Just like the old days as journalists accuse Jean-Claude Juncker of a cover up

Europe Letter: Brussels backlash over Martin Selmayr’s appointment

New secretary-general of the commission Martin Selmayr has come under fresh attack after suggesting tripling the “transition allowance” for commissioners after they leave office. Under the reported plans officials could receive €13,500 per month for up to five years, an office in the commission, and an official car with a driver and two assistants. Photograph: EPA

New secretary-general of the commission Martin Selmayr has come under fresh attack after suggesting tripling the “transition allowance” for commissioners after they leave office. Under the reported plans officials could receive €13,500 per month for up to five years, an office in the commission, and an official car with a driver and two assistants. Photograph: EPA

 

Returning to Brussels as a correspondent last summer after nearly two decades away I met for dinner an old friend who had risen through the ranks of the EU institutions.

When he asked how had things changed, I bemoaned the gated community which the institutions have become, a segregated world of fonctionnaires hermetically sealed off behind security barriers. And particularly from the press which used to roam freely around their domain.

He laughed sympathetically, but admitted that he personally had been responsible for the new regime: “You can’t have the likes of Jean Quatremer camped out permanently in the corridor outside a commissioner’s office”.

I met up again with Quatremer, the irrepressible correspondent of Libération, a few days later. Still a thorn in the European Commission’s side. Still refusing to speak English with the determination of all those Brits who do likewise in relation to French. He too bridles at the new restrictions and the mind-sapping “professionalisation” of the porte-parole service.

But a few days ago Quatremer got a new cause, something for Robespierre, as he was dubbed by an angry commission spokesman, to get his teeth into. What Quatremer would deem an “internal putsch”.

On February 21st, to the astonishment of all, Jean-Claude Juncker came down to the press room to announce the appointment with almost immediate effect of his chef de cabinet, right-hand man, gatekeeper and enforcer, Martin Selmayr, to the position of secretary general, head of the 33,000 commission staff.

Internal competition

Juncker congratulated Selmayr on his promotion from chef. Only he wasn’t just promoted from chef. On that day startled commissioners had been asked to approve the appointment of Selmayr as deputy secretary general, following an ultra-short internal competition, of which more anon.

They were then told to their surprise that the secretary general, Alexander Italianer, was about to retire suddenly (though Juncker had known it for two years).

No bother, Juncker told them, we have here a deputy who is just the man for the top job. And within minutes Selmayr had been promoted twice, the second time without interview as the secretary general job is traditionally in the gift of the president.

Juncker hadn’t bothered to mention the strange procedural dance, perhaps because it might have been seen, as it has, as a stitch-up for an ally.

But, as we were told repeatedly over the next few days, all the proper procedures had been adhered to. Indeed, in submitting himself to interview and formal assessment for deputy secretary general, Selmayr had, we were told, been ultra scrupulous and honourable. No short cuts for him.

“All the procedures, and I repeat all the legal procedures, under the staff regulations have been respected religiously,” chief commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas declared at the mid-day news conference.  

Under commission rules someone on Selmayr’s chef de cabinet grade was permitted to forgo interview if rotated, with the commission’s approval, to an equivalent grade – which deputy secretary general is.

The 41-year-old brilliant German lawyer is a hugely polarising figure in the commission, admired as much as he is feared by those who work with him, a ferocious detail man, a micromanager, who deals ruthlessly with those who get in his, or his president’s way

Charming but ruthless

But this is Martyn Selmayr we are talking about. The 41-year-old brilliant German lawyer is a hugely polarising figure in the commission, admired as much as he is feared by those who work with him, a ferocious detail man, a micromanager, who deals ruthlessly with those who get in his, or his president’s way. Charming but ruthless.

His admirers say that this is what is needed and there is no-one better qualified for the job. Some call him Machiavelli, others Rasputin. (I tried to suggest to one European Council spokesman that Machiavelli was actually a much misunderstood man. He did not rise to the bait.)

Quatremer found many willing colleagues to raise questions. Had Selmayr known when he applied for deputy secretary general that the secretary general was going to retire? No. Had he no inkling that he would never serve, and was destined for the top job? Did Juncker not even hint that the top vacancy was about to be vacant?

And then there was the matter of the competition for deputy secretary general. At first, and most reluctantly, we were told that there were fewer than four candidates. How many fewer? A day later, we found out – there were two. Two days later we discover the second candidate pulled her name out of the race before the issue  went to the commission (she was never interviewed).

But then why did the commission’s draft minutes suggest that it considered the merits “of the candidates”? Was it because the procedure would have been different if there had been no contest?

And surprise, surprise, we eventually discovered that the reluctant candidate was actually  none other than Clara Martinez Alberola, Selmayr’s former deputy and who has now succeeded him as the head of Juncker’s private office.

All a bit neat. With much willing suspension of disbelief required.

Still the best people probably ended up in the right jobs. Probably.

And the press room is no longer its old submissive self. 

“These institutions don’t belong to you,” Quatremer snapped at Schinas, the commission spokesman, who was trying to say all the relevant questions had been answered. “They belong to the European citizens, and it is our perfect right to ask you questions, to repeat the questions as often as we want, without you giving us lessons in morality.”

Go Jean, go.

He tapped me on the shoulder as he left with a twinkle in his eye – “Doesn’t it remind you a bit of the old days?”

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