MEPs raise cronyism concerns at hiring of Juncker successor

Martin Selmayr has had meteoric rise to secretary general leading some MEPs to criticise process

The European parliament has stepped up criticism of the process that propelled Jean-Claude Juncker’s right-hand man into the top job at the European commission.

During a 150-minute hearing, MEPs raised concerns about cronyism and conflicts of interest over the appointment of Martin Selmayr to the post of secretary general, making him the commission’s most senior civil servant, managing 32,000 EU officials.

Selmayr, a workaholic German lawyer, had been the European commission president’s chief of staff, having enjoyed a meteoric rise since joining the commission 14 years ago.

In a series of testy exchanges, the European commissioner in charge of human resources, Günther Oettinger, said he did not know of Juncker’s plan to give the job to his protege until the night before it was announced.

But Oettinger dismissed one MEP’s charge that the appointment amounted to a coup, while insisting rules had not been broken.

“Did the commission follow the rules? My answer to that question is an unconditional yes,” Oettinger told MEPs, while suggesting the commission could have acted differently. “Whether the procedure went wrong I think that is more of a political assessment … I think we all have to think about whether something could have been done better.”

The furore started when Selmayr was given two jobs in one day. On 21 February he was appointed deputy secretary general, then immediately promoted to the top job, when Dutch national Alexander Italianer announced his sudden retirement. The job hopscotch was rubber-stamped at the weekly meeting of EU commissioners, after Juncker said he would like Selmayr to take Italianer’s place.

More than one month after the administrative reshuffle, questions remain.

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron addressed the topic at a press conference after last week’s EU summit in Brussels. The German chancellor said she esteemed Selmayr’s work but rejected suggestions of national bias. “Just because he is German does not mean that he does everything the German government wants. It is not at all the impression that we have. He is someone who takes decisions in a very professional manner.”

Eurosceptics have seized on the affair. Nigel Farage, the former Ukip leader, said he wanted Selmayr to become “the most famous person in the whole of Europe”.

After hearing testimony from a parliament lawyer on Tuesday, the chair of the European parliament’s budgetary control committee, Ingeborg Grässle, said the commission ought to have published the vacancy to allow competition for the job.

The European parliament is due to adopt a resolution on Selmayr’s appointment next month. But there are signs that cross-party unity on the issue – evident at an earlier debate – is beginning to fray.

The commission denies the move was a promotion, saying Selmayr’s salary and benefits would be slightly reduced as a result of the move. Officials issued an 80-page defence of Selmayr’s appointment at 3am on Sunday morning, in response to 134 questions from MEPs.

Prof Dr Martin Selmayr, his preferred CV title, worked at the German media group Bertelsmann before joining the commission in 2004 as a spokesman on media and telecoms. From this mid-ranking position he has climbed to the apex of the EU bureaucracy, in less than half the time it took his predecessor to make the same ascent.

Picked to run Juncker’s 2014 campaign to become European commission president, Selmayr has been at the forefront of his boss’s stated intention to run “a more political commission”, an EU executive that sets an agenda, rather than one that bends to the wishes of national leaders.

A fierce defender of the European cause, he takes unusually public positions for a civil servant, for example, sharing his delight on Twitter when Macron won the French presidential election last year:

Kick off: Felix Austria 🇦🇹🇪🇺🇦🇹🇪🇺🇦🇹🇪🇺 Quarter final: Stable Netherlands: 🇳🇱🇪🇺🇳🇱🇪🇺🇳🇱🇪🇺 Semi final: La France en marche! 🇫🇷🇪🇺🇫🇷🇪🇺🇫🇷🇪🇺

— Martin Selmayr (@MartinSelmayr) May 7, 2017

But as Juncker’s chief of staff, he has been dogged by accusations of high-handed behaviour and bossing around commissioners.

Selmayr was also behind the plan for refugee quotas that infuriated Hungary and other central European states, and was at Juncker’s side during David Cameron’s mini renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership. Selmayr and his boss were exasperated that the former British prime minister hardly mentioned the deal during the failed referendum campaign.

More recently, he is widely suspected of leaking an unflattering account of a Brexit dinner at Downing Street with Theresa May. He has always denied being behind the leak.


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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