by Judah Grunstein
March 07, 2018
from WPR Website

also from GoogleWebCache






Italy's elections on Sunday refocused global attention on the challenges facing the European Union, as populist, euroskeptic parties combined to win a majority of votes.


But a less-noticed scandal over a bureaucratic appointment in Brussels might offer a better explanation of just what is driving the voter backlash against the union.

So far the scandal has barely registered a blip on the radar for anyone besides close EU-watchers, but it is in many ways emblematic of everything Brussels' critics say is wrong with the bloc.


It revolves around Martin Selmayr, the former chief of staff to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who was promoted in late February to serve as secretary-general of the commission.


That would hardly register as news out of Brussels even on a slow day.


But a steady drip of revelations and leaks since then has made it increasingly clear that the EU subverted its own strict rules regarding hiring and promotions in order to parachute Selmayr into the post.

To begin with, in order to ensure that Selmayr was technically eligible for the job, he was first appointed vice-secretary-general - the required minimum rank in the EU's civil service hierarchy for any secretary-general candidate - in a cloak-and-dagger affair clearly meant to fulfill the letter but not the spirit of EU regulations.


Once that box was ticked, Selmayr was almost instantly appointed to the secretary-general position, which became available only after the surprise resignation of the previous office-holder and was not publicly announced or opened to other candidates.

Together it amounts to a clear subornation of the hiring process.


Against the backdrop of a recent proposal backed by Selmayr to significantly increase the already generous severance package for sitting EU commissioners - who could have raised red flags on his promotion - and fears that as secretary-general he might try to encroach on the independence of the commission's legal service, it takes on a more nefarious appearance.


The commission's spokespeople have denied any wrongdoing, but they have already been caught in a series of misleading and, at times, false statements about the affair.

The arcana of the EU's bureaucratic appointment process are obviously not the stuff of headline news, and it's unlikely Selmayr-gate, as the scandal is already known in the European press, would have even come to light were it not for a number of particular factors.


As head of the commission's 33,000-member civil service, the secretary-general wields enormous power within the union's bureaucracy, so anything out of the ordinary in the selection process would inevitably garner at least a second glance.


Moreover, according to most press accounts, Selmayr is as feared and reviled for his Machiavellian ruthlessness as he is admired for his bureaucratic effectiveness.


So while many EU bureaucrats were too cowed to speak out, at least some felt enough animosity toward him to tip off journalists.


Finally, the revelations are largely the result of dogged reporting by French correspondent Jean Quatremer, himself a fixture of the EU press corps known for his deep support for the European project but also his fearless coverage of its dysfunctions.

The entire episode is a portrait in miniature of everything that most enrages the EU's critics about how Brussels operates.


In the Europhobes' telling, EU technocrats hammer out directives in offices shielded from scrutiny or accountability by an opaque and anti-democratic policy process.


The directives - or "diktats" in the Europhobes' lexicon - are then imposed on member states and their electorates with little regard to the resulting costs and disruption.

Selmayr is as feared and reviled

for his Machiavellian ruthlessness

as he is admired

for his bureaucratic effectiveness.

It is a charge that is exaggerated, even as the advantages the EU proffers are either ignored or minimized.


But there is a grain of truth to it, and Selmayr-gate, should it gain traction, has the potential to be a lasting stain on the EU's image precisely because it anecdotally confirms people's worst suspicions.

It also comes at a bad time.


Since the defeat of Dutch populist Geert Wilders in the Netherlands' general elections last March and the election of French President Emmanuel Macron last May, the conventional wisdom has been that Europe had held back the populist wave that seemed poised to sweep over it in 2016.


Macron in particular was a vocal supporter of the EU during the election campaign, vowing to push for reforms - and a more protective trade policy, particularly with regard to China - to strengthen the EU's ability to shield Europeans from the disruptions of global competition and liberalized trade.

But his plans for a "Europe that protects" were derailed by Germany's indecisive elections last September, which politically paralyzed Chancellor Angela Merkel and deprived Macron of the strong partner he needed in Berlin for any hope of achieving even watered-down reforms.


Merkel finally sealed a coalition deal last month, with her coalition partners, the Social Democrats, formally announcing their ratification of the agreement Sunday.


The Social Democrats, or SPD, have expressed strong support for Macron's reform agenda, and the fact that they won the Foreign Ministry in the coalition talks suggests Merkel might be willing to go further than many expected in backing his reforms.

But Merkel emerges considerably weakened by the election results and her struggle to cobble together a governing majority. Meanwhile, Macron's reform package is ambitious in the sense that it would result in meaningful new EU institutions and capacity.


But even if he were to succeed in pushing all of it through, it's uncertain it would significantly change Europeans' day-to-day experience of the EU enough to diminish the appeal of its detractors.

In any case, whatever optimism the German coalition announcement generated Sunday was instantly dampened by the election results in Italy.


For now, the immediate practical outcome in Rome is extended political uncertainty and paralysis, once again sidelining a major EU member state without which reforms cannot be advanced.


That means the EU's period of limbo - which really dates back to Macron's election, since no real progress on reforms was possible until Germany had voted - is set to continue indefinitely...

On a more visceral level, the recent Italian elections clearly demonstrate that the EU is not out of the woods yet.


The narrative of Europe having held back the populist tide was always reductive. At best, as I argued almost a year ago, Europhiles won a reprieve that they needed to put to good use if they hoped to win back disillusioned voters.


But if Selmayr-gate is any indication, Brussels has yet to draw the necessary conclusions from its year of living dangerously...