March 23, 2018 / 4:46 PM / a month ago

Macron, Merkel back Juncker's under-fire aide

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Jean-Claude Juncker won strong backing from the leaders of France and Germany on Friday as the EU chief executive faces criticism from lawmakers for promoting his top aide to run the bloc’s civil service.

FILE PHOTO: General Secretary of the European Commission Martin Selmayr (R), sits European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker ahead of a debate on the guidelines on the framework of future EU-UK relations at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

In a mark of how weeks of grumbling in Brussels have brought the issue of Martin Selmayr’s surprise appointment last month to the attention of European Union’s national governments, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron faced questions about it at a joint summit news conference.

European Commission President Juncker, the former Luxembourg premier, dismissed reports he threatened to resign if parliament tried to reverse the appointment of his German chief-of-staff as the Commission’s secretary-general. A parliamentary committee is due on Tuesday to review whether correct procedure was followed.

“As Mr. Selmayr will not step down because I am the only one capable to ask him to step down, the other question is irrelevant,” Juncker told a reporter who asked if he might quit.

Some criticism has been fueled by the fact that Selmayr, 47, has irritated other senior officials and politicians in his role as Juncker’s lieutenant, though he also has admirers.

Some of the complaints have also focused on the fact his role, replacing a Dutchman, may increase influence for Berlin and for Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats in Brussels — though Selmayr is not regarded as close to the chancellor.

“Anyone who believes that because he is German he always acts in the interests of Germany, we don’t have this impression. He takes very European decisions,” Merkel said on Friday, adding that she was pleased that his appointment was being reviewed.

However, she praised his “efficiency” and said: “I very much appreciate the work of Martin Selmayr.”

Macron, too, offered his personal backing and cautioned against the European Union “beating itself up” over questions of the transparency of an appointment when other countries had much bigger problems. Nonetheless, he said the hearings in parliament must run their course:

“I have always appreciated the professionalism of this person. His abilities should not be questioned,” Macron said. “He is very competent and knows Europe well.”

Many in the European Parliament agree with that assessment but even Juncker and Selmayr’s own center-right allies complained during a debate earlier this month that the fast-track appointment risked damaging the EU’s image at a time when euroskeptics have been buoyed by Britain’s vote to leave.

Reporting by Noah Barkin and Alastair Macdonald; editing by John Stonestreet

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