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.