Juncker’s promotion of his right-hand man stirs unrest

Martin Selmayr’s elevation to EU’s top civil service post has had a significant fallout

The EU’s new top civil servant Martin Selmayr arrives for a meeting in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

The EU’s new top civil servant Martin Selmayr arrives for a meeting in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images


The appointment last week of the EU’s new top civil servant by means that could best be described as sleight of hand has provoked uproar in the usually sedate European Commission press room. And the journalist who broke the story, Jean Quatremer of Libération, found himself referred to disparagingly by a defensive commission spokesman as “Robespierre”. This did not go down well with colleagues.

Martin Selmayr, commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s right-hand man and chef de cabinet, was last week, to the surprise of all, promoted to the job of commission secretary general, replacing Dutch man Alexander Italianer, who was retiring suddenly.

Mr Selmayr, a German lawyer who is highly regarded but the ultimate, all-powerful micromanager and “string-puller”, in Quatremer’s words, is known as a hard taskmaster. He is generally seen as a good appointment, although the move copperfastens German control of several of the EU’s institutions.

What has raised eyebrows is the fact that Mr Juncker kept his fellow commissioners in the dark about both the retirement and appointment until last Wednesday morning, minutes before they were asked to confirm Mr Selmayr in the job.  

Bizarrely, they were then asked to ratify first Mr Selmayr’s appointment to deputy secretary general, a post which was recently vacated and for which he was interviewed according to house rules, and then immediately his promotion without interview to the secretary generalship, which that morning had become vacant.

Juncker’s announcement

Later in the morning, Mr Juncker announced to the press only the promotion of his chef de cabinet to secretary general, omitting any reference to the intermediary process. He admitted that he alone had known, since June 2015, of Mr Italianer’s departure date and decided that it was better not to go public on it because that would undermine the latter’s ability to do his job.

According to commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein, the deputy job was advertised internally on January 31st. Mr Selmayr and AN Other candidate faced a series of interviews for it, including one with commissioner for personnel Günther Oettinger, on February 15th and 16th. Mr Selmayr was duly appointed on Wednesday, February 21st, when the Italianer vacancy was announced. 

Mr Winterstein said that Mr Juncker proposed Mr Selmayr’s immediate elevation to ensure speedy continuity in the vital job of secretary general.

The spokesman refused to comment on whether or when Mr Selmayr knew of Mr Italianer’s departure.

But, he insisted, if Mr Selmayr had been promoted straight from chef de cabinet to secretary general, that would have been procedurally ok.

Why then, journalists asked, did the commission’s president adopt such a circuitous approach and keep it secret from his fellow commissioners? Is it simply that that is the way they do things in Luxembourg?