| 9.2°C Dublin

German EU boss backs down on flag at half mast bid


Günther Oettinger. Photo: Getty Images

Günther Oettinger. Photo: Getty Images


GERMANY’S EU commissioner at the centre of a controversial proposal to force Ireland and other heavily-indebted countries to fly their flags at half mast has been forced to make an embarrassing retraction.

Günther Oettinger, in an interview with Bild newspaper conducted last Friday, said that it would be a future deterrent against reckless spending from member states.

After severe condemnation from his fellow MEPs, Mr. Oettinger insisted that he was not advocating, but merely reiterating the sentiment of some member states.

“In a recent interview, I referred to several ideas that are circulating these days in order to help address the problems,” the commissioner said, in comments relayed by the European Commission’s Irish offices.

“However, in the interview I did not propose this idea, nor did I support it. Moreover, I did not refer to any particular country.”

Mr. Oettinger’s comments come at a time when speculation is mounting that Greece is on the verge of defaulting on debts.

“There has been the suggestion too of flying the flags of deficit sinners at half-mast in front of EU buildings. It would just be a symbol, but would still be a big deterrent,” he said on Friday.

MEP Mairead McGuinness of Fine Gael has hit back at the commissioner, calling his proposal “daft”.

“Were such a daft suggestion to be taken on board, it would indicate that the EU had lost all sight of its principles, ideals and goals. It would be divisive and totally inappropriate, going against everything the EU was set up to achieve,” she said.

Environment minister Phil Hogan also rowed in and criticised the remarks.

"We certainly don't believe that is an appropriate suggestion to be making to the Irish people at a time when they are going through the difficult pain barrier of sacrificing a lot of their disposable income in order to get us back to growth and economic and financial health that we once enjoyed," he said.

He added that the Irish people are playing a role to "resolve our own affairs as quickly as possible and get back our economic sovereignty".

"I think Ireland is well able to stand up for itself," he said.

Other MEPs were quick to condemn the idea including her colleague in parliament, Labour’s Phil Prendergast.

“The so-called deterrent in his eyes is humiliation. This is totally at odds with EU values, and unhelpful at a time when States most affected by the financial crisis struggle to get public acceptance for efforts to bring their debt under control,” he said.

“Commissioner Oettinger’s comments are all the more offensive considering they were made at a time flags flew at half mast across America to remember the victims of 9/11. Does he think the US should keep it that way until they have their deficit under control?”

Several MEPs, including Belgium’s Marc Tarabella MEP have now written a letter of protest to EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso demanding an apology or his resignation.

“Any true pro-European is proud to see all our flags flying side by side, united in diversity in times good or bad.

“Mr. Oettinger should retract and recant his words, or resign from the European Commission.”