Günther Oettinger, a European Union commissioner from Germany, issued an official apology Thursday after calling Chinese people “slit-eyes,” making fun of same-sex marriage and disparaging a region of Belgium during a speech to business leaders in Hamburg, Germany, last week.
Oettinger’s statement came days after the commissioner initially refused to apologize for his speech, according to The Independent. Oettinger had also attempted to defend his speech to the German newspaper Die Welt, saying that it was a “somewhat sloppy remark that was in no way meant to be disrespectful to China.”
Some of Oettinger’s remarks were recorded and uploaded to YouTube by Sebastian Marquardt, who was in the audience. The video sparked outrage, according to The New York Times. Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German member of the European Parliament, even compared the commissioner to the U.S. Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
“I had time to reflect on my speech, and I can now see that the words I used have created bad feelings and may even have hurt people,” Oettinger said in a statement published Thursday on the European Commission website. “This was not my intention and I would like to apologise for any remark that was not as respectful as it should have been.”
Although Oettinger’s statement did not mention his remarks on same-sex marriage, the commissioner later tweeted that he was a Liberal and, as such, has always supported “gay partnerships, legally and with legislative processes.” The tweets did not include an apology for his joke about same-sex marriage.
During last week’s speech, Oettinger told the audience that he had recently met a group of Chinese officials who “had their hair brushed from left to right with black shoe polish.”
He also said that Wallonia, a region of Belgium, is “run by communists” and joked that same-sex marriage would one day be “obligatory” in Germany.
The German Federation of Lesbians and Gays called for Oettinger’s resignation, saying that an “EU commissioner must be able to convincingly represent European values of non-discrimination and not put the case for racist and homophobic prejudices.”
Although Oettinger’s “slit-eyes” comment was not recorded in the video, the commissioner addressed his remark in an interview with Die Welt, the Times reported. Asked by the German publication what he meant when he said “sly dogs” and “slit-eyes,” Oettinger said that he was referring to China and South Korea’s advances in technology and warning that Germany will have challenges to catch up with them.
“The Chinese are simply very clever, and they see exactly where Europe has a technological advantage,” the Times quoted Oettinger as saying.
In his apology, Oettinger called his speech “frank and open,” He said he intended it to be a “wake-up call” to Germans, adding that reducing the retirement age and increasing pensions may cause Germany to lose global competitiveness.
He also expressed his “great respect” for the Chinese economy, saying that “China is a partner and a tough competitor.”
As The Guardian points out, Oettinger’s remarks and the subsequent outrage comes at a time when Oettinger is expected to move into a more powerful position, replacing Kristalina Georgieva as the vice president of the European Union.