Top Brussels civil servant Martin Selmayr sent to Vienna backwater

Controversial figure sidelined by new European Commission head von der Leyen

Martin Selmayr, the most controversial, powerful and shortlived head of the European Commission's civil service who one critic said should be sent to "Outer Mongolia", is leaving Brussels for the relative backwater of Austria.

In what the German official's many antagonists will see as an abrupt demotion, Mr Selmayr is to be posted to Vienna as head of the EU's delegation there, representing the bloc in what is a quasi-ambassadorial role.

A close lieutenant of Jean-Claude Juncker, the outgoing president, Mr Selmayr’s unrivalled grip on the bureaucracy of Brussels, as well as his notoriety and ruthless working methods, quickly overshadowed many of the politicians on the commission.

“The five years of the Jean Claude Juncker commission would be inconceivable without his contribution,” said Günther Oettinger, the commissioner for human resources.

But Mr Selmayr’s all-powerful reputation as Mr Juncker’s chief of staff and later commission secretary-general made him countless enemies in other parts of Brussels.

He shrugged off the criticisms, once telling the Financial Times: "You cannot run the European Commission like a Montessori school."

The announcement of his move, to take effect from November, comes just days after Ursula von der Leyen was confirmed as the next president of the commission.

The incoming head of the EU executive has decided to replace Mr Selmayr to satisfy his opponents in the European Parliament and dispel doubts about her authority when she takes over.

Many MEPs had demanded Mr Selmayr’s departure as a condition for supporting Ms von der Leyen, including Socialists, Greens and even some German centre-right MEPs who hail from the same CDU party as Mr Selmayr.

‘Outer Mongolia’

Philippe Lamberts, the leader of the Green group, had suggested Ms von der Leyen dispatch Mr Selmayr to represent the EU "in Outer Mongolia".

Even a less controversial figure than Mr Selmayr might have struggled to overcome objections to Brussels’ top civil servant being of the same nationality as the incoming president, Germany’s former defence minister.

His stint as secretary general has been dogged by controversy over the nature of his sudden appointment in March last year, which involved a double promotion in the space of a few minutes. The European Parliament alleged the switch of jobs was “coup-like”.

One ambassador in Brussels said: “He lived by the sword and in the end they cut him down”. Another said: “We are sorry to see him go. He was very capable. Every man has his weaknesses. But he got things done.”

There has long been speculation that Mr Selmayr would seek a top posting in Washington, at the European Central Bank or as the EU's envoy to London after Brexit – a country where perhaps his notoriety is greatest.

But Mr Selmayr told friends he wants to go to Vienna for three or four years so he can devote more time to teaching EU law at the universities of Saarbrücken, Passau and Krems – a sideline he kept during his time at the commission.

Until November, Mr Selmayr will remain an adviser to Mr Juncker. The commission said the president and his team paid tribute to Mr Selmayr's "outstanding qualities and achievements".

Ms von der Leyen is not expected to appoint Mr Selmayr’s replacement until later in the year. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019