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EU blames Brexit in cronyism scandal

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
Martin Selmayr sits behind Jean-Claude Juncker in the European Parliament (Getty)

The European Commission has said Brexit forced them into making a controversial appointment that has sparked allegations of cronyism.

Martin Selmayr, the protégé of Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, was made the EU’s top civil servant in February – even though he didn’t apply for the job.

Members of the European Parliament are investigating the “coup-like” way he was appointed, which they have even suggested could be illegal.

They recently put a series of 61 detailed questions to the Commission about the highly unusual process.

Now the Commission has told them that Britain’s looming exit from the EU was one of the key reasons they decided to give Mr Selmayr the job rather than running an open competition.

The Commission issued an 84-page response which gives the same answer citing Brexit to ten of the questions.

It says: “The Commission had to act without delay, taking account of the important internal and external challenges the EU is facing in this particular moment in time.

“To name only the most important of these challenges, the Commission has to make its final proposals under the Political Guidelines by end of May as foreseen by the Commission Work Programme, must propose by early May 2018 the next Multiannual Financial Framework and negotiate it, must deal with Brexit (with only one year remaining) and with daily challenges to the multilateral rules-based international order.”

Mr Selmayr was the top political aide to Mr Juncker until February when he was given two promotions in the space of nine minutes.

Martin Selmayr with Jean-Claude Juncker shorlty after the last European elections (Getty)

The European Parliament has said the appointment was made in a “manner which aroused widespread irritation and disapproval in public opinion” and puts at risk the integrity of the EU.

UKIP MEP Nigel Farage called it the “perfect stitch up.”

The Commission was also forced today to answer questions over Mr Selmayr’s eligibility to hold a politically neutral role at the same time as being a member of a centre-right party in Belgium.

Mr Selmayr revealed his political affiliation when he made eight edits to his own Wikipedia page over the Christmas holidays – some as late as 3am in the morning.

He wrote that he is “close” the CDU of German chancellor Angela Merkel, but clarified that he is actually a “member of the Belgian-Flemish Christian Democratic Party CD&V.”

Both the CDU and CD&V are members of the EPP, the centre-right European political party to which Mr Juncker also belongs.

A Commission spokesman was asked at a press conference today whether it was appropriate for Mr Selmayr to remain a member of a political party now that he is the head of the EU’s civil service.

He said: “Personally I don’t see that there is any incompatibility between being an employee of the European Commission and a member of a political party.

“I’m unaware of any legal reasons or administrative reasons why the two roles are incompatible.”

Belgian Green MEP Bart Staes believes Mr Selmayr’s role should be politically neutral (European Parliament)

But Belgian Green MEP Bart Staes said: “It is unhealthy for a public institution as the European Commission that a person in such an important position openly stands for a partisan political line by being a member of a political party, being the CD&V.

“Such a person should be politically neutral and stand for all Europeans.”

Mr Staes, who is a member of the European Parliament committee investigating the appointment, said the affair had demonstrated that the centre-right EPP had too much power over the EU.

He added: “We have been repeating all along that the Selmayr-case is not primarily about Selmayr as a person, it is in essence about checks and balances, which is key for a healthy democratic system.

“The EPP now controls almost all major power positions of the EU institutions; The appointment of Selmayr as secretary general is the cherry on the EPP cake.”

Mr Selmayr’s other Wikipedia edits included a denial about leaking details of Brexit negotiations and changes to comments about his grandfather’s military service.

The page had read: “He is the grandson of Josef Selmayr, who served as a Lieutenant Colonel on Hitler’s general staff in the Balkans.”

Mr Selmayr changed it to: “The British media frequently mention that he is a grandson of Josef Selmayr, who served as a Lieutenant Colonel of the German army’s general staff in the Balkans during World War II.”