Ursula von der Leyen and her cabinet chief have created a huge backlog of senior job vacancies in the European Commission by insisting on personal control over appointments, according to current and former EU officials.
The bottleneck of over 70 vacancies for director, director general or deputy director general jobs, and over 80 more at mid-level positions like head of unit or head of department, coincides with the Commission president and her cabinet chief Björn Seibert taking over even more responsibility for personnel decisions.
The number of senior vacancies is “unusually high,” said Günther Oettinger, the former budget and human resources commissioner, who comes from the same German Christian Democratic party (CDU) as von der Leyen.
Oettinger, who served as a commissioner in various portfolios from 2010 to 2019, acknowledged that what he termed a “backlog on personnel decisions” could be blamed partly on “the extraordinary challenges of the pandemic.”
Von der Leyen took over as president of the Commission in December 2019, and within a few months the coronavirus epidemic began to wreak havoc with the new institution’s agenda and work flow.
Critics inside the Berlaymont, however, blame the high number of unfilled prestigious and high-paying posts on the leadership style of von der Leyen and Seibert, saying they mistrust the existing EU bureaucracy and are reluctant to delegate hiring decisions to other top-level officials.
Oettinger said that von der Leyen insists on “having a say in the appointment of directors and upwards. The decisions lie with her or her closest confidant, her chief of staff, but they cannot decide everything themselves.”
Von der Leyen, who previously served as defense minister in Germany and other ministerial roles under Chancellor Angela Merkel, has faced criticism from the start for importing her cabinet chief Seibert from Berlin instead of relying on insiders with detailed knowledge of EU business.
Another common criticism inside the Commission is that she and her team consult more with Merkel’s office and the Elysée palace of French President Emmanuel Macron, while being suspicious of the loyalty of Commission civil servants.
“Seibert is the bottleneck,” said one senior Commission official said.
Commission chief spokesperson Eric Mamer defended the record of appointments made: “The current College [of EU Commissioners] has taken a large number of decisions on senior appointments since it took office: 62 decisions were taken, either appointing new senior managers (26 decisions) or moving them to new functions (36),” Mamer said.
Mamer stressed that “the procedures for appointment at the level of senior management are followed with full involvement of the responsible Commissioner(s)” and that “the responsibilities of the President’s cabinet are not different from previous Commissions.” He added: “All senior management appointments are made upon the proposal of the Commissioner for personnel in agreement with the President, before College decides. This way of handling senior appointments has not caused delays.”
Another spokesperson said that in some cases, open positions are “also published externally … to give the appointing authority a wider choice of candidates, and this can take additional time.”
The Commission did not reply to a request for confirmation of the precise number of senior and mid-level management vacancies. However, the regularly updated staff organization charts on the Commission’s website show 75 senior vacancies — 21 percent of the total 356 senior positions counted — and 83 mid-level management vacancies.
That takes into account last week’s announcement by the Commission that two director positions in the Competition and Civil Protection departments had been filled, and that Deputy Director General for Health Sandra Gallina had been promoted to director general.
As a result of the high number of pending appointments, many open positions have been filled with “acting” officials. That means, for example, that a head of unit carries out their current role plus the functions of a director, or that a director general also takes up the function of a not-yet-appointed deputy director general.
Three Commission officials raised concerns about the large-scale application of this scheme across the institution. Having about 150 “acting” managers not only risks burdening people with an excessive workload, it also put some people in the awkward position of having to oversee their own work.
The Commission spokesperson responded that the practice was part of the institution’s rules of procedure to “ensure administrative continuity, either by designating an official to deputize, or by applying the default rules, in which case the most senior official present deputizes.”
“The responsible Director-General takes each specific decision in agreement with the portfolio Commissioner and is best placed to take account of all particular circumstances,” the spokesperson said.
However, the spokesperson did not reply to a question on whether the Commission was concerned about the additional workload or whether it had assessed that risk.
“It is clear that this not a very healthy human resources practice,” said Cristiano Sebastiani, president of Renouveau & Démocratie, a trade union for the EU institutions.
The Commission is also facing criticism for new recruitment rules, approved by the College of EU Commissioners on September 30, which are officially supposed to “streamline” the appointment of senior officials.
Critics say these measures put even more decision-making power in the hands of Seibert and a few others. One senior Commission official described them as a “power grab.”
Under the new rules, four top officials — Seibert, Commission Secretary-General Ilze Juhansone, Director General for Human Resources Gertrud Ingestad and David Müller, chief of staff to Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn — will “deliver opinions” on the selection of candidates for senior positions.
The pre-selection of candidates “remains subject to review until the opinion is rendered,” giving the group of four an effective veto on appointments, while the Commission department concerned by the decision is not included in this group.
The Commission spokesperson insisted that “the concerned Director-General remains fully involved throughout the selection process.”
However, Renouveau & Démocratie warned — while lauding improved transparency under the new rules — that there was a “danger of total ‘centralization,’ which would deprive the other director-generals and other members of the College [of EU Commissioners] of real influence regarding these appointments.”
“[This bears] the risk of making appointments that are out of touch with reality and that do not meet the needs of the services for which these colleagues will be responsible,” the union said in a statement, responding to questions from POLITICO.
“It is also absolutely necessary to avoid sending the message that only support ‘at the central level’ could make it possible to access these positions and guarantee subsequent career development,” the union added.
Part of von der Leyen’s human resources policy is driven by efforts to implement “the political priority of gender balance at all management levels,” a spokesperson said. This includes a recent decision to designate for each director at the Commission a head of unit who will automatically deputize the director in case of absence.
“The measures are expected to expose more colleagues, notably our female talents, to the tasks and nature of management positions, allowing them to hone their managerial skills and increasing the likelihood of finding the right profiles for the management level selection procedures,” the spokesperson said, adding that “the decision asks for deputies to directors to be 55 percent female.”
Further complicating matters on the personnel front, European Commission officials and EU diplomats are braced for a reshuffle inside von der Leyen’s cabinet, with speculation focused on the potential departure of her diplomatic adviser Peteris Ustubs and economic adviser Mary-Veronica Tovsak-Pleterski.
Ustubs and Tovsak-Pleterski did not respond to requests for comment.
Two Commission officials and one senior EU diplomat said that the expected departures were linked to von der Leyen ‘s leadership style, which tended to sideline — and therefore demotivate — some cabinet members while concentrating power on Seibert and the French deputy head of cabinet, Stéphanie Riso, who both act as conduits to Berlin and Paris.
However, as another Commission official pointed out, cabinet reshuffles are not uncommon, especially in the early days of a new Commission.
During the first year-and-a-half of Jean-Claude Juncker’s presidency, Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis and Commissioner Corina Creţu changed their heads of cabinet, though not without controversy: Mikel Landabaso left Creţu’s cabinet in 2015 amid complaints about the Romanian commissioner’s working habits, and Taneli Lahti quit the Latvian’s cabinet in 2016 over disagreement on EU budget monitoring rules. Former Commissioner Tibor Navracsics’s head of cabinet also left early for unspecified reasons.
Commission chief spokesperson Mamer said he could not comment on “individual situations” of members in von der Leyen’s cabinet.
“The composition of cabinets, including the President’s, naturally evolve over time. This is perfectly natural in view of the nature and intensity of the work,” he said, adding: “Changes become public as they become effective.”
David Herszenhorn, Thibaut Larger, Barbara Moens and Laura Kayali contributed reporting.