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European Ombudsman sharply criticizes EU Commission

Brussels - The European Ombudsman has issued damning criticism over the controversial appointment earlier this year of the European Commission's top civil servant, identifying four instances of "maladministration."

Martin Selmayr, a German lawyer and key aide to commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, was nominated secretary general of the European Union's executive in February, in a secretive procedure later described by EU lawmakers as a "coup-like action."

Accusation of manipulation

Following the appointment, it emerged that Selmayr had been lined up for the job, which became vacant in a surprise announcement by Juncker after he had kept the planned retirement of the outgoing secretary general secret.

The ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, launched an inquiry into the procedure in May, after receiving two complaints and following strong criticism by the European Parliament.

In her report, published on Tuesday, O'Reilly accused the commission of manipulating the rules to convey the impression that Selmayr's appointment was "fair and correct."

"In fact, this was not the case and the entire affair ... was arranged to ensure the appointment of Mr Selmayr," the report says.

O'Reilly accused the commission of jeopardizing the public trust by "not following the relevant rules correctly, either in letter or in spirit."

"The commission created an artificial sense of urgency to fill the post of secretary general in order to justify not publishing a vacancy notice," she added.

When concerns were raised, the commission was "defensive, evasive and at times combative," the ombudsman said.

"Different factual assessment"

In response, EU Human Resources Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said Tuesday the commission does "not share all aspects" of the report and has a "different factual assessment" of some of the issues raised.

However, he welcomed the fact that the ombudsman had contested neither the legality of the appointment, nor the choice of Selmayr, whom O'Reilly described as a "competent EU official" who was "highly committed" to the EU.

The report says it is "somewhat ironic" that Juncker was the first commission president to be elected - with Selmayr's assistance - via a party list procedure designed to boost transparency and democratic accountability.

The so-called Spitzenkandidaten process was designed, in part, "to counter false claims that the EU is run by unelected officials in Brussels," the report notes.

The findings - based on thousands of pages of internal commission documents - come as the EU is gearing up for its next elections, in May 2019.

Specific appointment procedure recommended

Based on its inquiry, the ombudsman recommended that the commission develop a specific appointment procedure for its secretary general, under which the vacancy is published and a decision is taken "in a timely manner."

However, Oettinger said that "at first glance we do not see any reason" why the procedure should differ from that of appointing any other secretary general.

The commission now has until December 4 to issue a formal response. In addition, Oettinger said he would hold talks on September 25 with the European Parliament and other EU institutions on improving the way the existing rules are implemented.