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17th Apr 2021

EU commissioner ducks questions on Selmayr affair

  • Germany's Martin Selmayr outside commission HQ (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

MEPs grilled EU commissioner Guenther Oettinger for more than 90 minutes on Tuesday (27 March) but got no new answers about the appointment of Martin Selmayr as secretary general of the European Commission.

Sticking to the answers to 134 preliminary questions sent by the EU executive on Sunday, the commissioner in charge of human resources gave an "unconditional yes" to the main one: did Selmayr's appointment follow the rules?

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"We believe it was fully in line with the regulations," he told the members of the budgetary control committee.

He argued that Selmayr, who was the head of cabinet of the commission's president Jean-Claude Juncker, "absolutely possesses the right personality and professional expertise" for the institution's top administrative job.

He insisted that Selmayr "fulfilled the legal requirements" and that "the spirit and the letter of the law" allowed him to be transferred from one position to the other without notice.

On 21 February, Selmayr was in a matter of minutes appointed deputy secretary general and then secretary general after the incumbent Alexander Italianer suddenly announced his resignation.

Oettinger stressed that the decision was taken as part of a "package" of administrative appointments, and that "no objection or position of dissent was expressed" by any commissioners - 25 of whom were unaware of the move.

But as a legal expert from the parliament explained that not publishing a position vacancy was allowed only in a "serious and urgent situation", the commissioner failed to tell the MEPs how Italianer's resignation represented such a situation.

He confirmed that Juncker knew since 2015, when he appointed Italianer as secretary general, that the civil servant wanted to retire on 1 March 2018 and that Italianer confirmed his decision to Juncker earlier this year.

But although the commission itself has admitted in its answers that Juncker had discussed the issue with Selmayr, "like all important senior management matters," Oettinger did not say when that discussion took place and when Selmayr really knew he would be able to be appointed.



While in an interview to Le Soir newspaper, Selmayr said himself that Juncker asked him to take the job in November last year, the commission insists that "the option for Mr Selmayr to become secretary general only became concrete on 20 February 2018."

Neither the commission nor Oettinger at the hearing would say why Selmayr applied and went trough the process to become deputy secretary-general and why the only candidate against him, his own deputy Clara Martinez Alberola, withdrew before the end of the procedure.

Asked why the decision to appoint Selmayr as secretary general was taken so rapidly, without letting other civil servants and even commissioners know about it, Oettinger answered: "I don't know if it would have changed anything if we had had a week to think about it."

This is not a 'coup'

The commissioner rejected the word "coup" used by an MEP to describe the move as "not appropriate".

And while the commission has been under pressure for giving misleading information about the appointment, he insisted that "lying is not a way to do politics."

He admitted however that a tweet by the commission deputy spokesman, calling on the "Brussels bubble" to "mind important things" rather than the Selmayr case, was "extremely personal and couldn't be expected to reflect the commission's opinion."

Oettinger also rejected suggestions that the appointment of Selmayr, who was Juncker's campaign director for the 2014 European elections, has anything to do with his and Juncker's party, the centre-right EPP, wanting to increase its control over the commission.

He noted Selmayr "is going to be tested" but will demonstrate that he is not "a political appointee".

He suggested however that Selmayr may have to leave his job when Juncker leaves and is replaced by a new commission chief.

"No one is secretary general for life," he noted, adding that Selmayr would have to "maintain the confidence of his bosses".

While several MEPs said that Juncker, not Oettinger, should be the one questioned by the committee, no decision was taken by the committee's chair Inge Graessle.

She indicated however that ahead of a resolution to be put to vote in April over the case, a new set of questions will be sent to the commission "before Easter".

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