Italy is facing the likely prospect of fresh elections after President Sergio Mattarella on Sunday blocked a cabinet proposed by the anti-immigrant League and their allies, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S). The chaotic developments have spooked investors, who fear another election could see an even better result for the populist, eurosceptic parties.
Commissioner Gunther Oettinger is not a stranger to controversy. in 2007 he was accused of playing down the significance of the Nazis. Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly admonished him, stating that she would prefer him not to have raised “critical questions”.
During the Euro crisis, Oettinger suggested that heavily indebted countries should fly their flag at half-mast over EU buildings. As a result, several MEPs wrote a letter of protest to the then EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, demanding his apology or resignation. Oettinger backed down, saying he did not support the idea of flying flags at half-mast.
In 26 October 2016, in a speech to business leaders in Hamburg Oettinger referred to Chinese people as “slit-eyes” and “sly dogs”. He also stated that it was “consistent” that a Chinese delegation was male-only since China doesn’t have female quotas. Oettinger subsequently received criticism both from European sources and a Chinese government spokesman, and several days later issued a statement apologizing for “any remark that was not as respectful as it should have been”.
On 1 January 2017 Oettinger was reappointed to the EU Budget and Human Resources portfolio,
“I can only hope,” he added, “that this will play a role in the election campaign, in the sense of sending a signal to voters not to hand power to populists on the right and left.” His argument was picked up by a journalist in a comment which Oettinger then retweeted: “The markets will teach Italy to vote for the right thing.”
Lega leader Matteo Salvini immediately pounced upon the message. “It’s crazy, in Brussels they have no shame,” Salvini tweeted.
“‘The markets will teach Italy how to vote.’ That sounds like a threat to me! I’m not afraid,” he continued, before calling on Oettinger to resign “this afternoon” in a Facebook video.
Even the country’s pro-European Democratic Party (PD) had strong words for Oettinger. “No one can tell Italians how to vote, not least the markets. Italy must be respected,” said Maurizio Martina, interim leader of the PD. Outgoing Minister of Economic Development, Carlo Calenda, also from the PD, called for “an apology or resignation” of the EU commissioner.
Five Star leader, Luigi Di Maio, also weighed into the debate. “‘The markets will teach you to vote.’ The words of the European Commissioner, Mr. Oettinger, are absurd,” said Di Maio.
“These people treat Italy like a summer colony where they come to spend their holidays. But in a few months a government of change will be born and in Europe, we will finally be respected.”
European officials were quick to distance themselves from the remark. European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas labelled the comment “unwise”.
“It is the Italians and only the Italians who will decide on the future of their country. Nobody else,” he said.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker assured Tuesday that Italy’s “fate does not lie” in the financial markets’ hands and that Rome will pursue its pro-EU path no matter which party is in power.