The baby-faced beast of Berlaymont

Arch-federalist Martin Selmayr, who engineered Jean-Claude Juncker’s ascent to the European Commission presidency, is emerging as a pivotal power broker in European politics. Jane Lewis reports.

As chief of staff to President Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Selmayr “has spent the last two years astonishing and infuriating the EU establishment”, says Politico. Selmayr is “a fanatical believer” in the European Union, “who can quote by heart from the treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Lisbon” and is seen by some as
“a masterly manager”. But critics say the baby-faced German lawyer is “a manipulative bully who prefers diktats to debate”. His latest manoeuvre certainly fits the bill.

A “whiffy” affair

“Out of the blue” in February, Semalyr, 47, was appointed secretary-general of the Commission – one of the most powerful jobs in the EU – a move that both “entrenched his power and decoupled his professional fate from that of Juncker”, whose term expires in October next year, says The Economist.

He achieved it “via an eyebrow-raising two-step”: first, securing a newly vacant stepping-stone job when a “rival” conveniently withdrew; “then, hours later, the top job itself when the incumbent unexpectedly quit”. The Commission has denied allegations of cronyism, but even Selmayr’s supporters acknowledge that there was “something whiffy” about the affair.

“Martin Selmayr is notorious and he loves it,” says the Financial Times. Although his influence is “most keenly felt within the Brussels Beltway”, few doubt his crucial, backstage role in Brexit talks or as the architect of Juncker’s drive to create a more “political” Commission.

Juncker has jokingly called Selmayr a “monster” for his willingness to work long hours and “execute” ruthlessly, says Handelsblatt. The media and his many foes have less affectionate names, including “the beast of Berlaymont” (the name of the Commission’s Brussels HQ) and “Rasputin”. Bring it on, says Selmayr. “If it means there is an efficient manager, somebody who is not a wimp, I’m OK with that… You can’t run the European Commission like a Montessori school.”

Part of Selmayr’s commitment to “the European project” stems from a trip he took as a teenager with his grandfather to the military cemeteries of Verdun. Selmayr was born in Bonn and spent his formative years in Karlsruhe, where his father was a university chancellor. His first job after university was with the European Central Bank.

Rising to the top

Far more crucial to his rapid advancement, however, was an internship during university with the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann, says Politico. There he met Elmar Brok, a German MEP who “became a mentor”. Brok got Selmayr a job at Bertelsmann and also introduced him to Juncker. “Selmayr was a chief-of-staff in search of a president.” He cut his teeth with commissioner Viviane Reding, positioning her as a leading proponent of “a United States of Europe”, but later jumped ship to Juncker’s camp, eventually engineering his ascent to the presidency in 2014.

Do you know the difference between Selmayr and God? Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s veteran finance minister, once joked. “God knows he’s not Selmayr.”
It’s an old gag, but it makes the point, says the BBC’s Adam Fleming. In the latest episode of the “long-running tussle” over where power lies in Europe – with the member states or an increasingly powerful commission – the pivotal power broker, rapidly emerging from the shadows, is Martin Selmayr.