Learning Curve

Europe's Digital Czar Needs to Connect

Mr. Oettinger is still getting his head around some of the new technologies. Source DPA
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Mr. Oettinger needs to deliver a blueprint for Europe in the digital age.

  • Facts


    • Mr. Oettinger served as the governor of the German state of Baden-Württemberg.
    • Before taking over as the E.U. commissioner for the digital economy and society, he was in charge of energy policy.
    • The 61-year-old German admits he isn’t a “digital native.”
  • Audio


  • Pdf

It was another one of those Günther Oettinger moments.

The flat screen monitor in front of the E.U. commissioner in charge of digital policy showed a strawberry and an orange. The one image had good quality, the other poor. The better quality image consisted of densely packed blue dots, the other of individual blue dots in a diagram.

A young Frenchman next to the monitor told Mr. Oettinger that the bad image was transmitted via 3G, or third-generation mobile phone technology. The few dots depicted the data packets sent. The better image, with many dots, was transmitted via the new 5G technology currently under development, which the European Union is generously funding.

The young man gave a good presentation, but Mr. Oettinger, on a tour of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, appeared puzzled. He looked at the fruit and the dots, wrinkled his brow and then gazed at the young Frenchman, as if he were talking about quantum physics. Then Mr. Oettinger asked in English: “What could be the outcome of this?”

The Frenchman looked confused. Then a man from the Fraunhofer Institute leaned forward and said in German: “This demonstration shows how 5G can send more data in less time than we’ve been able to do so far.” The commissioner nodded and continued his tour of the trade fair.

Such scenarios often occur in the new life of Günther Oettinger as the European Union’s digital commissioner after having been in charge of its energy policies. “The problem is you’re constantly confronted with new technologies and terminology you need to learn,” said Mr. Oettinger.

He has been in the new position for six months. In that time, he has been explaining to 500 million E.U. citizens how he intends to protect their data from the U.S. National Security Ageny, or NSA, in the future, how he plans to fence in Google and Apple and how he wants to make European companies more competitive through advanced digital technologies.

Mr. Oettinger is fully in sync with industry leaders on that front. “Digitalization is a vital issue for German and European manufacturers,” said Joe Kaeser, the chief executive of Siemens, at a recent meeting with politicians and industry representatives in Brussels. Europeans, he said, must be very careful or risk being “crushed between the U.S. and China and becoming meaningless.” Mr. Kaeser called for a borderless digital single market, more protection against cyber attacks and uniform data protection.

On May 6, Mr. Oettinger will present the commission’s digital roadmap. A digital single market is one of 10 priorities in the program aimed at promoting economic growth. The question many are asking, however, is whether Mr. Oettinger, a 61-year-old politician with no technical background, is the right person to deliver a blueprint for Europe in the digital age.

On the night before the trade show in Barcelona opened, the commissioner was on his way to a dinner with the heads of Europe’s four largest cellular phone companies: Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica and Orange. He looked through a file and snapped: “I have only 20 pages, no attachments.”

Mr. Oettinger, who can only turn off when he goes mountain biking with his son or listens to the Scorpions, his favorite band, likes to be thoroughly briefed. Files are his lifeblood, and each detail is important. Staff members say he devours files.

Shortly before arriving, Mr. Oettinger looked up from his paper and said to his assistant: “It must say ‘Version 2,’ not ‘Vision 2.’”  There would be plenty of laughter over the next two hours. The telecom executives were said to have commented later on how affable the commissioner was, how he listened and was open to their problems and concerns.

They aren’t alone. “We’re not broadcasting it, but we’re very satisfied with him,” said an industry executive who asked not be named.

Of his new role, Mr. Oettinger said: “I am not a shareholder or lobbyist of the major telecommunications corporations but it is important for me to be accepted.”

Before becoming governor of the state of Baden-Württemberg, Mr. Oettinger served his predecessor Erwin Teufel in the state parliament for 14 years as the party faction leader. The two complemented each other well – Mr. Teufel as the people-oriented politician out front and Mr. Oettinger working busily in the background. In the state chancellery, he was known as the “giant of details.”

“I don’t do as much small talk as people expect,” Mr. Oettinger admitted. “That can sometimes appear to be distant or arrogant.”

He replaced Mr. Teufel in 2005 as governor. There was hardly an area of state politics foreign to him, according to Gerhard Stratthaus, who was the state’s finance minister at the time. “He was good at everything,” Mr. Stratthaus said. “The only thing he lacked was being in touch with the citizens, going out and speaking with them” – skills needed to be reelected in Baden-Württemberg.

