Günther Oettinger has been German Commissioner for almost ten years - first for energy, then for digital, now for household and staff. Oettinger's time in Brussels ends with the departure of the Commission of President Jean-Claude Juncker. In an interview with SPIEGEL, the CDU politician looks back on successes, mistakes and embarrassments - and counts on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Oettinger, what does it mean for the governmental capacity of the grand coalition in Berlin, should CDU and SPD have to suffer heavy losses in the state elections in Brandenburg and Saxony, while the AfD gains?
Oettinger: Brandenburg and Saxony are not the two largest German countries, but both are larger than the smallest EU Member States. Therefore, from Brussels's point of view, we take these elections very seriously. Of course, the EU Commission, also the next one under Ursula von der Leyen, will focus on the German EU Council Presidency in the second half of 2020. The EU has had good experiences with the coalition led by Angela Merkel and Olaf Scholz. A continuation until 2021 would make sense in view of the German Council Presidency.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: From a European point of view, there was not much left in Germany. What do you expect from the German Presidency?
Oettinger: The European Parliament will be well integrated at this time and the Commission Ursula von der Leyens fully arrived in office. I hope that then all the questions that bind many forces in Germany now - such as the agonizing search of the SPD for new chairman or the Soli-degradation - are decided and there is new momentum in German politics. Then the federal government could make the title of its coalition agreement "New departure for Europe" the model for its work.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do not we really experience a change of guard at the European level? The Chancellor is battered, French President Emmanuel Macron dominates the European agenda.
Oettinger: In France, Macron stands in the middle of his term, in Germany, the Chancellor is coming to an end. It's clear that the weights shift there. But you should not overestimate that. Of course, Macron has strongly influenced the European personnel package, but also Angela Merkel will cooperate excellently with Ursula von der Leyen. And Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, has the full confidence of the Chancellor.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Under the new EU Commissioners looking for the big names so far in vain. What do you make of it?
Oettinger: Von der Leyen himself is a strong person, well networked, always present at important international meetings - such as Davos or Munich Security Conference - and excellent in the debates. It must now be immersed in European issues, it is not visible to the public these days - that's wise too. She will not show up until her crew is up. The von der Leyen Commission will become a geopolitical commission: the President's contacts with Trump, Putin and Erdogan will be a priority. Ursula von der Leyen will be a strong president.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You were commissioner for ten years, first responsible for energy, then for digital economy and society, now for household and staff. What was your biggest achievement, what was your biggest mistake?
Oettinger: Here's the transit agreement for Russian gas through Ukraine. In the digital domain, it is the copyright directive. And then my draft for the multiannual EU budget. No member country is happy with it, so I am very happy. Since the interests are diametrically different, there can be no major changes. Because my proposal is in the middle. That makes me happy.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And now to your mistakes. Multiple answers are possible!
Oettinger: I did not take the English language seriously at the beginning, that was a mistake. I underestimated how important minutes are in Brussels, remember my speech in Hamburg ...
SPIEGEL ONLINE: ... in which they have called Chinese as "slit eyes".
Oettinger: Yeah, sure. That was not good.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are there also Commission decisions that you are quarreling with?
Oettinger: Sure. Especially if, for political reasons, we once again shied away from applying the sanctions of the Stability and Growth Pact. For example, in Italy. I just disagree with Jean-Claude Juncker, whom I admire otherwise. After all, since it's clear that there will be a new government in Italy without new elections, I'm a bit more optimistic that the situation there will not fall on our feet. It's good when the Social Democrats and the Five Star Movement jump over their shadow. That is very important for the Eurozone.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the situation in Britain seems to be getting more dramatic every day. How do you assess the decision of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to close the Parliament?
Oettinger: I was a member of the German Parliament for 26 years in Baden-Württemberg. It is unimaginable that Parliament will be shut down there for five weeks. It may well be that there is a democratic uprising against Johnson's actions. The time is short, however, to set up a majority in the lower house, which regains the parliamentary rights.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is the no-deal Brexit coming?
Oettinger: The likelihood has grown significantly once Parliament has been shut down. The exit agreement negotiated with Michel by Michel Barnier is - I do not mean: no alternative - but it is wise. It resolves a number of issues, including the Irish backstop. So far, Boris Johnson has no ideas of his own for these questions.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Brexit hardliners among the Tories have recently made it very clear that they would be against the withdrawal agreement even if the Ireland backstop were canceled without replacement. How is agreement possible under these circumstances?
Oettinger: With the hardliners under the Tories no agreement is possible. My hope rests on those who refuse to follow the Prime Minister and who are responsible for the good of Britain. Personally, I am in favor of Britain remaining in the EU, but that would only be possible through a second referendum and new elections. And not after the screenplay by Boris Johnson.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In ten years' time, will we be ordering the relationship between the EU and the UK?
Oettinger: The United Kingdom will be significantly weakened overall. I hope that in ten years time, a younger generation of Britons will be raping the EU.