Von der Leyen’s controversial pick for SME envoy: ‘This should trigger a proper investigation’

Civil society organisations like Transparency International have called on the European Commission to rescind the appointment of MEP Markus Pieper following allegations of an unfair recruitment process.
Ursula von der Leyen faces yet another scandal two months before the European elections.

By Julia Kaiser

Julia is a reporter at The Parliament Magazine

08 Apr 2024

Lawmakers in the European Parliament are set to debate and vote on a proposal this week that calls on the Commission to launch a new and “truly transparent and open process for the selection of” the EU’s small and medium-sized enterprises envoy. The move comes amid a ballooning controversy over Commission President von der Leyen’s decision to appoint MEP Markus Pieper to the SME envoy post in late January.

Senior EU officials have openly questioned whether Pieper – who hails from von der Leyen’s German Christian Democratic Union party – was the most qualified candidate for the €17,000 a month job. The two other candidates in contention for the post were reportedly Czech MEP Martina Dlabajová and Swedish Enterprise Deputy Director General Anna Stellinger.

Four commissioners, including foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Thierry Breton, reportedly sent von der Leyen a letter late last month noting that the appointment had “triggered questions about the transparency and impartiality of the process,” while calling for a discussion on the matter in the College of Commissioners.

With the next meeting of commissioners set for Wednesday, just ahead of Parliament’s debate on the issue and ahead of a vote by MEPs on Thursday, Transparency International EU and other anticorruption organisations have called on the Commission to rescind Piper’s appointment and launch an investigation into “possible breaches” of the Commissioner’s Code of Conduct.

In a recent conversation with The Parliament, Shari Hinds, a policy officer at Transparency International EU who works on issues around political integrity, outlined how the Commission could provide more clarity when it comes to recruitment.

What are the major concerns over the appointment of MEP Markus Pieper?

It can raise questions regarding a possible conflict of interest. Markus Pieper is from the same party as the president of the Commission. And so this can raise questions if he has been appointed [to] this position thanks to his affiliation [with] the same political party. Also, it has been reported that he scored the lowest compared to other candidates [on] the test of the Commission. So, we believe this is against the principal guidelines for the appointment of senior officials of the Commission.

What are those guidelines?

The Commission has some general principles on the appointment of senior officials. And these principals say that the recruitment should be based on merit, gender balance, and geographical balance. And the other two candidates that were competing in the selection procedure were female candidates from two underrepresented member states. It seems that this principle was not followed by the Commission in this case. The fact that there are so many doubts around this appointment is already alarming and should trigger a proper investigation and rescind Markus Pieper from this appointment.

You call for a transparent recruitment procedure for senior public officials. What should that look like?

On this particular appointment, we saw that there was not much information online. We asked the Commission for some documents. But apart from the vacancy notice, there should be more information around the different steps of the selection procedure. I think a good example in that regard is the selection procedure by the European Ombudsman.

Because there will be a page on the website with different information about the stages of the selection procedure. You know all the different steps when the vacancy is published, you will also know the names of the people that will make the selection. So, it's more transparent.

In the case of Markus Pieper, the fact that is also problematic is that we don't have real information from the Commission at this point. What we have is basically what we read in the media, but we don't know exactly what happened there. So, they should be transparent about the other two candidates, and how the selection was made. I would say that there are many ways to be more transparent. And in this case in particular, given the public questions, they should give concrete information on this selection procedure.

With MEPs set to debate Pieper’s appointment and vote on whether to restart the process, is it likely he will have to resign? 

Yes, I think so. It depends if the Commission will rescind him from this position or if he steps down. We have seen with Martin Selmayr [in 2018]. The appointment was not concluded because he stepped down because there were so many questions. So, it happened in the past.



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