Nida, the small resort town on the Lithuanian Curonian spit, is becoming known as more than just a hot vacation spot. A vacation meeting there between Petra Erler and vice-president of the European Commission for Enterprise and Industry Guenter Verheugen has created allegations of favoritism and has stirred up the debate about the ever-growing EU bureaucracy.
A photo of the vice-president and Petra Erler, a 48 year-old economist who in April was appointed to be his cabinet chief, walking hand-in-hand in Klaipeda was published in this week's edition of the German magazine Focus, and has stirred allegations of favoritism in her selection for the position.
Guenter Verheugen had openly told the Lithuanian daily Lietuvos Rytas about his vacation in Nida, and has had to defend his August Lithuanian holiday in the German and Austrian media ever since. According to the paper, the post that Verheugen appointed his alleged love interest to has a whopping salary of 11,500 euros a month.
The German media started discussing Verheugen and the alleged favoritism when he began criticizing high-level EC bureaucrats for attempting to rule the commission at the expense of commissioners.
In an Oct. 10 interview with the British business daily the Financial times, Verheugen chastised EU bureaucracy for not adapting to a new political culture and stated that, "There is a view that the more regulations you have, the more rules you have, the more Europe you have," adding, "I don't share that view."
Reducing the burden of the EU on business has been a key focus of Verheugen's time at the Commission for Enterprise and Industry, and German chancellor Angela Merkel has supported his efforts and even promised to make this cause a centerpiece of her country's EU presidency next year.
Some German media wrote that the Erler case would never have been raised if the commissioner did not attack his own officials. Other media outlets called the out lash at the bureaucracy a diversion from the favoritism scandal that his Lithuanian vacation has caused. The potential love affair between Verheugen and Erler had been circulating around the Brussels gossip circles for weeks, according to Mark Beunderman of EUobserver.com.
Beunderman wrote that, "The affair is irregular by normal standards for European media reporting of Brussels, which tends to leave tabloid-type details of commissioners' private lives out of the press."
The vice-president denied all allegations of favoritism and claims that the EC president backs him up.
"Vice-president Verheugen has clarified that the appointment of his head of cabinet [occurred] on the record of professional excellence and political confidence - that is on fully objective reasons," a spokesman in Verheugen's office said.
"President [Barroso] has clarified that indeed there is no element that suggests that any rule has not been respected in this respect - so the rules have been observed," he added.
With the cost to business complying with EU legislation to reach some 600 billion euros this year, almost double the amount originally estimated, the vice-president seems justified in making his comments. However, even if the case seems to be closed in the eye of the EU presidency, his trip to the Baltic coast will likely remain more than a passing memory for the embattled EC vice-president.
Verheugen is the former EU enlargement commissioner and has been rumored in EU circles to be a potential candidate for EU foreign policy chief when Javier Solana decides to quit.