The sudden, unusual and controversial appointment of Martin Selmayr to be the new Secretary General of the European Commission has been dominating offstage conversations in Brussels for a more than a month.
That’s perhaps not surprising: with pressing national issues to cover, why bother with what appears to be the internal affair of an organisation that’s in any case perceived as faceless and remote?
Getting the top job
The full facts of the case are still to come to light. But MEPs of different political persuasions have condemned the way that Selmayr – until recently head of the small private office of the Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker – was unexpectedly promoted twice in a single meeting. He first became Deputy Secretary General, and then immediately further promoted to be Secretary General: the most powerful civil service job in the Commission and the head of 33,000 civil servants.
Selmayr is also far from politically independent, but is closely linked to Juncker’s political group. Appointment to Secretary General is likely to allow Selmayr to continue after Juncker finishes his term in 2019. In many ways Selmayr is well equipped for his new role, but that’s not the point.
Scrutiny from the Parliament
MEPs summoned the Commissioner responsible for human resources to a committee hearing on Tuesday (27 March), preparing 134 questions. These asked the Commission to explain, for example, why the usual fair and non-discriminatory recruitment procedures appear not to have been followed, why the meeting of 28 national Commissioners was not offered a proper choice of alternative candidates, and whether their nine-minute debate really constituted adequate scrutiny of this key appointment.
In the end, the relevant parliamentary committee used some strong language, such as “coup-like” to describe the appointment, but did not ask for it to be reversed. The whole Parliament will have a vote on the issue in mid-April and will likely follow the lead of this committee.
Then, who will speak out for integrity?
The European Union originated as a project designed to maintain peace in Europe. Its enlargement criteria has promoted integrity and helped to reduce corruption in many of its member states and its development policies have done the same around the world.
Many in Brussels are concerned that if the Commission does not follow the accepted norms of openness and transparency for high profile appointments such as this, it could seriously damage the credibility of the EU as a whole – at a time when anti-EU sentiment is on the rise in several member states.
However, few feel able to speak out – as they either work in the EU institutions or in civil society organisations that seek good relations with the Commission in order to influence its policies and spending decisions.
Causal claims, serious deficiency
Given the implications for the moral issues of truth and integrity in public life, is this a particular space for faith voices?
Defending the appointment, the current Chief Spokesperson of the European Commission Margaritis Schinas said “All the procedures, and I repeat all the legal procedures, under the staff regulations have been respected religiously … I repeat, respected religiously.” And later he continued, “Religiously, legally and without any deviation from the statute”. [Watch it here]
“If this is true, I’m losing my religion” one journalist has replied.
Faith and practice
The message of many teachers and prophets of religion is clear. Many lived their lives as models of integrity, and taught others to live by these principles. Jesus for example, hid nothing. His life was a contrast with the powerful elite of his time whom he called hypocrites, and likened them to “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean”.
The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), who were known in the 17th Century as ‘Friends of the Truth’, strive to embody the highest standards of truth and integrity in their personal lives, and seek to promote truthfulness, integrity, openness and accountability in social and political institutions.
Faith groups are not beyond reproach ourselves, but we do have a place in the moral conversation from which to hold the European Commission to a higher standard than that of mundane political manoeuvring.
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Note: On Sunday (25 March) the European Commission published a written explanation of the appointment which can be found here.