Metsola under pressure from MEPs over push to have cabinet chief take top EP job

Infighting over carve-up of European Parliament’s institutional jobs, with MEPs complaining of unmeritocratic appointments

Roberta Metsola (centre) with EP secretary-general Klaus Welle (left)
Roberta Metsola (centre) with EP secretary-general Klaus Welle (left)

The European Parliament’s president Roberta Metsola is fending off pressure from MEPs to back down from a backroom deal to install her head of cabinet as the European Parliament’s next secretary-general.

In what is being billed as a power-sharing agreement orchestrated by the EPP and other groups, the bid to replace outgoing secretary-general Klaus Welle with the less qualified Alessandro Chiocchetti, has left political groups and civil servants aggrieved at the done deal.

The French journalist Jean Quatremer, of Liberation, produced an uncompromising reveal on Twitter of the saga: Welle, he said, had wielded absolute power as the EP’s top bureaucrat for 13 years by staffing his offices with mainly German co-nationals, and mainly EPP-aligned civil servants; now Metsola would continue that tradition with Chiocchetti, all with connivance from Renew and the Left, as well as the Greens, who are jockeying to install their favoured civil servants in the parliament’s directorate-generals, where bosses earn some €20,000 a month.

The move happened in the past weeks at the meeting of the EP’s Bureau – the all-powerful decision-making body that includes all political groups’ vice-presidents – when a new “directorate-general for Parliamentary Democracy Partnerships” was approved by Metsola and other political groups.

But what the new DG will serve for, exactly, is as yet unclear. The suspicion is that it will carve out a new leadership role for civil servants that will suit other small political groups.

The EP already has 12 directorates-general, and this new, thirteenth DG could end up overlapping the DG for External Policies. As the Brussels newspaper Politico pointed out, such bald political patronage is par for the course in these DGs, whose 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.”

A spokesperson for Metsola said the DG, created on 6 July, will “streamline the EPs operations. It will be budgetary-neutral. It has been subject of discussions for the last year and started by David Sassoli.”

Additionally, the same Bureau agreed to open up the secretary-general job to people with a lower EU managerial grade, a move critics believe is tailored to facilitate Chiocchetti’s application. The vacancy notice does not even include any formal requirements for the job, and the application deadline of 1 August is a day when the EU institutions traditionally shut down for the summer holidays. Since the role is advertised at AD15 level, one grade below that of the current and past secretaries-general, it would therefore suit Chiocchetti’s recent promotion to that level.

But Metsola’s office says these allegations are outrageous. “The rules have been in place for more than a decade. Changing them now, as some want to do, to exclude people, would be wrong. It would expose the Parliament to political not to say legal ramifications.”

“Chiocchetti would have been eligible to apply for the post if he so chooses even if he was not promoted. The insinuation that he has been given something untoward or fast-tracked is outrageous.”

Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld
Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld

Metsola’s office has denied the suggestions of political horse-trading on the job. “The sec-gen job will be decided openly and on merit after a hearing by the Bureau composed of 14 people from different political groups after a hearing between all applicants. Chiocchetti, has 27 years of legislative experience as a civil servant of the EP – not with political groups. His CV is online.”

Heidi Hautala, a member of the Bureau and vice-president of Green MEPs, called on Metsola to reconsider the decision in a letter complaining that the ‘unmeritocratic’ appointment of her top aide would lose the EP its dignity. “Dear President, I commend your wish to move towards more pluralism in our House, also involving the smaller political groups in the highest positions in the administration. The way things have now unfolded does not cherish what I believe was and should continue to be your vision and your leadership. It is not too late to take a step back and see how we can best use the momentum to improve ethical standards in our institution.”

Even Renew MEP Sophie In’t Veld, expressed disappointment at her own group’s support for an unsuitable candidate whom the Parliament would be stuck with for years. “As long as it is politicised, its composition should at least be politically balanced, rather than the usual EPP-S&D carve-up. But in all cases, it should be merit-based and professional... the creation of a thirteenth DG is preposterous.”

In’t Veld pointed out that the Chiocchetti saga has echoes of another secretary-general, Martin Selmayr – the former head of cabinet of Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who was similarly parachuted into the post of EC secretary-general in 2018. Juncker had known over two years in advance of the departure of the outgoing secretary-general, so he arranged to have Selmayr interviewed for the vacant post of deputy secretary-general and then immediately elevated to the top job.

There was greater admonition from Transparency International EU, where director Michiel van Hulten said that it “beggars belief” that the EP – once so outspoken during the Selmayrgate’s abuse of procedure – now repeats the same error, dubbing it a case of “institutional corruption”.

As recently as May, the European Parliament voted in a resolution to call on its secretary-general “to ensure transparency and fairness during senior management appointment procedures”. The Parliament’s staff unions are now rightly up in arms.

“We had hoped that under its new President Roberta Metsola, a former co-Chair of the European Parliament’s anti-corruption intergroup who has spoken out forcefully against government corruption in her native Malta, things in the Parliament would be different. By apparently seeking to parachute her own Head of Cabinet into the role of Secretary-General, and bending the internal rules in the process, the President does herself and her institution no favours,” van Huilten said.

“When it comes to the European Parliament’s attitude to transparency and integrity, it seems it’s once again ‘one rule for them, one rule for us’... such blatant displays of institutional corruption will only serve to further undermine trust in Europe’s legislative assembly.”

Chiocchetti’s name has also garnered criticism from other MEPs who think the former director within the DG for Internal Policies, might be unsuitable to coordinate the massive Parliament, with over 8,000 employees. Chiocchetti was once a junior assistant to Marcello Dell’Utri, the Berlusconi politician convicted and sentenced to prison for seven years for his ties to the Sicilian mafia.