The ‘monster of Brussels‘ and ‘Rasputin.‘ The ‘Blackadder of Brussels‘ and the ‘EU’s top (un)civil servant‘. These are the qualifications used to describe Martin Selmayr in various articles on his appointment as Secretary-General to the Secretariat-General of the European Commission. Suffice to say, Selmayr is not a very popular man:
“Selmayr is admired in Brussels as brilliant and ferociously hard-working. But he is also feared as abrasive, arrogant and pugnacious, appearing to revel in a ‘bad boy’ image.“
One instance of this was a threat, made last year, to punch Der Spiegel’s Europe editor Peter Müller, who had revealed that Selmayr had refused to take a call from Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras. In front of a reception of German bankers, Selmayr is reported to have said to Müller:
“Arseholes do arsehole journalism. Had I met you then [sooner after publication] I would have smacked you in the gob.“
The Sunday Times writes that as Jean-Claude Juncker’s right-hand man, Selmayr has so much influence behind the scenes, that some see him as the real ruler of Brussels. Getting his new appointment now gives
“the 47-year-old German the prospect of staying at the apex of the EU long after Juncker’s term ends next year.“
It also means that Selmayr, a man with a reputation for ‘bulldozing opponents‘, is now in charge of Brexit-negotiations. A process he believes must be made as painful as possible, in order to discourage other EU ‘deserters’. The Sunday Times quotes a former British ambassador to Brussels who typifies him as:
“a theologian who regards the British as heretics.“
Selmayr entered the European Commission in 2004 as a spokesman for Viviane Reding,European Commissioner for Education and Culture from 1999 to 2004. He is credited with being the power behind Juncker’s appointment as President of the European Commission in 2014, going against the wishes of German Chancellor Merkel and British Prime Minister Cameron. In his time as Juncker’s chief of staff, Selmayr quickly became a dominating force: blocking legislation, interfering with negotiations and even quarreling with officials from national governments.
From The Sunday Times:
“His omnipotence is legendary, provoking fury and envy — and jokes. Wolfgang Schäuble, the veteran German politician, recently quipped: ‘Do you know the difference between Selmayr and God? God knows he’s not Selmayr.’“
According to Politico, the appointment is seen as an affirmation of the status quo. It gives Selmayr a bigger institutional title, meaning he is guaranteed influence even after a new Commission takes office after the parliamentary elections next year. One senior Commission official is quoted as saying:
“[Selmayr] takes all the power – completely. But he now has more legitimacy and rules-based authority for using this power. He will secure being the most powerful man in the town for the time being, over the elections, over the change of the Commission. Even the president-elect cannot fire him. It needs to be the new Commission at some point if they want to make changes in the senior management.“
Politico predicts that there will be more clashes with the European Council, as a number of Council officials view Selmayr as ‘poisonous’. They claim Selmayr “created a fight in his own mind between the institutions over who would lead the Brexit negotiations, leading to the rushed appointment of Michel Barnier as chief negotiator.”
The appointment itself, in Politico’s telling, is a taste of things to come. In their version, Selmayr sprung a vote on the European Commissioners in order to get himself installed. So sudden was this election, that Juncker himself seemed to be unsure what had happened.
French newspaper Liberation describes it as “two promotions in one minute, a world record.” According to Liberation, it’s not legally allowed to directly promote from cabinet chief of staff to Secretary-General to the Secretariat-General of the European Commission. So what did they do? They first promoted Selmayr to deputy Secretary-General, after which the then sitting Dutch Secretary-General Alexander Italianer announced his retirement. After that, Selmayr simply stepped out of his deputy chair to replace him as the real deal.
In a classic, unpolished EU way, Juncker himself said “ I didn’t know I would be coming back quite so quickly,” when he was in the press room on 22 February. He didn’t seem to know where the outgoing Secretary-General was, asking “is he not here?” before continuing.
In the same classic EU way, the Commission tried to spin its way out of embarrassment, by spinning right into cringe-corner. According to Politico
“The Commission tried to use slicker spin later in the day, sending out a tweet comparing the switch from Italianer to Selmayr to the handover between captains of Star Trek’s starship Enterprise. In doing so, however, the Commission bolstered a widespread belief in Brussels — that Selmayr is its real captain, not Juncker.“
Someone better call Moby-Dick. Captain Ahab is coming. And as passengers on his ship, we’re in for a rocky ride.