Rise to power of German ‘Lord of Darkness,’ Martin Selmayr, polarizes Brussels

Martin Selmayr
Juncker in a haze, Selmayr focused. Source: Reuters.

Some call him “Monster,” others “The Lord of Darkness.” Martin Selmayr is certainly the most controversial German in Brussels, and the European Commission’s most hated, most feared, but also the most respected civil servant. This was already true when he was the string-pulling chief of staff to the Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker. It has become even more obvious since Mr. Selmayr, this month, became the Commission’s secretary general, overseeing a staff of some 33,000.

Eurocrats in Brussels are astonishingly unanimous on the subject of Mr. Selmayr’s personality, both its positive and negative sides. “His intellect is brilliant and he works tirelessly”, says a diplomat. It’s hard to find anybody in Brussels who denies that. But Mr. Selmayr also has a reputation for being a reckless and brutal man. One diplomat remembers how strange it was to have dinner with Mr. Selmayr and his closest colleagues. “The only one to talk about politics was Selmayr himself. All others limited themselves to small talk without daring to mention serious issues in the presence of their boss.” And then the diplomat added: “Selmayr spreads fear and fright.”

Thanks to his ascent this month to the highest bureaucratic office in the Commission, Mr. Selmayr even became a case for the European Parliament this week. Several members of the high house doubted whether everything about his appointment was kosher. Mr. Selmayr’s career move was the main topic of a combative plenary session on Monday. Günther Oettinger, a fellow German and a Commissioner, defended the appointment but failed to allay the concerns.

This controversy – even if it amounts to little more than a personnel decision, with no apparent ideological ramifications – is even causing tensions between the Germans and the French in Brussels. French Eurocrats were among the first to express anger at Mr. Selmayr’s promotion. “I can’t hide it, Paris is furious about what is happening,” wrote a French correspondent in Brussels who said that Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron had agreed that a French civil servant would get this job.

French lawmakers slammed the Selmayr move as a “mystification worthy of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Mr. Selmayr’s new role means that three of the four major European bureaucracies are now run by Germans. French lawmakers denounced the Selmayr move as an affront to transparency and a “mystification worthy of the Chinese Communist Party” that risks undermining the EU commission.

The truth is more mundane. Mr. Selmayr is certainly qualified. He is a legal expert who has authored books on European law. So it is hardly conceivable that he broke the EU’s rules. For his rise to power he has in large part Mr. Juncker to thank: The president, by being a weak administrator, has left a gaping space for Mr. Selmayr to step into. Put differently, Mr. Selmayr is strong because Mr. Juncker is weak.

Rumors persist that Mr. Juncker is also ill. One thing is certainly true: In his four years in office, Mr. Juncker has left many important decisions to his aide, Mr. Selmayr, because he cannot be bothered with the quotidian management of the EU bureaucracy. So Mr. Juncker transferred a lot of political responsibility to Mr. Selmayr. In this respect, the German has been playing a role transcending that of a civil servant. But it’s hard to blame Mr. Selmayr for that.

The political leaders in Berlin, Paris and Europe’s other capitals know that Mr. Selmayr, whatever his faults, also provides stability at the head of the Commission. Therefore they are not interested in removing him. This rationale could change, of course, once Mr. Juncker’s mandate ends in November 2019. The new president of the commission will have the right to choose his or her own secretary general. Should that again be Mr. Selmayr? Quite a lot of people in Brussels have their doubts.

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