Digitally Naïve?

Underestimating Mr. Internet

Oettinger informiert Landtag über neue EU-Kommission
Europe's New Mr. Internet, Günther Oettinger.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    As the European Union’s commissioner for digital economy and society, Günther Oettinger will have a big say in the future of German companies, be they Daimler, Bosch or Siemens.

  • Facts


    • Günther Oettinger is to be Germany’s commissioner in the cabinet appointed by Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming European Commission president.
    • He will have a staff of some 1,200 officials to help shape the bloc’s digital agenda.
    • Mr.Oettinger was previously premier of the state of Baden-Württemberg, where many big tech companies have their headquarters.
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There’s nothing like paper to whip up Günther Oettinger’s enthusiasm.  He can mark it, staple it and – most importantly – fold it up and put it away. Now Mr. Oettinger of all people, someone who prefers actual printed newspapers to their iPad digital editions, is to be Europe’s digital commissar, taking on the new role of Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society in the European Commission. Left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung mocked him as “Brussels’ screensaver.”

One thing is certainly not going to change in Mr. Oettinger’s life.  He attracts ridicule like a honey attracts bees. When he was appointed energy commissioner four and a half years ago, he was derided as the man who couldn’t speak English, had no clue about energy policy and was only given the Brussels job by Chancellor Angela Merkel as a way of getting rid of him.

These days, the 60-year-old politician can negotiate with European energy companies in English and even the Chancellery listens closely when he presents a new E.U. directive. Like so much in Brussels, Mr. Oettinger is much better than his reputation.

Mr. Oettinger will display his greatest skills over the next few weeks. He has a photographic memory and will soon read his way into his new subject.

One thing is certain even before he takes up his new job: Mr. Oettinger is going to play an important role on the new commission, and with a staff of more than 1,200 officials he has an enormous bureaucratic machine behind him. That is not something the six new vice presidents appointed by the incoming Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, can claim. They may have fancy titles, but they have little de facto power to enforce their aims. According to sources close to Mr. Oettinger, he could also have had a vice presidential title but he turned it down.

“He was afraid of ending up a figurehead,” said one member of the Christian Democrats, the party to which Mr. Oettinger and Ms. Merkel belong. He was also given the choice of competition commissioner, but he turned that down, too. Typical for Mr. Oettinger was the comment he made after his nomination: “I’m not happy, but pleased.” It was misconstrued by many as meaning he was disappointed.

Mr. Oettinger will display his greatest skills over the next few weeks. He has a photographic memory and will soon read his way into his new subject.  During the hearings that all commissioner-delegates face at the European Parliament, Mr. Oettinger will have his first opportunity to show members of the European Parliament the broad outline of his policies, as he did when he became energy commissioner. Back then as today, although he gets excited about minute details, he preferred the bigger picture.

For example, Mr. Oettinger already called for a joint energy foreign policy when Russian President Vladimir Putin was still regarded as a reliable partner in Germany. He was certainly closer to industry than, say, an energy commissioner who was also a member of the Greens might have been. Yet, that is hardly surprising for a conservative Christian Democrat of his generation.

Mr. Oettinger was already calling for a joint energy foreign policy back when Russian President Vladimir Putin was still regarded as a reliable partner in Germany.

Mr. Oettinger’s main failing has been that little of what he proposed as energy commissioner was ever implemented. The big issues, such as a joint energy foreign policy, were never seriously pushed forward. The euro crisis was always more important in recent years. And even worse: Member states and even the German government never saw much of a need for urgency on the issue. Everyone was happy to do their own thing. And every suggestion made by Mr. Oettinger’s department was torn apart by the officials in the European Council, which represents the member states.

Even long agreed plans, such as increasing energy efficiency, have been watered down wherever possible.  And for years, the German economics ministry, under the former minister Philipp Rösler, blocked the implementation of a target of using 20 percent less energy by 2020, compared to 2005. At the same time, Chancellor Merkel did little to promote the idea that German households could get by just as easily if they used their vacuum cleaners or coffee machines a bit less. It wouldn’t just mean saving a few euros on electricity bills every year, but also making the country a bit less dependent on Russian gas.

The wind has since shifted. The era of selfishly pursuing national interests is over. Mr. Juncker has cleverly composed his commission so that Berlin will find it harder to go it alone in future. Ahead of his nominations he had already started cozying up to the European Parliament, and his personnel choices are not as bland as those of his predecessor José Manuel Barroso. If the commission and the parliament back each other up, then it will be hard for the council to block them. That lays the groundwork for Mr. Oettinger to have more ability to shape policy.

In the future, Mr. Oettinger may have a say in the future of companies such as Daimler, Bosch and Siemens. He knows these companies like the back of his hand.

But will Mr. Oettinger be any good as the European Union’s Internet commissar?  Jan Philipp Albrecht, a Green member of the European Parliament from Germany, said he was a “man who has no previous experience whatsoever” in the field of the digital economy. Mr. Albrecht is regarded as one of the MEPs with the deepest knowledge of date protection issues. However, five years ago no one knew him in Brussels. In that regard, his criticism of Mr. Oettinger would seem to be slightly knee-jerk. After all, he himself is an example of someone who can learn quickly on the job.

Mr. Oettinger is likely to need to do a little less studying than many of his critics assume. Sure, he never worked for Google or Amazon. However, he was premier of the state of Baden-Württemberg for five years, during which time SAP, the software businessmaker  headquartered in the state, became the world leader in office software.  Hewlett Packard and IBM have based their German headquarters there. And the new commissioner’s duties are not going to be confined to dealing with Internet giants.  The issue of how Europe is going to deal with the American data snooping is just one of the challenges he faces.

At least as important for German companies is the question of how traditional companies deal with digital transformations currently underway, something that could be described as Industry 4.0. In the future, Mr. Oettinger may have a say in the future of companies such as Daimler, Bosch and Siemens. He knows these companies like the back of his hand.  And, in the best case scenario, he can do a lot to help them improve their competitiveness.

In his new job, Mr. Oettinger will need to answer some pressing questions: What kind of standards is the European Union going to set for the auto industry when it comes to the digital networking of cars? How far will automation go in factories? How will the commission make sure that secure broadband services are as much the norm for European citizens as sanitation and roads?

The big goal in the end will be another common market, a digital one alongside the one for goods and services. Internet use would then not only be something that crosses borders, but also be very cheap and secure. It’s possible to interpret Mr. Oettinger’s new job in many ways, but he certainly won’t be just a figurehead.

This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To reach the author:

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