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EU Commission used Brexit to create ‘artificial’ case for controversial double promotion of Juncker aide

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker with his political protégé Martin Selmayr. Photo:Getty

The European Commission’s justification for the highly irregular way it handed one of its top jobs to the protégé of its president has been blown apart by the EU’s watchdog.

The commission cited Brexit as one of reasons it had to “act without delay” to make Martin Selmayr, then an aide to Jean-Claude Juncker, its secretary-general in February.

But the European Ombudsman says that was part of an “artificial sense of urgency” created by the commission in order to justify its failure to advertise the role.

Emily O’Reilly gave the verdict after inspecting 11,000 pages of internal commission documents as part of an investigation sparked after complaints by MEPs, who called the process “coup-like” and suggested it may have been illegal.

In a scathing report, she says they prove commission flouted both the letter and the spirit of the rules to appoint Selmayr and has been “evasive” over the course of her enquiries.

“All this risks jeopardising the hard-won record of high EU administrative standards and consequently public trust,” O’Reilly warned.

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Gunther Oettinger, EU budget and human resources commissioner, said it welcomed that the report “neither contests the legality of the appointment procedure … nor the choice of the candidate.”

Selmayr, the politically wily German nicknamed the “beast of the Berlaymont” on account of the name of the commission’s HQ, was given a double promotion to a job he didn’t apply for in a matter of minutes by commissioners.

He had applied for the position of deputy secretary-general and his appointment was approved at the weekly meetings of all 28 commissioners on 21 February.

Moments later at the same meeting, Juncker the announced the then secretary-general, Alexander Italianer, was resigning and proposed Selmayr as his replacement.

The commissioners, including the UK’s Julian King, unanimously agreed. The appointment was designed to maintain Selmayr’s influence when Juncker’s term ends next year.

European Commission secretary-general Martin Selmayr. Photo: AP

As the issue erupted in Brussels today, Selmayr was spotted accompanying Juncker on a visit to Berlin – a task not commonly carried out by previous secretary generals.

O’Reilly said on Tuesday that the selection procedure for the post of deputy secretary-general was only organised in order to clear the way for Selmayr’s appointment to the top job.

The Ombudsman said the impending retirement of Italianer was “kept secret” in order to help create the “situation of urgency.”

She said it was “extraordinary” that not a single commissioner raised an objection and held them collectively responsible for the four counts of maladministration she has found.

The findings do not concern Selmayr himself, who is described by O’Reilly as a “competent” and “committed” official.

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But there were calls for his resignation today at a lengthy inquest over the scandal at the commission’s daily news conference.

Ashley Fox, the leader of Conservative MEPs, called on Juncker to appear before the European Parliament to explain why the commission had “bent the rules to secure Mr Selmayr’s appointment.”

On the four counts of maladministration, he added: “People have resigned for less.”

The commission has already ruled out revisiting the selection procedure and the Ombudsman does not have the power to make them do so.

Instead, she has called on the commission to create a specific and separate appointment procedure for the post of secretary-general to prevent a repeat of the controversy.

Oettinger said the commission “do not see any reason” why that post should have separate rules, but said it would assess how the current rules could be applied better in future.

MORE: European Commission refuses to rethink ‘coup-like’ appointment of top official