Inquiry of the European Ombudsman regarding the appointment of the new Secretary-General

 

 

Brussels, 1 June 2018

Note to the attention of Mr Günther OETTINGER

Commissioner in charge of Budget and Human Resources

 

 

Subject: Inquiry of the European Ombudsman regarding the appointment of the new Secretary-General

Parachuting, politicization of our civil service and urgent need to reform senior management appointment procedures in our institution

Ref.:       Letter of 8 May 2018 from Ms O’Reilly to the attention of Mr Juncker ( read )

 

 

Background

In a number of notes to you and Mr Selmayr ( see our parachuting dossier ), we have already drawn your attention to the deep perplexity of the staff of the Commission and the other institutions as well as the outraged reactions, notably from the press and the European Parliament, about the procedure for the appointment of the new Secretary-General of the Commission.

It is undeniable that, after the Barroso and Kroes cases ( see our dossier Barroso – Kroes), this new controversy is “damaging the credibility of the EU as a whole”, as all observers agree and as it is noted in the resolution of the European Parliament adopted by an overwhelming majority.

Therefore, it is imperative and urgent that our institution takes all necessary measures to dissipate this harmful feeling of distrust by implementing a profound reform of its appointment procedures that we have been clamouring for so long.

It is clear in this respect that we are still awaiting your response to our note of 29 March.

We therefore take the liberty to draw your attention once again to these outstanding issues, while we are being approached by a number of colleagues who wait for your clarifications.

Indeed, I would like to confirm that following our communications, we continue to record an unprecedented amount of support and encouragement to continue our efforts in serving the general interest.

These reactions are all the more appreciable given the overwhelming atmosphere and the widespread fear that have gradually settled in our services and to which the recent brutal dismissal of three Directors General has certainly contributed (cf. infra).

May we remind once again that the staff witnessed with dismay the avalanche of articles from an outraged press (see the press review attached to our notes) and the stormy atmosphere during your hearing at the EP (Commission’s Integrity Policy, in particular the appointment of the Secretary General of the Commission … see the video), the over 200 questions that COCOBU ( read ) addressed to the Commission, the devastating resolution adopted by the European Parliament Plenary on 18 April ( read ) and, last but not least, the recent opening of an inquiry by the Ombudsman Ms O’Reilly (read The European Commission’s Appointment of a new Secretary-General).

All this, in such a short period of time and with such intensity, is unprecedented!

 

Ombudsman opens inquiry into the procedure for appointment of the new SG and the politicization of our civil service

In particular, in her letter informing you of the opening of the inquiry, the European Ombudsman did not confine herself to announcing her decision to scrutinize the procedure for appointing the new Secretary-General or to request access to all relevant documents and legal opinions; she also raised more general questions and asked to be informed of the Commission’s proposals for guaranteeing the independence of our civil service and avoiding the politicization of the procedures for appointment to management posts through the outrageous « parachuting » practice we have experienced.

In particular, R&D wishes to highlight the questions which have been put forward by the Ombudsman and whose effective follow-up by the Commission we will scrutinise with particular attention:

“In that context, I would be grateful if you could provide written replies to the following questions before 15 June 2018:

1. The Parliament resolution states that the appointment “could be viewed as a coup-like action which stretched and possibly even overstretched the limits of the law”. How has the Commission reflected on this characterisation of the manner in which the appointment was made and what, if any, lessons has it learned from the affair overall?

2. The Commission did not answer several of Parliament’s questions on how this appointment may have damaged the trust in the EU as a whole. Would the Commission now, in hindsight, like to reflect on and set out its view on whether it has damaged trust in the EU? Does it consider that the widespread criticism of the manner in which the appointment was made was justified?

3. While it is important that senior Commission management positions are not the object of negotiations between Member States or political parties, but rather decisions for the College of Commissioners, how will the Commission in future ensure these decisions are based on the principles of transparency, equality, qualifications and merit?

4. Does the Commission agree with the statement in the Parliament resolution that “appointments to high-level posts such as that of Secretary-General should be made independently of other appointments, thereby avoiding any suspicion of non-transparent package deals or trade-offs based on privileged information”? Can the Commission comment on this statement?

5. The Juncker Commission is a political executive, deriving its legitimacy from the European parliament elections, and is supported by an independent civil service. While this is comparable to how many EU Member States governments are structured, can the Commission comment on how it manages the working relationship between the political (that is, the Commissioners and their cabinets) and civil service sides at senior levels?

6. Citizens would expect that the EU civil service gives independent advice, while being necessarily aware of the political environment in which it works. How does the Commission ensure that, when somebody switches from a senior political role to senior management of the independent civil service, that citizens can be reassured about the impartiality of the permanent civil service?

7. The Commission has acknowledged failures in communications in relation to this appointment. What actions does the Commission intend to take in the future in order to improve its handling of valid and legitimate questions from the media, mindful that such exchanges are frequently the only way that citizens get answers to their concerns.”

