Hungary, EU defend commissioner over visits

Reuters News
Posted: Nov 17, 2016 1:31 PM

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The Hungarian government and the European Commission rejected suggestions of impropriety on the part of the German member of the EU executive over trips he made to Budapest in May and this past weekend.

Guenther Oettinger's earlier journey was made on the private jet of a German businessman close to the Kremlin, the latter at the invitation of Austrian construction firm Strabag.

Two weeks ago, the commissioner for digital affairs and an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, told the European Parliament in answer to a question from Greens lawmakers that he had flown to Budapest with Klaus Mangold on May 19 in order to arrive in time for a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

A former energy commissioner, he denied having discussed the Paks nuclear power plant, a controversial project in which Orban has been at odds with Brussels over plans to build two Russian reactors. Since news reports of his written answer appeared on Tuesday, Oettinger has faced some calls from critics to resign.

On Thursday, the Commission's chief spokesman renewed the executive's defense of Oettinger, who earlier this month was obliged by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to apologize for disparaging remarks about the Chinese and gay people.

The trip with Mangold had been arranged by the Hungarian government and, since the meeting with the German businessman had not concerned Oettinger's digital portfolio it had not been necessary to record it in the Commission's lobbying register.

Orban's chief-of-staff Janos Lazar told a news conference in Budapest that the government asked Mangold, who had been working with Hungary for some years as a consultant, to help organize Oettinger's visit: "This can in no way be seen as a gift," he said.

Strabag and Oettinger's staff confirmed a Hungarian report that he was in Budapest last weekend to speak on digitization in the construction sector at the company's invitation. The Commission paid for his scheduled flight and hotel.

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)