Today János Lázár triumphantly announced that all of the EU’s questions about the Russian- built and financed Paks II nuclear power plant have been satisfactorily resolved. Hungary is free to begin its mega-investment which, according to most experts, is an unnecessary undertaking which most likely will also be unprofitable.
Coincident with, and not totally disconnected from, this announcement is the political storm brewing in Brussels over the appointment of Günther Oettinger, commissioner for digital economy and society, to be the replacement for Kristalina Georgieva, who in the last two years was EU commissioner in charge of the European Union’s budget and who also served as one of the vice presidents of the commission.
Georgieva’s departure is considered to be a blow to the Juncker administration. She was enticed by the Bulgarian government to leave her job as vice president and corporate secretary of the World Bank. After two years in Brussels she is returning to Washington as the chief executive officer of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Development Association. Most people interpret her move as a criticism of the Juncker Commission’s way of doing business. According to politico.eu, “Juncker’s Commission will undeniably be weaker without Georgieva. But what makes her departure worse is that Juncker is compounding the loss by promoting Günther Oettinger to take her place.”
Oettinger has been in Brussels for a long time. Between 2010 and 2014 he was commissioner for energy. When Germany nominated him again in 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker gave him a lesser post as commissioner for digital economy.
Oettinger is known to be a man who says and does outrageous things. Back in 2000 he broke into the banned “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” at a celebration of his German nationalist fraternity. A few weeks ago at a business conference he described a delegation of Chinese officials as having “their hair brushed from left to right with black shoe polish.” When talking about Merkel’s liberal social policy, he joked about “compulsory gay marriage.” First, Oettinger insisted that he had nothing to apologize for but, I guess under pressure from his government, he admitted that the words he used “have created bad feelings and may even have hurt people.” He is described as curt and comes across as “unintellectual and unserious—more likely to obsess over cars or football than trade deals or European Union directives.”
It was Günther Oettinger who as commissioner in charge of energy matters gave the preliminary go-ahead to the Paks project in December 2013. The incoming Juncker Commission, on the other hand, decided on a reexamination of the whole project. Although Oettinger was no longer officially responsible for energy, according to all available information he worked hard in the background to promote Orbán’s pet project.
The second player in today’s story is Klaus Mangold, a wealthy German businessman and a former member of the board of automaker Daimler. Mangold, who is sometimes referred to as “Mr. Russia” in the German press, runs an industry lobby for stronger economic ties with Russia and so has been lobbying against Western sanctions on Russia.
According to some sources, Mangold has had a long-standing interest in the Paks II project. In fact, he may well have been the person who initiated it, acting as an intermediary between Putin and Orbán. 444.hu found proof of Mangold and Orbán meeting in December 2012, “reviewing German-Hungarian and Hungarian-Russian economic relations, particularly questions of energy and its financing,” which would indicate that the meeting might have included a discussion of enlarging Paks with Russian help. So, argues 444.hu, negotiations about Paks began as early as December 2012. Subsequent talks between Russia and Hungary were conducted in secret. It was only in January 2014 that the Paks contract was signed.
Günther Oettinger may no longer be the commissioner in charge of energy matters, but he hasn’t given up his role as a secret backer of the Paks II project. Nowadays, he attends conferences in Budapest on digital economic matters and uses them as opportunities to discuss matters concerning Paks with Viktor Orbán. One of these trips took place on May 19, just before János Lázár’s trip to Brussels and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Budapest. This time Oettinger arrived on Klaus Mangold’s private jet. 444.hu learned that there was a dinner meeting attended by the two Germans and the Hungarian prime minister.
That Oettinger flew to Budapest on Klaus Mangold’s private jet merited further investigation, but the reporters of 444.hu got nowhere with either the European Commission or Mangold’s office. A few days later Benedek Jávor, a member of the European Parliament (Group of the Greens/ European Free Alliance), wrote a post in which he expressed his disapproval of an EU commissioner lobbying for a project that is no longer in his portfolio. And there is another problem. Mangold is not a registered lobbyist, yet Oettinger met him despite EU guidelines forbidding meeting with unregistered lobbyists. Then, there is the question of the trip itself. Did Oettinger pay for it or was it a gift? According to EU rules, a commissioner cannot accept any gift over 150 euros.
