Martin Selmayr, left, and Jean-Claude Juncker © FT montage

Unelected and barely known outside Brussels, Martin Selmayr has nevertheless earned such notoriety among EU leaders that they could be forgiven any trepidation about what he could do if he did get a seat at the highest table. Now they are about to find out.

The 47-year-old German, whose reputation derives from his role as a pugnacious chief of staff to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker for the past three years, last week sealed a vertiginous rise to the top of the EU’s administrative machine after being appointed as secretary-general of the EU’s executive body.

The move is contentious. Mr Selmayr will not just control 30,000 staff and the policy levers in the world’s most important supranational civil service. He will also be privy to the fiercely guarded exchanges between EU leaders at summit meetings — one of the few officials directly in the room when the likes of Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel take decisions that will shape the EU during the UK’s exit and beyond.

His role, at least on paper, will be to provide the commission’s expertise in policy areas when called on by EU chiefs — but the acutely political Mr Selmayr may prove far more than just a background presence. “There’s nothing we can do about it, but he’ll be more than just a note-taker,” one national official said.

For many inside the commission, the move has been seen to entrench the control over policy that Mr Selmayr has exercised as Mr Juncker’s chief of staff. Mr Selmayr “now has control over the whole commission, not just the essentials”, said one EU official.

Few qualms were expressed over concentrating such power in the hands of Alexander Italianer, the low-key outgoing secretary-general. But Mr Selmayr is different. His appointment has sent shockwaves through staff — “You can’t run the European Commission like a Montessori school,” he told the Financial Times last year — and ripples have spread to national capitals, where senior advisers and even leaders have clashed with a man seen as one of Brussels’ toughest operators.

At the heart of the way Mr Selmayr has been alternatively feared and admired is his relationship with Mr Juncker and both men’s determination to run a more avowedly “political” commission than in the past.

Mr Juncker’s appointment was directly linked to the victory of the centre-right European People’s party in the last European elections. Mr Juncker says this has given him legitimacy to pursue his agenda — and that credo was backed up by Mr Selmayr, an architect of Mr Juncker’s rise to the presidency who has since made himself an invaluable enforcer to his boss.

Even without the formal role of secretary-general, Mr Selmayr roamed across Brussels to try to bring focus to the notoriously unwieldy commission, made up of dozens of different departments and led by a 28-person college of commissioners. Doing so cemented his reputation as a Rasputin of Brussels — but even Mr Selmayr’s detractors acknowledge his organisational skills, which have proven highly effective in galvanising the EU bureaucracy.

Critics of Mr Selmayr argue that he unnecessarily inflames tension with national capitals, including Berlin. Flashpoints have included attempts by Mr Selmayr to place Brexit talks firmly in the hands of the commission, as well as interventions during the Greece crisis in 2015.

The German has also clashed with the British government after details of a dinner between Theresa May and Mr Juncker last year made their way into the press.

Some officials fear Mr Selmayr’s appointment will bring a politicisation of the higher ranks of the civil service and the loss of valuable institutional checks and balances. One contrast frequently mentioned is with the tenure of Catherine Day, secretary-general to José-Manuel Barroso, Mr Juncker’s predecessor. She was seen as a strong, independent counterpart to Mr Barroso’s senior team. 

Nor is it just the man that has raised hackles, but the manner of his appointment — which was made at Mr Juncker’s request. It was a bolt from the blue to almost all the members of the commission’s ruling college. Eyebrows have also been raised at Mr Selmayr’s lack of senior management experience in the administration. He joined the institution as a spokesman in 2004, before becoming chief of staff to the justice policy commissioner in 2010.

“The commissioners were so stunned that they didn’t manage to react,” one official said.

Sven Giegold, a German MEP who has led calls for an investigation, said the secrecy surrounding the appointment “has the potential to risk the reputation of the union”.

The commission insists all procedures were followed and has underlined that Mr Selmayr has the appropriate grade for the post. It has also pointed to the precedent of presidents handpicking their secretaries-general.

That in itself — with Mr Juncker due to step down in 2019 — raises an obvious question about how long Mr Selmayr will keep his new role. Mr Juncker’s successor will be free to move him.

But Mr Selmayr’s outsize reputation for political chess-playing means that few would bet against him being able to stay an indispensable part of the Brussels machinery. The EU agenda is not just dominated by Brexit but by deeply contentious negotiations over its next multiannual budget. As secretary-general, Mr Selmayr will be able to make himself all but indispensable to the complex process.

As one EU official puts it, the joke within the corridors of the commission is that “it is not the next president who will choose his team — it is Martin who will choose the next president”.

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