German EU commissioner defends himself over controversial remarks

Brussels (AFP) - EU Commissioner Guenther Oettinger defended himself on Monday over controversial remarks he made about women, homosexuals and Chinese people.

The German conservative politician was questioned for nearly three hours by three EU parliamentary commissions amid demands that he be punished for the comments, for which he has already apologised.

"I regret these remarks," Oettinger said, as he spelt out measures to reinforce protection for minorities.

"In the weeks to come I want to publish a statement on diversity and inclusion," he said, referring especially to sexual orientation.

He also praised a "very important" objective, introduced by his predecessor, to see at least 40 percent of managerial posts at the commission filled by women by 2019.

Oettinger, previously the digital services commissioner, was named in October by commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker to take over the budget and human resources portfolio from Kristalina Georgieva, a Bulgarian, who left for the World Bank.

But less than a month later, Oettinger was forced to apologise for referring to Chinese people as "slitty eyes" and making disparaging remarks about women, gay marriage and Belgian politicians in a speech.

He got into hot water again just days later over accepting a lift in a Kremlin lobbyist's private jet to Budapest without reporting it under disclosure rules.

The commission insisted he broke no ethics rules, but the incident flared at a time when the European Union's institutions are under mounting attack from euroskeptics as wasteful or fraudulent.

In his address to the EU parliament's budget control, budget affairs and judicial affairs commission, Oettinger said he considered himself "independent of lobby groups" and open to improving transparency rules.

The Euro-parliamentarians questioned Oettinger about his new role but not about his aptness for it. As he was already an EU commissioner, the session was formally an "exchange of views" rather than a panel of inquiry or an approval procedure.

Not all the EU parliamentarians present were satisfied.

Pascal Durand of the parliament's Green group said Oettinger's behaviour "calls for sanctions" rather than "promotion."

"The Oettinger affair is a classic case of everything you need to destroy the legitimacy of a political institution," said Durand.

The Eurodeputies involved will make their official consultative remarks in a later letter.

Ten European grassroot and watchdog groups, including Transparency International, Oxfam and Corporate Europe Observatory, last week called on lawmakers to oppose Oettinger's appointment.

"Commissioner Oettinger has made racist, sexist and homophobic remarks on several occasions in the past, most recently at a speech he gave in an official capacity in Hamburg on 26 October," they said in a joint letter.

"In our view, Commissioner Oettinger is not the right person for this task."