So, Jávor began an investigation of his own. He wrote a letter to the European Commission:
According to an article published on 21 June 2016 in the Hungarian online magazine 444.hu, Commissioner Oettinger met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and German consultancy manager Klaus Mangold on his trip to Budapest, on 19 May 2016. During this meeting, the nuclear project Paks II was allegedly discussed.
Klaus Mangold currently leads a German consultancy firm, and used to be Chairman of the ‘Eastern Committee of the German Economy’. He is an important mediator between German firms and the Russian political scene. According to the Hungarian newspaper Figyelő, Mangold had already been a mediator in the previous 2013 Paks case. It has been reported that Commissioner Oettinger arrived in Budapest on Mr. Mangold’s private plane.
This meeting took place only a few days before Hungarian Minister János Lázár, of the Prime Minister’s office, came to Brussels to discuss the Paks II project.
We therefore ask the Commission the following:
- By what means did Commissioner Oettinger travel to Budapest?
- What information does it have about the content of this meeting?
- Has it investigated the possible use of state subsidies for the Paks nuclear project (SA.38454 (2015/C)(ex 2015/N)) and/or the infringement procedure in which the Commission objects that no public procurement preceded the Rosatom mandate discussed at this meeting?
Oettinger took his sweet time answering (on November 3, 2016):
- Due to the lack of commercial flights to arrive in time for the meeting with Prime Minister Orban, the Commissioner responsible for Digital Economy and Society joined Mr Mangold’s private plane.
- The Commission had been invited to a conference in Budapest about digitisation of industry and automated driving which was opened by Prime Minister Orban. Prime Minister Orban and the Commission met in order to prepare the conference and to discuss the setting up of national initiatives for the digitisation of industry (as outlined in the communication by the Commission of 19 April 2016(1)).
- The Paks II nuclear project was not discussed.
Two days ago the story was finally out in the open. Eszter Zalan of euobserver.com wrote an article inquiring whether Oettinger broke any ethics rule by traveling on a private plane of a German businessman with strong Kremlin ties. The article points out that on May 18 there was a choice of four commercial flights from Brussels to Budapest, and therefore Oettinger is simply not telling the truth.
In a way Oettinger’s flight with Mr. Russia is of secondary importance. What is much more worrisome is the visit of Oettinger and Mangold to Budapest in order to advise Viktor Orbán on how to handle a commission probe into the Paks project. But, as often happens, the use of the jet makes bigger waves than the less tangible accusation of foul play on the part of a pro-Russian lobbyist and a pro-Russian prime minister.
Oettinger, like so many people in such situations, keeps giving contradictory statements. By now his story has changed somewhat. In his latest version the Hungarian government paid for his plane ride. “We did not explicitly ask HU [Hungary] about their payment—neither for plane nor for hotel they also offered,” he said. He claims that “governments often offer transport & accommodation for missions of Commissioners when they invited for meeting, conference,” he tweeted, adding “I was invited to a dinner with a Prime Minister to discuss EU digital policies. It is my job to explain & discuss.”
The European People’s Party’s reaction to the Oettinger story is what it always is when one of their own is being questioned about a wrongdoing. Manfred Webber, who is the leader of the EPP group, told journalists that he had “complete confidence” in Oettinger. He called him a “very experienced commissioner” and said there was “no doubt at all whether Günther Oettinger is doing a good job.” The Socialists and the Democrats are naturally less charitable. They called on Oettinger “to clarify his unfortunate actions and unethical behavior.”
444.hu not undeservedly feels proud that one of its investigative pieces was picked up by the international media. And it is still on Oettinger’s case. Its reporters discovered that the EU commissioner paid a visit to Budapest during the past weekend and that he was planning to return to the Hungarian capital today. The occasion for Oettinger’s visit this past weekend was apparently a party given by the Strabag Construction Company. According to 444.hu, this trip was not recorded on the commissioner’s calendar. The occasion for his latest trip is another conference on digital cars and, again, he has a planned meeting with Viktor Orbán. Isn’t it amazing how the busy Hungarian prime minister has so much time for and interest in digital cars? All in all, Günther Oettinger’s activities in Hungary are highly suspicious, and they should be seriously investigated. However, most likely nothing will happen. Apparently he has the strong support of Chancellor Angela Merkel.