As part of the inquiry, she also requests access to the following documents:

«Inspection of documents

In addition, I have decided that it is necessary under Article 3.2 of the Ombudsman Statute to inspect the following documents held by the Commission:

All documents, whether in electronic or paper format, including correspondence, notes, memos, emails, and all legal advice, from 1 September 2017 until 18 April 2018, relating to the appointment of the new Secretary-General. This should include documents sent from Commissioners to their cabinets, documents within and between cabinets, as well as documents between Commissioners/cabinets and the Commission services. This should include all documents relating to the retirement of the previous Secretary- General, the appointment of the new Deputy Secretary-General and subsequently new Secretary-General, and the minutes of the meeting of the Heads of Cabinet of 19 February 2018.”

In particular, the request for access to legal opinions will once and for all clarify the division of roles between the Legal Service and DG HR in the validation of this appointment procedure.

 

 A disastrous communication strategy that cannot last anymore

As the Ombudsman rightly points out, and as was already the case in the Barroso affair, the political and media crisis has been further aggravated by the adoption of a disastrous communication strategy that has already fuelled and will continue to fuel Eurosceptic sentiment.

Indeed, the absence of a genuine political will to recognize the problems and profoundly transform the outrageous practices was accompanied by an utterly incomprehensible communication strategy, a toxic mixture of complacency over the adopted decisions and arrogant denial, sweeping aside criticisms coming from all sides, while they were and proved to be justified and perfectly convergent.

This heart-breaking communication will only have the effect of further exasperating the spirits and increasing the anger of all observers and also of your staff.

In the context of this political, institutional and media crisis where the “Move along, there is nothing to see here” was the only answer repeated in every tone by the Spokesperson’s service, the provocation reached its climax when, as the Ombudsman rightly reminds, the Commission has had no alternative but to publicly distance itself from certain untenable and obviously inconsiderate statements transmitted to the press.

It is therefore imperative, as the Ombudsman requests, to put in place mechanisms to prevent such abuses from happening again in the future.

 

R&D’s analysis: we must start by thoroughly reforming the procedures for appointing senior management

We will recall that, in this unfortunate case, there has never been a question for R&D to focus on or to question the merits of the new SG, but above all to ask the Commission to recognize the need and urgency of carrying out a profound reform of the internal procedures for the appointment of senior management that we have been clamouring for years and for which we have already provided many reasons and ways of working.

Thus, we can only note, not without displeasure, that both the COCOBU and the European Parliament, and now the European Ombudsman, do not, in their turn, confine themselves to analysing and criticizing the appointment of the new Secretary-General, but also look forward to political impetus and sincere support at the highest level for the process of reform of these procedures at which the citizens, the press and the other European institutions look with perplexity today and which your staff expects to evolve towards more transparency, justice and exemplarity.

 

The Commission must resolutely tackle the reform of its appointment procedures in order to be able to recover its credibility and set a good example for the other institutions

In this respect, within the EP, both the COCOBU and the JURE committee have already asked for your participation and your collaboration with a view to presenting concrete proposals for reform next autumn, as requested by the resolution voted on 18 April.

We ask you to approach these discussions in the context of social dialogue with the greatest openness and to show real willingness to change, by avoiding any attempts to unnecessarily defend absolutely indefensible practices.

On our part, faithful to our commitment to always accompany our critical analyses with proposals to overcome the problems observed, we are at your disposal to explain again, in a constructive and collaborative spirit, what we mean by an urgent, fair and necessary reform of these procedures. Therefore, we would take the liberty to submit again, below, concrete proposals to constitute the starting point of a real change.

 

We must end once and for all the “parachuting” and the “lift” practices…

In this sense, we recall the absolute necessity to put an end, once and for all, to the outrageous « parachuting » and « lift » practices which too often allow « prospective candidates », naturally cabinet members, to advance a number of grades in a few hours while the rest of the staff must wait for very long years.

In this respect, we share in all respects the analysis of Ms Grässle, President of COCOBU ( read ):

 ”(…) The big losers of these “parachuting” practises will therefore be the “normal” career civil servants with no political proximity (…) This is unfortunately true in the Commission, but also in the Parliament, whose talent to promote certain candidates to the detriment of rest of the civil service is no longer to prove. These practices lead to increasing frustration within the bureaucracy, which feels that careers depend more on arbitrariness than rationality.”

Again, for R&D, there has never been a question to cast doubt on the merits of the colleagues assigned to cabinets but, as the Ombudsman rightly points out: “to avoid the politicization of our civil service, reassure citizens of its ability to defend the general interest and independence of political pressure and also to defend the legitimate career expectations of our staff as well as the transparency and credibility of our appointment procedures”.

 

… we must put an end to the massive use of transfers in “the interest of the service”

As stated by the EP Legal Service with exemplary clarity during your hearing before the COCOBU, recalling the basic principles of our Staff Regulations and the lessons learned from the case law, as the EP resolution calls for and as we have always asked for, most recently in our notes to your attention, we must put a definitive end to the massive use of all these “true-false” transfers under Article 7, said “in the interest of the service”, which all too often are in fact only in the “interest of the prospective candidate”, the administration thus abstaining, contrary to its obligation, to publish the posts and to make a real comparative analysis of the candidatures.