For Chancellor Angela Merkel it was clear: Mr. Oettinger was at risk of losing a state solidly controlled by the Christian Democrat Union. She offered him an E.U. commissioner position to avoid a possible defeat.

“Mr. Oettinger knew that state politics were not for him and gladly took the way out,” Mr. Stratthaus said. “He is better suited for Brussels than for Stuttgart.”

Mr. Oettinger is taking every opportunity to present the digial vision of the E.U. Commission. Source: DPA


Mr. Oettinger adjusted well to his new role as energy commissioner. He got along with his colleagues, and he played an important role in ending the gas fight between Russia and Ukraine. But Mrs. Merkel and the new president of the commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, had other things in mind after the E.U. elections of 2014. Mr. Juncker met three  times with Mr. Oettinger, who made no secret of his ambition to become trade commissioner. Mr. Juncker refused, offering the position of commissioner for competition instead, but Mrs. Merkel rejected that. In the end, Mr. Oettinger was put in charge of the digital economy.

He has been off to a bumpy start in his new role. Some of the other commissioners view him skeptically and Mr. Juncker is not among his allies. Although both are Christian Democrats, they disagree over euro-zone policies. Mr. Juncker wants to stimulate growth with investments and partially give up the austerity course. Although Mr. Oettinger is not against investment in infrastructure, he considers the stability pact sacred.

He also has differences of opinion with other colleagues, including Economic and Financial Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici and the Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, because he wants to merge the European telecommunications companies to be able to compete internationally.

To top it off, Mr. Oettinger struggled with his new assignment in digitalization. “I’m not a digital native,” he said, freely, admiting that at the beginning, his 16-year-old son was his best adviser.

“Slowly but surely, he’s getting it,” said Jan Philipp Albrecht, the E.U. parliamentarian from the Greens who specializes in digital issues. He warned, however, that Mr. Oettinger’s close relationship to industry is becoming a problem. “He has a bias that he can’t shake,” Mr. Albrecht said.

There’s another problem. Mr. Oettinger is turning himself into the adversary of a person whom he should actually work closely: Andrus Ansip. As vice president of the European Commission, Mr. Ansip is responsible for Brussels’ digital single market policy, though he approaches the issue in a far different way than Mr. Oettinger. Mr. Ansip focuses largely on the interests of the Internet users and start-ups.

The two commissioners have already publicly contradicted each other several times. While Mr. Ansip, an Estonian, demands net neutrality, Mr. Oettinger wants to permit specialized services such as Netflix or Amazon to have priority on the Internet.

“The two do not work hand in hand,” said a source in Brussels. “Each does his own thing.”

Many question how they can present a convincing plan if they’re not united.

These are details, Mr. Oettinger has said publicly. He thinks in entirely different spheres.

A few weeks after the trade fair in Barcelona, the commissioner cheerfully strolled out of the Konrad Adenauer House in Berlin. It was a Monday, and the CDU executive committee had just held a meeting. Mr. Oettinger had solicited the backing of the chancellor, because he plans to unify Europe’s various digital policies.

“My goal is to have the main workplace for the ministers Dobrindt, Gabriel, Wanka and de Maizière be in the E.U. Council, and not in the ministries,” he said. “The chancellor is fully behind me on that.”

Mr. Oettinger thinks the digital single market should not be treated like new viniculture laws or agricultural subsidies, which have been the subject of controversy for years. “The iPhone was not even invented seven years ago,” Mr. Oettinger said. “How should we react to that – with traditional policies, a green paper or a white paper? In the digital sector, you can’t work with such slow working methods.”

He plans to use a directive for audio-visual media services as a test case to expedite proceedings. In summer,  participating ministries from E.U. countries will send their negotiators to Brussels for three days to work on the paper. Then the 28 heads of government will come and rubber-stamp everything, Mr. Oettinger said. He thinks all digital issues should be decided like this in the future.

Such an approach, however, could risk gaining acceptance from E.U. citizens, many of whom already see Brussels as a den of lobbyists. But Mr. Oettinger has no time for such citizens’ concerns. He feels compelled to act and counter the growing dominance of the United States. He is convinced that Washington is using Silicon Valley as a weapon to gain digital world power for itself.

“We must become digitally sovereign,” he said. “Europe depends on it.” Above all, Günther Oettinger  depends on it.

Ruth Berschens has been Handelsblatt’s bureau chief in Brussels. Simon Book is a member of Handelsblatt’s investigative reporting team. To contact the authors: berschens@handelsblatt.com, book@handelsblatt.com

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!