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19th Oct 2020

Selmayr's stealth promotion was wrong, EU watchdog says

  • Martin Selmayr started off as a press officer in 2004 (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Public trust in the European Commission was put at risk when, Martin Selmayr, a key aid of the institution's president, Jean-Claude Juncker, became its top EU civil servant.

Selmayr's stealth promotion as European Commission secretary-general was described on Tuesday (4 September) by European ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, as a case of maladministration following her review of thousands of pages of commission internal documents.

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"All of this risked jeopardising the hard-won record of high EU administrative standards and consequently, the public trust," she said in a statement.

O'Reilly, who oversees good governance of the EU institutions, looked into the matter on the back of complaints of cronyism given the secretive events leading to Selmayr's sudden and surprise promotion.

The German former lawyer and former commission spokesman had orchestrated Juncker's successful campaign to be selected as president of the commission in 2014, became his chief of staff, and was then elevated to secretary general on 21 February this year.

The European Parliament said Selmayr's promotion "could be viewed as a coup-like action which stretched and possibly even overstretched the limits of the law."

Fears mounted that the credibility of the EU institution in its broader battles to ensure rule of law elsewhere, for instance in Poland, had been undermined.

Concerns were also raised that the promotion provided cannon fodder for far-right and populist groups.

But Juncker then threatened to step down if Selmayr was forced to resign in what one MEP described as "blackmail".

What happened?

The outgoing secretary general had decided to retire, in a move only known by Selmayr and Juncker. The vacancy for the post was never published meaning, no other candidates could apply.

But before taking up the post, Selmayr first had to become deputy secretary general.

On 21 February 2018, all EU commissioners in a meeting known as the college of commissioners approved his appointment as deputy.

At that moment, it was announced the secretary general post was vacant because the incumbent had decided to retire.

A second candidate had been put forward but then suddenly withdrew, making way for Selmayr. Selmayr then filled the empty seat minutes later.

The commission says it did nothing wrong and had followed the recruitment process "religiously".

O'Reilly disagrees.

"The college of commissioners collectively is responsible for the maladministration in this case. It is extraordinary that no commissioner seemed to question the secretary general appointment procedure, which in the end raised valid widespread concerns," she said.

Maladministration

O'Reilly identified four big issues.

First, the commission failed to take measures to avoid a conflict of interest given Selmayr's involvement leading to the creation of the vacancy notice for deputy secretary general.

Second, it failed to follow rules of procedure in the composition of a committee for the selection of the deputy.

Third, the deputy post was not a genuine vacancy given it was used to springboard Selmayr.

Fourth, the retirement of the outgoing secretary general was kept secret and created an artificial urgency for his replacement.

She says the commission needs to develop a specific and separate appointment procedure for its secretary-general to prevent a repeat of this happening.

"The procedure should include publishing a vacancy notice, placing it on the agenda of the weekly commissioners' meeting and also including external experts in the consultative committee for the appointment," she said.

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