As the European Commission’s new top civil servant, Martin Selmayr will be more general than secretary.
And his primary mission will be to secure the legacy of President Jean-Claude Juncker, by closing out an array of legislative files on issues like migration, the digital single market and the energy union, clinching or bolstering free-trade agreements, and especially by enforcing a new General Data Protection Regulation, which could impose heavy fines on companies that are not in compliance beginning on May 25.
Put another way, his objective as secretary-general, leading the European Commission’s 33,000-strong civil servant force, will be to ensure Juncker and Selmayr are seen as the most important duo to have run the Commission since the decade-long partnership between President Jacques Delors and his Cabinet chief, Pascal Lamy, in the 1980s and 90s.
As with Lamy, who returned to the Berlaymont after Delors’ retirement to serve as trade commissioner, Selmayr’s election as secretary-general positions him to continue leaving a mark on the EU even after Juncker’s mandate ends in 2019. And while the next president and College of Commissioners could replace Selmayr, at a minimum he is now positioned to serve as a bridge between the current Commission and its successor — a crucial period in which some of the existential questions posed in Juncker’s white paper on the future of Europe could be answered.
Officials in the Council believe that Selmayr is engaged in an eternal, if self-created, power struggle, constantly trying to one-up Council President Donald Tusk and his staff.
Selmayr’s track record as Juncker’s all-powerful chief of staff indicates that he will likely employ a range of tactics, from special forces-style hybrid warfare and disinformation (such as when Juncker’s transition team, led by Selmayr, leaked different draft organizational charts to media outlets to test reactions), to the overwhelming force of a tank battalion (as when he infamously rewrote testimony to be given before the European Parliament by incoming Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström).
Selmayr is rarely seen in the hallways of the Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters, or anywhere for that matter, without a hefty pile of light-blue policy files under his arm. Senior Commission officials frequently complain about the large number of legislative initiatives they have put forward that national leaders in the European Council have failed to act upon.
As secretary-general, however, Selmayr’s focus will be on pushing forward the remaining legislative priorities of Juncker’s mandate, which were detailed in a joint declaration by the Commission, Council and Parliament in December.
That Juncker views Selmayr’s new role as largely focused on legacy-building was clear in a speech the president gave on Thursday at the Centre for European Policy Studies. “We have already delivered 80 percent of the initiatives — 368 out of 460 to be precise — that we said we would when we took office,” Juncker declared.
From the outset, Juncker and Selmayr pledged to run a more “political” Commission, with a more centralized, top-down management style and a decree that all policymaking must reflect the political platform on which Juncker campaigned in 2014 as the lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidat, of the center-right European People’s Party.
The extent to which they have succeeded in imposing that vision is evident in the already tight alignment between the president’s Cabinet and the Commission’s general secretariat, led for the past two and a half years by Alexander Italianer, whom Selmayr will replace on March 1.
The same 80 percent statistic can be found in the Commission’s 2018 Work Program posted by the general secretariat last October. In other words, the civil service force is already well-focused on bringing to life the Juncker-Selmayr vision for the EU.
What remains to be seen is the extent to which leaders on the European Council share that vision, if at all. Many have displayed strong resistance to the more federalist Union preferred by Selmayr, a one-time supporter of a United States of Europe. And a number of the leaders are adamantly opposed to the push by Juncker not just to fill the gap in the EU budget left by the U.K.’s departure but to expand the budget further to pay for new priorities.
As secretary-general, Selmayr will be the top official responsible for inter-institutional relations — an area in which he and Juncker have a spotty record at best.
Officials in the Council believe that Selmayr is engaged in an eternal, if self-created, power struggle, constantly trying to one-up Council President Donald Tusk and his staff, and to set a Europe-wide agenda that does not sufficiently take account of national sensibilities or political imperatives.
Selmayr will also continue to take a strong hand in negotiating a withdrawal agreement with the U.K. and brokering a new, long-term EU budget with the European Council.
And in the European Parliament, which Juncker not long ago derided as “ridiculous,” Selmayr is viewed as an over-inflated and unelected bureaucrat who does not respect Parliament’s role as the voice of European voters. The “grand coalition” that Juncker assembled with the help of his friend, former Parliament President Martin Schulz, collapsed when Schulz headed off to national politics. Since then, the Commission’s relations with Parliament have been uneasy at best.
Selmayr will also continue to take a strong hand in negotiating a withdrawal agreement with the U.K. and brokering a new, long-term EU budget with the European Council. And from his new perch, Selmayr will be in a position to begin imposing his (and Juncker’s) vision for the future of Europe — or at least for the future of the Commission.