.  

Calls for his resignation and firing filled the Italian airways. In the press room here, they were being echoed with increasing persistence. And he had already issued a grovelling apology saying that he fully respected “the will of voters being left, right or centre and in every country”.

“By referring to the actual market developments in Italy, I did not mean to be disrespectful and I apologise for this. Italy as a founding member played and plays an important role in European integration and I hope it will continue on this path,” he said.

Then the correction was made and Bernd Thomas Riegert, the journalist responsible, deleted his tweet on the matter with an apology of his own.

What Oettinger actually said to him was “My concern and expectation is that the coming weeks will show that the development of the markets, government bonds and the economy of Italy will be so far-reaching that this will be a possible signal to voters not to vote for populists on the right or left.”

Common sense

In truth, it was an observation that most here would see as commonplace, common sense. But the hint that Italians were not masters of their own fate was enough to spawn a hurricane of rage.

These people treat Italy like a summer camp where they go to spend vacation,” Di Maio tweeted. “But in a few months we will have a government of change and we will finally get respect in Europe"

No question of firing Oettinger, however. The blunt-speaking German Christian Democrat is in charge of the biggest and most fraught dossier in the commission, the negotiation of the post-2020 post-Brexit EU budget. An exercise in herding wild cats that is bigger than Brexit. This week commissioners have been unveiling its detail bit by bit. Hardly any of it is uncontroversial and Oettinger will be key to brokering an eventual deal.

But, as we hapless hacks rediscover to our frustration at every commission midday briefing, there is a vow of omerta among the college and its service on Italy. Oettinger broke it.

The commission doesn’t do comment on the internal affairs of member states, we are told again and again. No comment. Even though the Italian crisis may be jeopardising the euro and feeding populism across the union. No comment.  Bigger than Brexit, some are saying. No comment.

Fiddling while Rome burns.

Contributed immensely

The commission did manage to issue a statement on behalf of Juncker, saying that “Italy’s fate does not lie in the hands of the financial markets”.

“Regardless of which political party may be in power, Italy is a founding member of the European Union that has contributed immensely to European integration. Juncker is convinced that Italy will continue on its European path. The commission is ready to work with Italy with responsibility and mutual respect. Italy deserves respect.” Blah.

Meanwhile in Italy – you’d think there were bigger things to worry about – Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio denounced the misquoted remarks as “absurd”.

“These people treat Italy like a summer camp where they go to spend vacation,” Di Maio tweeted. “But in a few months we will have a government of change and we will finally get respect in Europe.”

League party leader Matteo Salvini also tweeted a screenshot of the journalist’s deleted tweet and said “Crazy, in Brussels they are without shame. The EU budget commissioner, the German Oettinger says the markets will show Italians the right way to vote. If that isn’t a threat . . . I am not scared.”

He demanded that Oettinger resign.

One of the media commentators thundered  “Italy is not a colony of Germany or EU.” No. Italy is a vast galleon, the fourth largest economy in the EU, drifting rudderless. And as Oettinger has also observed recently, Italy is “essentially barely governable”.

But, he said in his unfortunate DW interview “We are counting on potential elections to bring a result with which Italy can be governed in a pro-European way.”  Hoping against hope.

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