EU says Oettinger 'within norms' flying on lobbyist jet
17 Nov 2016 - 17:32
Brussels: The European Commission said Thursday that commissioner Guenther Oettinger broke no ethics rules when he flew in a Kremlin lobbyist's private jet to Budapest, adding it retained confidence in him.
The row over the flight comes at a time of increased scrutiny of Oettinger, who was forced to apologise earlier this month after using the words "slitty eyes" to describe Chinese people and making disparaging remarks about women, gay marriage and Belgian politicians.
The Commission said Oettinger, in charge of the EU's digital economy dossier, had to catch a lift with businessman Klaus Mangold so he could get to a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on time.
"The only possible way to do it was to accept the invitation by the Hungarian government to offer him this specific kind of transport," Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a press conference in Brussels where he was bombarded with questions on the issue.
"This is within out norms. I have done it many times. When a government invites you to something and have the initiative or gallantry to cover mission expenses, this would not be seen as a conflict of interest," Schinas said, adding it also saved taxpayer money.
The Commission spokesman said "yes" when asked if Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker retained confidence in Oettinger, who is also due to take on the European Union's key budget portfolio.
Oettinger's office on Wednesday defended his decision, says Mangold's jet "was the only possible means to get on time to the meeting."
The EU Observer website, which first broke the story, said that the Commission's code of ethics says commissioners cannot accept gifts worth more than 150 euros.
"We're not speaking of a gift in this sense, but a means to travel," Schinas said.
Mangold was described by the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as the "Mr Russia of German business" and has for several years led Ost-Ausschuss, a body representing German firms doing business in Russia.
He is reported to have good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and was recently named as the honorary consul in Russia of Germany's Bade-Wurtemberg region, where Oettinger is from.
Tensions between the EU and Russia have been high since Russia's annexation of Crimea and the start of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014, for which the 28-nation European Union has imposed wide-ranging economic sanctions.