EU commissioner apologizes for remarks on China, gays

November 3, 2016 6:10 AM EDT

Guenther Oettinger, European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, delivers a speech at the world's biggest computer and software fair CeBit in Hanover, Germany, March 14, 2016. REUTERS/Nigel Treblin


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By Alastair Macdonald

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Germany's European commissioner apologized for offending China, gay people and French-speaking Belgians on Thursday as the EU executive tried to end days of scandalized commentary that might have jeopardized trade.

Guenther Oettinger said in a statement released by the Commission that he now realized his remarks to a German business forum last week had "hurt" people. He had called Chinese people "slit-eyes", joked about "compulsory gay marriage" and railed at a Belgian region's efforts to block an EU-Canada trade deal.

A spokesman for the EU executive, which is trying to improve relations with Beijing despite disputes over trade policy and human rights, said Oettinger had released the apology after a call from Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday.

His U-turn came a day after the Chinese foreign ministry condemned his remarks and said they reflected a "baffling sense of superiority" among Western politicians.

Oettinger, 63, had previously accepted only that his comments on Oct. 25 had been "somewhat sloppy". He retained the confidence of Chancellor Angela Merkel, a fellow conservative though not a close ally, who had nominated the former state premier to Berlin's seat on the Commission seven years ago.

But the widening outcry threatened not only to hurt EU-China relations but Juncker's management of his team. Last Friday, before his comments had been widely reported, Juncker announced Oettinger's promotion from digital affairs to vice president for the budget, succeeding his departing Bulgarian colleague.

"RESPECT FOR CHINA"

In his 300-word apology, in which he also explained that his intent had been to jolt businesses out of any complacency toward Chinese competition, Oettinger said he had had time to reflect.

"I can now see that the words I used have created bad feelings and may even have hurt people," he wrote. "This was not my intention and I would like to apologize for any remark that was not as respectful as it should have been.

Oettinger described his comments using the German phrase "frei von der Leber" - "free from the liver", or very blunt.

He said he wanted to give a wake-up call to his German audience and to Europeans. "I have great respect for the dynamics of the Chinese economy – China is a partner and a tough competitor," Oettinger added.

He said he was misquoted in reports that he called French-speaking, Socialist-led Wallonia a tiny region run by communists and that, as a former premier of the rich manufacturing state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, he took regional opinions "very seriously".

Separately, in remarks to reporters on a visit to Bucharest, he said he supported gay rights - he had joked that Germany was prioritizing social policy over improving competitiveness and that future proposals might include "compulsory gay marriage".

Amid calls for Oettinger's resignation, some members of the European Parliament have warned they could try to block the German during confirmation hearings for his new role.

The Commission's chief spokesman said Juncker would speak again with Oettinger on Friday. "The president would like to have the commissioner's explanations on what he actually said and how he put himself in a position that required the statement to be issued today," Margaritis Schinas told reporters.

Oettinger, who speaks German and English with a marked regional accent, has a reputation for plain talk - he told a public forum that Britain voted to leave the EU because prime minister David Cameron ran a "shit campaign" against Brexit.

(Additional reporting by Radu-Sorin Marinas in Bucharest; Editing by Catherine Evans)



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