 

… we must end the practice of the “blunt dismissal of management”, as was the case on 21 February with the assignment as special advisers of three Directors General: Unum castigabis, centum emendabis?

Just as we must put an end to the “transfers-dismissals” organized and announced to the interested parties only a few hours before the formal decision to abruptly dismiss colleagues, as was the case on 21 February for our three former colleagues Directors-General for the obvious purpose to install within the services a climate of generalized fear and forced loyalty.

Such practices are not worthy of the European civil service we have chosen to serve with pride!

 

The Commission could start by implementing the first very significant statements of Messrs Selmayr and Italianer against “parachuting”…

Beyond the denial of these abuses, there are statements of fact like those of Messrs Selmayr and Italianer (read) proclaiming, more than a year ago, that from now on the « parachuting » and ‘lift’ practices would no longer be admitted and finally recognizing that, as R&D had always denounced, “these practices are demotivating for the rest of the staff who are not promoted with the same speed as the cabinet members”.

 

… statements that to our utmost regret have evolved afterwards, that no one has taken seriously and have not been followed by any useful effect…

Needless to say here that these initial statements, absolutely appreciated, which we had rejoiced but to which obviously no one had believed, have then “evolved” thanks to the “authentic” interpretation of their authors and eventually have been deprived of any real useful effect.

Worse still, the real (un)useful effect of the latest evolution of these statements seems to have been that of recognizing the acceptability of appointments that until then had always been considered as indisputable cases of « parachuting ».

In this regard, we are still awaiting your reply to our notes aimed at understanding the ultimate political meaning of the decision to make very significant statements against the « parachuting » of cabinet members, to acknowledge the harmful effects of these practices on staff motivation, to send very precise instructions to the services, to promise to guarantee their implementation… and to take a step backwards in a more than spectacular way (read our notes 28/02/2018, 09/01/2018, 02/06/2017, 16/05/2017, 22/03/2017, 06/02/2017).

Pending a response or at least an explanation from Mr Selmayr on the hesitation waltz of his positions against « parachuting », all the more necessary in the context of his new responsibilities as Secretary-General in charge of coordinating all services of our institution, we also ask you to take a clear political position.

 

Landing strips released ?

It is all the more urgent to deny the allegations, as many colleagues tell us, that as we approach the end of the College’s term, and in order to smoothly accompany future « parachuting », posts have already been frozen for this purpose, at the level of the organization charts and ad hoc reorganisations already scheduled.

 

Internal ‘tailor-made’ competitions in preparation ?

Just as we ask you to deny that in order to allow the appointment of temporary staff assigned to the Commissioners’ cabinets, our administration – of which you are the political manager – is already concocting new ‘internal competitions’ with ‘adapted’ selection once again, not guaranteeing in any way the transparency of the procedure and a real equality of treatment among the candidates.

Should we remind you the shameful management of pseudo internal competitions at the end of the Barroso Commission’s mandate in 2014?  (read).

Should we remember that it would be absolutely unacceptable for internal competitions to be diverted from their original purpose once again?

Do we need to reiterate that the much-needed internal competitions are designed to meet the ever more legitimate expectations of redressing the damage done to post-2004 hiring of civil servants and to offer career prospects to contract agents rather than ensuring the ‘easy’ appointment of the temporary staff of the cabinets, at that to very high grades, that the civil servants who are the winners of a general competition can hope to achieve after a variety of promotions and many years of career?

 

Conclusion

In view of the above, we are hopeful that both in this dossier and in the answers expected by the Ombudsman by 6 June on the case of the former President of the European Commission Barroso concerning the reform of the code of good conduct for the former members of the College, our institution will approach the discussions with lucidity and courage by finally getting out of the ‘mental bunker’ where it has been walled up in order to deny incontestable problems.

The Commission must come out once and for all of this obsessive reflex which makes any criticism, even constructive, perceived as manoeuvres of malicious political partisan attacks even though they come from your staff and its representatives whose European commitment cannot, certainly, be called into question.

 

No, Commissioner, all is not well!

We ask that after so many mistakes, the Commission now shows a sincere desire to work with the other institutions, the press, the staff and their representatives, and to finally provide credible and detailed answers to the legitimate questions that arise to it putting an end to the usual refrain … “Everything is going very well, ladies and gentlemen MEPs, Madam Ombudsman, ladies and gentlemen journalists, ladies and gentlemen staff representatives… everything’s fine, I tell you, everything’s fine!”

A radical change of attitude is the only useful and dignified way for our institution today, while the European project is rolling and pitching, threatening at any moment to run aground on the reefs of populism that surround it a little more each day.

Cristiano Sebastiani

President

 

 

 

 

CC :

 

Mr J-C Juncker, President

Ladies and Gentlemen College Members

Mr M. Selmayr, Secretary general

Mr L. Romero Requena, DG SJ

Ms I. Souka, DG HR

Ms O’Reilly, Ombudsman

Ms Gräslle, President of COCOBU

Mr Svoboda, President of JURE

European institution staff

 

 

 

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