Leave Juncker’s ‘monster’ alone, Malta says of Brussels enforcer gifted with top EU job

Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat says Juncker’s all-powerful aide Martin Selmayr is ‘true European’ who made European Commission efficient and pragmatic 

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat with Commission President Jean Claude Juncker: the Malta PM said the choice of Martin Selmayr for EU secretary-general is good
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat with Commission President Jean Claude Juncker: the Malta PM said the choice of Martin Selmayr for EU secretary-general is good

Heard about Selmayrgate? (pronounced ‘sel-mier-gate’). That familiar suffix promises a scandal of high proportions, at least by EU standards.

For the swift and controversial promotion of Jean-Claude Juncker’s chief of staff Martin Selmayr, 47, to secretary-general of the European Commission, will be a serious matter of debate in the next European Parliament sitting on Monday.

The EC, the executive that runs the European Union, is being accused of rubber-stamping the surprise nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker’s chief of staff and enforcer Martin Selmayr, both admired and feared eminence grise to the EU boss.

Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, who is in charge of EU personnel, is expected to brief MEPs on the procedure.

Martin Selmayr, dubbed ‘the Monster’ by his own boss, Jean Claude Juncker
Martin Selmayr, dubbed ‘the Monster’ by his own boss, Jean Claude Juncker

The scandal is down to the fact that Juncker – whose term ends in 2019 – admitted having known over two years in advance of the departure of the outgoing EC secretary-general, and arranged to have Selmayr interviewed for the vacant post of deputy secretary-general and then immediately elevated to the top job: some newspapers dubbed it a classic case of “parachutisme”, others a “coup”.

Even the Dutch parliament will debate the case, given that the outgoing secretary-general is from the Netherlands.

But some very kind words of support for the all-powerful German lawyer (who is reportedly dubbed “the monster” by his boss) have come from a spokesperson for Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat, who said critics are “targeting” someone who has changed the Commission into a better-functioning body.

“Martin Selmayr has given the European Commission new impetus, turning it from a cold technocractic machine churning out regulations, into an efficient one willing to listen and find solutions where solutions are possible and not in breach of the European values. He is a true European,” the spokesperson told MaltaToday in a comment on the unfolding saga.

Muscat has already declared he will not be running in another general election, and it is well known he aspires for a top European post after the 2019 European elections, when he could be expected to make way for a successor.

“In Martin, Malta found a tough negotiator but also one willing to listen and dialogue. Together with President Juncker, he was one of the most vocal in promoting solidarity on migration. During the Maltese Presidency he was also a real point of contact from the Commission side when negotiations became crucial. His role during Brexit, keeping the EU27 united, is also something that merits a lot of credit.”

Selmayr himself devised the plan of how many migrants should be taken in by each member state during the exodus of Syrian asylum seekers into Eastern Europe – making enemies of these states; and recently was suspected of leaking embarrassing details on Brexit talks during the UK elections in May.

Malta’s spokesperson however feels Selmayr has made the Commission more politically sensitive to getting things done, a hat tip to his reputation as a fearsome micro-manager.

“His ways have turned the Commission to work more like a government and therefore understanding the special circumstances that other governments find themselves in when dealing with the heavy bureaucracy of the EU. Juncker’s team is strong and pragmatic. Targeting Martin Selmayr will only help those who do not want the Commission to function as efficiently and pragmatically as it has done in the past years.”

Hungary, who like Malta has been the subject of a ‘rule of law’ dressing-down, has instead accused Brussels of double standards. “We see that preaching about the rule of law and following the guidelines or the rules is not authentic when it is coming from the Commission,” government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács told a press briefing in Brussels.

Jean Claude Juncker and Martin Selmayr
Jean Claude Juncker and Martin Selmayr


Rubber-stamped elevation

Selmayr’s appointment is a matter of intrigue in Brussels, which has critics accusing the bloc of introducing greater German control of several of the EU’s institutions. Germany’s European commissioner Gunther Oettinger dismissed the accusation  saying “he’s not an undercover agent for German politics.”

The Wall Street Journal’s correspondents write that the sudden promotion of Selmayr “to the job of the institution’s most powerful civil servant has Brussels in turmoil, and the complaints are reverberating more widely.”

The Commission has been disparaging of the journalist who broke the story, Jean Quatremer of Libération, who was referred to by a commission spokesman as “Robespierre”.

Quatremeur revealed that Juncker kept his fellow commissioners in the dark about both the retirement of secretary-general Alexander Italianer, and Selmayr’s appointment until last Wednesday morning, minutes before they were asked to confirm Selmayr in the job.

The deputy job was advertised internally on 31 January. Selmayr and another candidate were interviewed for the job, as well as an interview with commissioner for personnel Günther Oettinger, on 15 and 16 February.

The controversy deepened because the commissioners were asked to ratify first Selmayr’s appointment to deputy secretary-general on 21 February, a post recently vacated and for which he was interviewed according to the rules; and then immediately rubber-stamp his elevation to the top job the same morning that the Italianer vacancy was announced.

The other candidate was  none other than Selmayr’s former deputy Clara Martinez Alberola, who has now neatly succeeded him as the head of Juncker’s private office.

Juncker announced to the press only Selmayr’s promotion without referring to the Byzantine process employed for these promotions: if Juncker knew, as he said, of Italianer’s departure date since 2015, why was Selmayr propelled to the job in this way?

Juncker claims he did not go public on Italianer’s departure date so as not to undermine his ability to do his job. A spokesman refused to say whether Selmayr knew of Italianer’s departure.

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