Friday, December 15, 2006

Nude Beach Scandal in EU

The EU's nudist commissioner, his naked aide and the beach pictures
Roger Boyes in Berlin

Europe's second-highest ranking commissioner was fighting to save his political career last night over pictures showing him naked on a beach with his chief of staff.
Günther Verheugen, who is married, is shown — wearing only a baseball cap — with his newly promoted aide, Petra Erler, on a nudist beach in Lithuania.

José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, rushed to the aid of his German Vice-President yesterday, saying that he expected “people’s private spheres” to be respected.

However, controversy over Mr Verheugen, 62, who is also Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry, is raging in Germany, three weeks before the country is due to take over the European Union presidency.

Media coverage has completely overshadowed the plans of Angela Merkel, the Chancellor, for the presidency, such as membership negotiations with Turkey and revival of the European constitution.

The mass circulation Bild newspaper published details yesterday of Mr Verheugen’s holiday with Ms Erler, 48, in August when the couple were seen paddling in the sea and relaxing in the dunes. His wife did not join them on holiday. Bild did not publish the photographs, but Focus magazine is expected to publish the photographs on Monday.

Mr Verheugen strenuously denied any intimate relationship with Ms Erler after Focus published earlier pictures of his Lithuanian holiday in which the couple could be seen holding hands. “I believe the question of with whom and where I spend my holiday in August is a purely private affair, which does not concern anyone other than my wife who was informed about it,” he said.

The commissioner is one of the most powerful in Brussels, not only as deputy to Mr Barroso, but is also at the helm of a campaign to break the bureaucratic stranglehold on industry.

In a recent interview, Mr Verheugen criticised the EU bureaucracy for not adapting to the new political culture. “There is a view that the more regulations you have, the more rules you have, the more Europe you have,” he said. “I don’t share that view.”

As a result Mr Verheugen has made enemies in Brussels. So too, it seems, has Ms Erler, who is regarded as the key figure in Mr Verheugen’s department. Both enjoy special protection in Berlin. Mr Verheugen is a senior Social Democrat, and sacking him would cause a crisis in Germany’s Grand Coalition Government. Ms Erler is the only East German in the higher ranks of the European Union and was a member of the last East German Government. One of her staff at that time was a certain Angela Merkel, then a lowly press spokeswoman.

That support now looks shaky. Mr Verheugen was widowed in the 1980s, then remarried to Gabrielle. Mrs Verheugen says that she knew of her husband’s summer holiday to Nida on the Baltic coast of Lithuania last August. Mr Barroso has also defended Mr Verheugen’s promotion of Ms Erler.

The new photographs will raise eyebrows, but still do not prove that Mr Verheugen was lying about his relationship with Ms Erler. They could, however, be seen as violating the Commission code of ethics.

Herbert Reul, the Christian Democratic European Parliament deputy, called for his resignation. “It’s unacceptable that an EU Commissioner should be running around naked on a beach with a senior female colleague,” he said.

The Government’s main hope is that Focus may relent and not publish the snapshots


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