Who the hell is Martin Selmayr and how did he seize power in the EU Commission?

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Martin Selmayr
Photo Ernests Dinka, CC2.0

A relatively unknown German Eurocrat named Martin Selmayr has been accused of seizing control of the EU Commission in a coup d’état. He did this through a series of political manoeuvres and backroom deals that resulted in his appointment as General Secretary of the EU Commission. It all happened so suddenly and seamlessly the moves have gone largely unnoticed by the public and much of the media.

Who the hell is Martin Selmayr and what has he done?

Following the growing scandal surrounding Martin Selmayr’s promotion to Secretary General of the EU Commission is difficult for several reasons:

  1. Hardly anyone outside Brussels knows who this guy is.
  2. Hardly anyone outside Brussels knows what the General Secretary of the EU Commission does.
  3. Hardly anyone outside Brussels is covering the story.

For two weeks now, pretty much the only English-language coverage of the scandal is from the EU branch of Politico. The UK media who cover the EU remain mostly focused on Brexit. The most active coverage of the story so far is coming from the French newspaper Liberation, but more on that later.

Before we delve deeper into the scandal, here are the answers to who this guy is, and why the position he has seized is so important.

Who is Martin Selmayr?

Martin Selmayr is a German lawyer who joined the EU Commission in 2004 and has been working his way up through the system (with utter ruthlessness according to many) ever since.

In 2014 he successfully managed the campaign of Jean-Claude Junker for President of the EU Commission. When Junker won (against the odds, it should be noted) he stayed on as his chief of staff.

What is the Secretary General of the EU Commission?

The Secretary General of the EU Commission is the head civil servant in the EU. He or she is responsible for managing all of the Directors-General, who are in turn the head civil servants in all of the different departments of the EU (trade, agriculture, environment, etc.).

Although its activities attract little interest outside of EU circles, it is a position of immense power. Crucially, Secretaries General are required to be chosen from among a pool of high-ranking EU civil servants, not from among the politicians that make up the commissioners and their staff.

Okay, so what the hell happened?

At a meeting of the EU Commissioners on February 21st a late addition was added to the agenda that took most commissioners by surprise.

It was announced that prior to the meeting Martin Selmayr had been appointed as Deputy Secretary General of the Commission. This meant that he was suddenly a senior civil servant, and as such eligiable for the top job (see requirement metioned above).

Then, moments later in the same meeting, it was announced that current Secretary General, Alexander Italianer, was resigning and Martin Selmayr was appointed in his place effective March 1st.

This took everyone at the meeting by surprise, and as a result, no one had time to collect their thoughts and oppose the move. According to one commissioner, “The effect of total

President of the EU Comission, Jean-Claude Junker
President of the EU Comission, Jean-Claude Junker. Picture: EPP, CC2.0

amazement prevented us from understanding what was happening.”

While no one was expecting the move, the reasons why Selmayr would want to suddenly move into the civil service were quickly apparent.

Jean-Claude Junker has a year and a half left in office. If Selmayr had remained his chief of staff he would have probably lost power when Junker was replaced. Now, having made the switch to the top of the civil service, he will occupy one of the most important offices in Brussels long after his boss has departed.

Why does it matter?

As the head of the EU civil service, the Secretary General of the EU Commission is meant to uphold due process. Martin Selmayr’s sudden appearance at the top of the EU pyramid via a series of shadowy manoeuvres is the exact opposite of due process.

Unsurprisingly, the lack of transparency has been accompanied by allegations of wrongdoing. At a press conference on Monday, Commission chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas fielded awkward questions from journalists. Specifically, Libération are alleging that support from Commissioners for Selmayer’s appointment was bought with a plan to increase the severance packages they receive at the end of their term (see below).

Whether or not due process was followed with Selmayr’s promotion (which seems doubtful as the job was not advertised externally), as a leader of the civil service with deep ties to the Commission it does represent a enormous concentration of power in the new Secretary General’s hands.

Voila, la Prachutage!

The French have a word for senior officials suddenly and inexplicably being appointed to top-level positions: parachutage.

Jean Quatremer
Jean Quatremer of Libération

It is perhaps unsurprising then that much of the reporting of this scandal has been led by French journalists, particularly Jean Quatremer of Libération.

Quatremer argues that Martin Selmayr’s promotion was in effect a coup d’état, symbolized by an email that he sent out to all 33,000 EU civil servants on the morning of March 1st, when his appointment became official.

First of all, no Secretary General had ever emailed the entire EU civil service before – previous Secretaries General have only sent group emails to their immediate subordinates. But the content of the email is also rather startling. As Quatremer writes:

“Selmayr proclaims that ‘the general secretariat [should not] just be the machine to run our institution,’ which it is, but should become ‘The heart and soul of the Commission.’

“In one sentence, the twenty-eight commissioners are reduced to the role of mere extras.”

What happens next?

Selmayr’s appointment was such a shock to EU insiders that it has taken nearly two weeks for anyone to consider doing anything about it.

Now, finally, the EU Parliament is considering an investigation. This appears to be spurred chiefly by reporting by Libération of the severance package supposedly offered by Selmayr to departing commissioners: in compensation for them not working in any field related to their former commission portfolio, former commissioners are reportedly being offered €13,500 per month for up to five years, as well as an office in the Commission, an official car with a driver, and two assistants.

Belgian Greens MEP Bart Staes summed up the feelings of Parliament (and perhaps all of Europe) when he said yesterday:

“It is scandalous that former commissioners could continue to receive all the trappings of a top job while doing nothing. One would have to question the motivations of any commissioner who could only be prevented from making the switch to becoming corporate lobbyist in exchange for five years’ worth of pay and benefits.

“Martin Selmayr’s appointment is rightly under scrutiny. If the new Secretary General continues down this path, he can only expect the furore to intensify.”

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