Günter Verheugen is facing mounting criticism after a German newsmagazine published a picture of him hand-in-hand with the head of his Brussels cabinet during a holiday on the Baltic coast.
The gossip has been doing the rounds in Brussels for several months, and photos published in the German media Monday would seem to prove it. The EU's Vice President and industry commissioner, Günter Verheugen, has found himself in the hot seat over his alleged affair with Petra Erler, the head of his cabinet, with many convinced he showed favoritism when he gave her the top job in April.
"Her expertise was not the only factor in Erler's appointment," said Markus Ferber (CSU), a member of the European Parliament, on public broadcaster ZDF.
Many would agree with him, but there's no denying her suitability for the job. In 1990, Erler served as state secretary under East Germany's last prime minister Lothar de Maizière. Nine years later, she joined Verheugen at the Commission to work on the bloc's eastwards expansion and gained an excellent reputation that many would argue makes her an obvious choice for the position she now holds.
But that hasn't stopped the rumor mill from turning.
The picture that appears to corroborate the affair shows Verheugen -- who has been married for 19 years -- walking hand-in-hand with Erler through the Lithuanian town of Klaipeda, during a two-week holiday on the Baltic Coast.
"We never made a secret of the fact that we took a vacation together," 48-year-old Erler told Focus, but denied their relationship went beyond friendship.
In an interview with tabloid Bild, Verheugen insisted Erler fully deserved her promotion earlier this year.
"Her abilities are beyond doubt," he said. "She is highly skilled. The accusations that I have mixed business with pleasure are absurd."
Verheugen described the allegations of favoritism as "pure slander.
"It was a private trip, and I reject speculations linked to this matter," he said, adding that "we will declare on oath that at the time of the appointment as well as today there has been no relationship which goes beyond friendship."
Attack on EU red tape
Last week saw Verheugen lash out at officials in Brussels, telling the Süddeutsche Zeitung that his job is a constant power struggle with bureaucrats.
"Developments in the past decade have given officials so much power that the most important political task of the 25 commissioners is to control the bureaucratic apparatus," he said. "And sometimes control over the apparatus is lost."
Verheugen also described reports written by EU officials as "technical, arrogant and condescending." He blamed the power of officials for the excessive red tape in the EU and said he believed European firms could make a saving of 75 million euros ($95 million) if bureaucracy was reduced.
Some observers have suggested that the Erler case would never have been raised had the commissioner not delivered such a stinging criticism of his own officials, while others have suggested the surprise outburst might have been a deliberate attempt to divert attention away from the rumors.
For the time being, those officials have closed ranks.
"President Barroso has clarified that indeed there is no element that suggests that any rule has not been respected -- so the rules have been observed," said the commissioner's spokesperson.