House of Cards, Brussels style?

By Rhys Thomas

You’ve probably never heard of Martin Selmayr, but he is one of the most powerful figures in the European Union – and not only that, he has his sights set on something bigger. Born in Bonn, West Germany, he held a variety of middling roles in the European Union before being picked up by in 2014 by Jean-Claude Juncker (now European Commission President). He was then tasked with running that Presidential campaign, scheming to put Juncker in prime position to be approved by European heads of government after the European Parliamentary elections that year. After that success, Selmayr’s power grew. The Chief of Staff position gave him power and influence which he has only sought to increase over the years.

The current controversy stemmed from the decision of the then Secretary-General, Alexander Italianer, to step down. Selmayr had previously successfully applied for the role of Deputy Secretary-General, automatically winning that position when the other candidate (who was Selmayr’s own Deputy in Juncker’s office) withdrew. Selmayr then received an instant promotion.

Appointments such as this go through a Commission panel, and on February 21 Selmayr’s nomination was put to them. They had no prior knowledge of this and the panel were asked for a snap decision. It would take a brave Brussels bureaucrat to vote against the “Beast of the Berlaymont”, and naturally he won the vote. The EU Commission insists that there is nothing untoward about this, but there is concern across all parts of the EU about the cloak and dagger way in which Selmayr ascended to his new position.

One allegation is that the silence of European Commissioners has essentially been bought – for example it has been reported that Selmayr intends to extend the “transition allowance” for retiring Commissioners, meaning they will be getting paid two-thirds of their basic salary for possibly up to five years after they leave, extended from the current two. Throw in other retirement perks such as an office in the Commission’s Berlaymont building, and it is easy to see why Commissioners might have been tempted to wave Selmayr through.

The opaque way in which this has been carried out still raises questions and damages the credibility of a political union.

Selmayr is known to be a hard taskmaster with no qualms about ignoring or even actively stifling Commissioners. He rules with an iron grip, preferring to ram-raid policies through at the top of the Commission instead of going through official channels. Take for example an agreement on the German autobahn toll – the responsibility of Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc, but Selmayr instead took it upon himself to reach an agreement with the German Government without Bulc’s knowledge. Former Budget Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva angrily said that the atmosphere around Selmayr was “poisonous” and promptly resigned. Whilst this mode of behaviour can stem dissent, it can also turn people against you and it seems that some who have been wronged by Selmayr are now gleefully pouncing on his potentially murky promotion.

Regardless of the rights or wrongs, Selmayr has moved with a rigorous intensity. Next year his boss Jean-Claude Juncker will be riding off into the sunset, and Selmayr needs to position himself to maximise influence. This new position will do just that and he will seek as much influence over the next Commission President as he did over Juncker.

One EU official compared the it to Netflix show House of Cards, with scheming and deceit around every corner – but Selmayr is more a fan of the The West Wing, a gentler series about a gracious and compassionate US President. That doesn’t appear to be quiet so true to life.

His controversial method of appointment has not just raised voices of dissent amongst Selmayr’s enemies, but even more widely amongst EU Federalists and those sympathetic to the project. Guy Verhofstadt, former liberal Prime Minister of Belgium and the EU Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, called it “bad for Europe and bad for the European Commission” going on to add that Selmayr “has done something that nobody has ever done before here in this house: to united the whole Parliament, the left and the right”. A member of Selmayr’s own centre-right European People’s Party, Françoise Grossetête, added “What better to give grist to the mill of the Eurosceptics”, continuing “this discredits an institution that we know is made up mainly of very talented professional people”. In response, Günther Oettinger who is the European Commissioner for Human Resources shot back, saying to Members of the European Parliament that “we have done everything by the book”.

In reality, this will probably fade into the background despite the protestations of MEPs and others. Without a major bombshell revelation which shows serious wrongdoing which breaks EU rules, Selmayr is likely to carry on his march to the top of Europe. Nevertheless, the opaque way in which this has been carried out still raises questions and damages the credibility of a political union which already has difficulties with it’s perceived democratic deficit.


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