— European Ombudsman (@EUombudsman) September 4, 2018
On 27 February, The Old Continent reported on European Commission President Juncker’s right hand Martin Selmayr’s appointment to the position of the EU’s highest-ranking civil servant: Secretary-General to the Secretariat-General of the European Commission. At the time, TOC wrote that Selmayr bent the rules to secure his new position. But a ‘Recommendation‘ written by the European Ombudsman now finds that the bending was to the breaking point. Not just by Selmayr.
Never a popular appointment, opposition against Selmayr started early and started strong. Although news from Brussels is never particularly popular in the various national news circles, the ruckus made in European Parliament was loud enough to cross borders. One good example of this is an interview with Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission. Published by Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad on 15 March, it basically treats #SelmayrGate as a failure to communicate.
In typical fashion, Timmermans “regrets” the commotion surrounding the appointment. He claims, however, that it was all above board, in fact, it was all “carefully prepared.” If only the communication with the press had been a little better, there would have been no problem.
Ironically, the interviewer asks Timmermans if he was promised a little something-something for his support of Selmayr. Timmermans denies:
“There never was a proposition like that. Of course not. That would have been against the rules.“
Despite the fact that Selmayr’s appointment was already causing waves, Timmermans also denies that it would make the Commission vulnerable to accusations. He claimed to be “reasonably relaxed“.|
“If we did something wrong, which I don’t think we did, then it’s a good thing if it is discovered.“
The interview concludes by mentioning Timmermans is the European Commissioner for Fundamental Right. It also notes that he was embroiled in a conflict with Poland and Hungary, with these countries arguing the EU itself did not follow proper procedure. It gets hilarious when Timmermans claims that this is “part of the game [those countries] play and that doesn’t make me nervous.”
“The Commission is always being scrutinised. We are the referee in a very large game of soccer and the referee is always criticised, sometimes for good reason, sometimes not.“
This interview did not age well. It wouldn’t with a referee betting money on the game he was overseeing.
The European Ombudswoman’s damning conclusions
The accusation of foul play doesn’t come from just anybody either. After being asked by two groups of MEP’s to do so, the European Ombudsman started an investigation into the Selmayr appointment. Even the press release is a downright condemnation of the Commission’s conduct in the matter. The investigation found
“four instances of maladministration in the appointment of the European Commission’s Secretary-General in February 2018.“
These arose because of the Commission’s failure to follow the rules correctly “either in letter or in spirit.” By manufacturing an “artificial sense of urgency” for example, as well as manipulating the actual process. During its investigations, the Ombudsman further found the Commission reacted to the inquiry in a way it describes as
“defensive, evasive and at times combative.“
The Ombudsman also suggests deliberate subterfuge, with the Commission “taking precise steps (…) in order to make the appointment process appear normal.” The Ombudsman concludes that
“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.“
The Ombudsman’s full report provides the details, including a timeline of the whole process.
There are also sentences that suggest extensive perversion of the usual procedure. The report notes, for example, that
“It is clear that preparatory steps were taken from mid-January to 21 February 2018 that facilitated Mr Selmayr’s appointment as Secretary-General. The fact that such preparatory steps were taken, and the precise manner in which they were taken, raise specific concerns.“
This is followed by the Ombudsman describing highly unusual reassignments, happening with ‘noteworthy timing’. This indicates that the whole procedure was arranged in such a way as to give
“Mr Selmayr time to apply, for the evaluation process and interviews to be completed, and for Mr Selmayr then to be appointed Deputy Secretary-General at the College meeting of 21 February 2018, just before Mr Italianer officially announced that he would retire.“
Simply put, by the time Italianer, the previous Secretary-General, resignation became known, the dice had already been rolled.
But this was not enough. Selmayr was involved in the preparations for the selection procedure he himself was a candidate for. This leads the Ombudsman to conclude that there was
“at the very least a risk of conflict of interests.“
The Ombudsman goes one step further: “Having noted that Mr Selmayr had not recused himself from the relevant decision-making processes, [the European Commission] should have re-launched the selection procedure without the involvement of the President’s Cabinet. The fact that the Commission did not take such steps constitutes maladministration.”
In its conclusions, the Ombudsman further agrees with European Parliament, in finding the appointment to be a
“coup-like action which stretched and possibly even overstretched the limits of the law.“
while it itself writes that
“The Commission’s actions involved a manipulation of the rules governing senior management appointments so as to convey the impression that the appointment procedures, in the case of Mr Selmayr, were applied correctly and that the outcome, in turn, was fair and correct. In fact, this was not the case and the entire affair, starting in January 2018, if not earlier, was arranged to ensure the appointment of Mr Selmayr as Secretary-General.“
Of course, leave it to the European Commission to put its fingers in its ears and publish a press release that welcomes the fact that the Ombudsman
“neither contests the legality of the appointment procedure of the Secretary-General, nor the choice of the candidate“
and then has the gall to say
“On some aspects, where the Commission has a different factual assessment, we will provide further information to the Ombudsman in due course.“
Needless to say, the Ombudswoman’s rather damning report will have exactly Selmayr’s position. From the arrogance of the European Commission deliver us, O Lord!