Controversial EU promotion was partly 'political'

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Brussels (AFP)

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker's top aide and enforcer Martin Selmayr landed a powerful job partly for "political" reasons, a top EU official said Tuesday at a hearing into the controversial promotion.

But budget commissioner Guenther Oettinger told members of the European Parliament that the "rules were totally respected" when Selmayr was named secretary general, at the head of the EU's 30,000-strong civil service.

"It's above all a decision of substance, but of course also a political one," Oettinger told the parliament's budget control committee probing the appointment.

"A commission president, in the highest circles of power, needs trusted people on which he can rely on politically," said the German member of the commission, the executive of the 28-nation bloc.

"There are of course administrative needs, but there are also the needs of intelligent political management," Oettinger said during two hours of testimony.

The row centres on what critics say was effectively an instantaneous double promotion for the 47-year-old Selmayr, Juncker's former chief of staff, on February 21.

During a single meeting of commissioners, Selmayr was made first deputy secretary general and then just minutes later secretary general when the incumbent, Alexander Italianer, suddenly announced his retirement.

The commission has confirmed that Juncker had known of Italianer's plan to retire as early as 2015 and had told Selmayr about it.

But it rejected claims that Juncker and Selmayr had cooked up a plan in November last year to bounce the German into the secretary general role.

It said that technically Selmayr had not been promoted, as he remains on the same civil service grade as before, and that he had taken a pay cut in switching jobs.

As well as the parliamentary probe, the EU ombudsman, which investigates allegations of malpractice in European institutions, has also confirmed it has received two complaints about the matter and is analysing them.

Sophie in 't Veld, a leading liberal member of the European Parliament, said earlier this month the affair "destroys all the credibility of the EU as a champion of integrity and transparency".

Denying suggestions the Selmayr process lacked transparency, the commission previously gave an 80-page reply to MEPs, which was put on its website at 3am on Sunday.

And it refused to engage with MEPs' demands about the damage the affair has done to the EU's reputation, saying repeatedly it "does not agree with the premise underlying" the questions.