BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union lawmakers called Wednesday for the appointment of a top EU official to be reconsidered amid a scandal that has raised questions about the accountability of civil servants in Brussels.
The lawmakers said in a resolution that Martin Selmayr, a protege of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, was named secretary general of the powerful Commission in a what “could be seen as a coup-like action” that lacked transparency.
Selmayr, Juncker’s former head of cabinet, was given the top job in February at a meeting that saw him promoted twice within minutes. Even EU commissioners — who are responsible for policy files ranging from the economy to trade, the environment and energy — publicly admitted surprise at the speed with which the nomination was handled. Most were not even aware that the promotion was planned in advance, by Juncker himself.
In his new job, Selmayr runs the Commission — with some 33,000 employees and whose commissioners are appointed, not elected — and so wields strong influence over the EU’s agenda and policy priorities.
The move, exposed by French newspaper Liberation, has raised deep concerns because the Commission is the guardian of the EU’s treaties and the arbiter of Europe’s democratic standards yet stands accused of bending its own rules. For example, the Commission has launched a rule of law procedure against Poland for changes by the new government there that the EU’s executive arm believes undermine the independence of the courts and justice system. It’s locked in a similar battle with Hungary. Both countries say — like the Commission in this case — that they are following the letter of the law.
Part of the reason the people of Britain voted to leave the 28-nation bloc next year was the perception that unelected, unaccountable, well-heeled bureaucrats in Brussels were stitching up backroom deals against the interests of citizens and with the aim of enriching themselves. Regardless of his unquestioned competence, Selmayr’s nomination embodies the fears of euroskeptics.
“The Selmayr scandal is the perfect example of the kind of European Union we fight against: murky deals with a full disregard to basic values such as transparency, integrity and equal opportunities,” Socialist lawmaker Ines Ayala Sender said. The appointment, she said, “has rightly caused widespread disapproval and annoyance among our citizens, risking deteriorating the reputation of not only the Commission, but of all the EU institutions.”
In the resolution, which is publicly embarrassing but has no legal force, the lawmakers asked the Commission to “reassess the procedure of appointment of the new secretary general in order to give other possible candidates within the European public administration the possibility to apply.” They said the process should be revised so future appointments are open and transparent.
In a statement Wednesday, the Commission said it respected the rules and has no intention to revoke its decision.
“The Commission has followed all the rules both in spirit and to the letter,” EU Budget Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said. He said previous secretaries general had been appointed with “precisely the same procedure,” and that Selmayr’s credentials for the job “are beyond any doubt.”
The rapid rise of Selmayr — praised by some colleagues for his efficiency and hard work, criticized by others as an administrative steamroller — has rankled many in Brussels. In about 14 years he went from Commission spokesman to its top civil servant. The fact that he is German annoyed many too, notably in France, due to the high number of German nationals holding senior EU posts.
But there is no doubt that Juncker, who appears in frail health, relies heavily on Selmayr and came to office thanks to the former lawyer’s help.
Asked last month to confirm a rumor that he would resign if his protege was forced out, Juncker told reporters that he is the only man who could sack Selmayr and that he would not do so.