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A very EU coup: Martin Selmayr’s astonishing power grab

How a bureaucrat seized power in nine minutes

10 March 2018

9:00 AM

10 March 2018

9:00 AM

Martin Selmayr has always dreamed of being known beyond the Brussels bubble. His wish has now been granted, albeit in not quite the way he might have hoped. It has arrived in the form of a brilliantly executed coup that has handed this 47-year-old German bureaucrat near-total control of the EU machine.

The coup began at 9.39 a.m. on 21 February, when 1,000 journalists were sent an email summoning them to a 10.30 a.m. audience with Jean-Claude Juncker. The short notice suggested urgency — and for such a meeting to be happening at all was unusual in itself. Since becoming President of the European Commission, Juncker has held hardly any press conferences.

His news was the surprise promotion of Selmayr, his Chief of Staff, to the position of Secretary-General, in charge of the Commission’s 33,000 staff. The reaction from the journalists present was astonishment. No one had been aware of a vacancy. There was no sign that the 61-year-old Alexander Italianer had been thinking of retiring. But as Juncker announced other appointments, it quickly became clear what had happened. Selmayr had taken control, and anyone who resisted him had been unceremoniously fired. Juncker had handed the keys of the European house to his favourite Eurocrat.

Selmayr had served Juncker well — or was it the other way around? Rather than being a regular chief of staff, Selmayr acted like a de facto deputy president. Juncker, who looks increasingly tired and worn out, had been the perfect glove puppet for Selmayr. Juncker was happy to let his Chief of Staff do the work, and happy to thank him by giving him a job of even greater power.

In the first few days of his new job, Selmayr has left no doubt about how he intends to rule. Last week, all Commission staffers were sent a letter from their new Secretary-General — something that is, again, highly unusual, as such letters are sent only by the President. In his Urbi et Orbi, Selmayr proclaimed that the EU civil service ‘must not be satisfied with being the machine to run our institution’, which is odd, given this is exactly what the Commission is supposed to be for.

But Selmayr declared that the civil service (or, rather, he himself) would act as ‘the heart and soul of the Commission’. With that sentence, Selmayr reduced the role of the 28 European Commissioners to mere extras.

One commissioner who was present at the meeting where Selmayr was promoted later explained to me what happened (he spoke on condition of anonymity, which is in itself telling as he is supposed to be a heavyweight). They were called to a 9.30 a.m. meeting where Juncker presented them with nominations. Selmayr was named not as the Secretary-General, but as the deputy — a post that was known to be vacant. Selmayr’s promotion was unexpected, but Juncker assured them that all was above board.

Then came the coup de grâce. Having appointed Selmayr as deputy, Juncker announced that the Secretary-General — ltalianer — had resigned. So Selmayr, having been deputy for just a few minutes, would take his place from 1 March. ‘It was totally stunning,’ the commissioner told me. ‘We had witnessed an impeccably prepared and audacious power-grab.’ Before anyone else could find out about this unprecedented double-promotion, an email was sent out summoning journalists to the press conference — where Selmayr was confirmed. A fait accompli.

Why are the European Commissioners not making more of a fuss? Perhaps because Selmayr is preparing to give them a special present. Retiring commissioners are entitled to a generous ‘transition allowance’ of up to two-thirds of their basic salary for roughly two years, up to about €13,500 a month. Selmayr now plans to extend this to three, or perhaps even five, years. On top of the extra cash, they’d enjoy a series of benefits in kind: an office in the Commission headquarters (previously a perk to which only former presidents were entitled), a company car with a driver and two assistants. So thanks to Selmayr, a departing European Commissioner might receive double, if not triple, what he or she currently receives. All tax free, let’s not forget.

Selmayr’s manoeuvre would not have been possible without the complicity of Irene Souka, the European Commission’s Director-General of Human Resources. She has been amply rewarded for her efforts: last month, her job was extended beyond compulsory retirement age (as was that of her husband, Dominique Ristori, who is Director-General for Energy).

Only one mystery remains: why did Selmayr move when he did? Why not wait? Juncker will be President until October 2019: why would Selmayr not stay as chief of staff (or de facto president) until then? Or why not at least spend six months in the Deputy Secretary-General job? One answer is that Selmayr had to move before anyone could work out what he was up to. France, in particular, had its eye on the Secretary-General job, as two of the four great European institutions (the Parliament and the Diplomatic Service) are managed by Germans. Now, thanks to the Selmayr ascendancy, it’s three out of four. Rather a lot.

But there’s an even bigger reason for him to have moved. Precisely because Juncker will be gone next year, Selmayr needs to act now to line up a replacement — someone just as docile. And he believes he has found just the man in Michel Barnier. It’s thanks to Selmayr’s patronage that Barnier ended up as the Brexit negotiator in the first place. Selmayr’s next mission is to put Barnier top of the list of the European People’s Party (a grouping of centre-right MEPs), which means he’ll be in pole position for the job under the Spitzenkandidat system that Selmayr did so much to set up. Barnier is the ideal candidate because he is (in Selmayr’s eyes), weak, malleable and Macron-compatible.

Selmayr is now accountable to no one. Indeed, he has lost no time further consolidating his power. He has moved his office close to the President’s. I understand he will continue to chair meetings in the President’s office and even plans to put the hitherto independent European legal service under his command. So all he needs now is a new president as docile as Juncker has been and he’ll have achieved his aim: before his 50th birthday, and without ever having stood for elected office Selmayr will become the alpha and omega of the European Commission.

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