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European Parliament plots backroom deal to appoint top bureaucrat

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In an interwoven series of backroom deals, three of the European Parliament’s political groups are pushing through a power-sharing arrangement that has left opponents accusing the Parliament’s leadership of cronyism and seeking to postpone any final decisions.

The controversy centers on the saga of who will replace Secretary-General Klaus Welle, the Parliament’s influential top bureaucrat who steps down at the end of the year — and frustration that it might be Alessandro Chiocchetti, a controversial candidate who would be rapidly ascending the Parliament ladder if promoted. 

Welle spent 13 years transforming his post into a power center that influenced everything from Parliament’s agenda to who occupied its top jobs. And his looming departure has set off jockeying among the Parliament’s political groups — not only over Welle’s replacement but over other senior posts that will be doled out in the process.

It has also left the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), Parliament’s largest group, trying to figure out how it can hold on to Welle’s mighty post even as its political influence wanes in parts of Europe — and, for the moment, it’s backing Chiocchetti.

Now, a three-way deal of sorts is coming into focus, according to three people in the room when the arrangement started unfolding and three others briefed on the discussions.

The deal — struck between the EPP, the liberal Renew Europe and The Left — has several components. 

Most notably, it will pave the way for Chiocchetti to become secretary-general, over the objections of political groups and civil servants in the Parliament’s administration, aggrieved at what they see as bald patronage and concerns about Chiocchetti’s level of experience for the job. To get their man installed, the EPP agreed to create a new policy department within the European Parliament that The Left would lead. Meanwhile, it also weakened the criteria for the secretary-general post to ensure Chiocchetti qualified.

Chiocchetti’s ascent has not been finalized, however, and numerous left-leaning politicians are trying to throw up 11th-hour roadblocks.

“It would be regrettable if impressions of a done deal would discourage qualified candidates,” said Heidi Hautala, the Greens’ vice president, who was in the room when the deal was discussed Monday and tried to stall both the creation of the new policy department as well as the move to water down the secretary-general requirements.

A deal materializes

The arrangement moved forward Monday night during a meeting of the Parliament’s all-powerful Bureau, which makes decisions on all administrative, staff and organizational matters.

At the meeting, attendees — which included Bureau members such as Parliament President Roberta Metsola and the political groups’ vice presidents — approved a new “directorate general.” 

The new office will get the formal title Directorate General for Parliamentary Democracy Partnerships, but details are sparse on what, exactly, it will do, or how much it will cost. 

One official said the unit was simply “making the pie bigger” so The Left could get its slice — and a leadership role that comes with a monthly salary of around €20,000. Others pointed out that it could duplicate the work of the Directorate General for External Policies.

The new department will give the Parliament a robust 13 directorates general, or DGs, far more than, say, the German Bundestag, which has five — stoking accusations that political groups are inflating the administration to dole out jobs. Indeed, the DG names give the sense of redundancies: There’s a DG for Logistics and Interpretation for Conferences, a separate DG for Translation and yet another DG for Infrastructure and Logistics. Each of those DGs has four directorates with politically appointed, and well-paid, directors who report to the directors general.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the political groups agreed to formally launch the contest for secretary-general. Notably, they voted to reduce the threshold for applicants, opening the job up to people at the EU’s managerial grade AD 15 or higher. The move is a break with recent practice, which only saw those at the highest level, AD 16, eligible for the post.

Several leaders present at the meeting opposed the move, both because it seemed tailored to allow Chiocchetti to apply for the top post, and also because it smelled of rule-bending. Chiocchetti, currently Metsola’s head of Cabinet, was only promoted to the AD 15 level in May. 

Leaders from the center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) and the Greens voted against changing the application criteria. But a coalition of EPP, Renew and The Left overruled them. 

“The names that will be put forward for this post have to be qualified, have to have the right qualifications and training, and the right personality traits required,” said S&D chief Iratxe García Pérez, also stressing the need for a gender, geographical and political balance.

“The Greens insist that all rules are followed as the new secretary-general is appointed,” said Green MEP Daniel Freund. “We will also insist that a person who is actually qualified for this post will be appointed.”

“In my view,” he added, “the decision for Chiocchetti is not a final one.”

Now, there’s a push from the Greens and S&D to delay the final decision. Welle, after all, is not leaving his post until the year’s end.

“There is time until December,” Pérez said. “So we do not feel that it is necessary for us to urgently enter it.”

The Chiocchetti conversation has echoes of another secretary-general, Martin Selmayr, who held the role at the European Commission from 2018 to 2019. Selmayr faced similar accusations of rule-bending when he got the job.

“This two-step procedure they have in mind — first promotion of the head of Cabinet to a higher grade and then prompt appointment as secretary-general — contributes to the fact that it looks like it did back then with Selmayr,” said another official.

Chiocchetti did not respond to a request for comment.

Political baggage 

Some MEPs and administration officials are also skeptical about Chiocchetti’s past, not just his ability to move from once leading an office of around 45 people as director for legislative coordination in the Directorate General for Internal Policies, to leading the Parliament’s massive 8,000-plus administration. 

An ally of Welle and of former Parliament President Antonio Tajani, Chiocchetti was previously an assistant to Marcello Dell’Utri, the Italian politician and Silvio Berlusconi lieutenant convicted and sentenced to prison for seven years for his ties to the Sicilian mafia. Chiocchetti has not been accused of corruption or mafia ties, but his link to Berlusconi’s allies has been a source of controversy within the European Parliament.

Others simply decry the politicization of the EU’s civil service. Renew chief Stéphane Séjourné stressed that his group was not part of the “co-management” arrangements made within the Bureau and lamented the “politicization of the administration.”

“I think civil servants have to serve the institutions regardless of the political parties in place,” he said. “But of course, that’s not how things work here.”

So while Chiocchetti’s name has already been put forward, the backlash could mean the Greens, Renew and The Left — which need to back the deal — may ultimately balk. 

“It’s not a done deal at all,” one official involved in the talks said. “While it’s likely the post will go to the EPP, the group will have to find a candidate who is less toxic.” 

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