A year ago, as I was preparing for my new assignment as the EU correspondent for the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, I was asking many experts the same question: ”Who are the people with most power in Brussels?”
Almost always, the answers included the name of Martin Selmayrhttps://www.hs.fi/haku/?query=martin+selmayr.
”Martin who?” I had to ask, embarrassingly, when I first heard this.
Selmayr (46) is a German lawyer who is the head of cabinet of the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Junckerhttps://www.hs.fi/haku/?query=jean-claude+juncker. Under them, there are 33,000 Commission staffers at the heart of EU law-making.
One respected senior EU correspondent held the firm belief that Selmayr has even more power than the Luxembourger Juncker. He thought that Juncker (62) is too much of a scatterbrain and his work performance is impaired by his drinking, an open secret in Brussels.
As I was asking Commission officials, diplomats and journalists about Selmayr, I started to get a picture – or at least a tale – of a man with rough edges who uses his power happily and frantically.
Selmayr – whose career in the Commission has skyrocketed from a spokesperson to a cabinet chief – keeps the officials, and even the commissioners, on their toes. He prefers to dictate rather than discuss.
”The commissioners are afraid of him,” said one of the many people who I talked to about Selmayr.
The Commission has a lot of power in the EU as the union’s executive arm. Among many other things, it proposes legislation and monitors the member states, be it the situation of the rule of law in Poland or Finland’s public spending.
Only a few people were willing to speak about Selmayr on the record, but they all seemed to speak about the same man: one who is feared, but also widely respected for his brainpower and his efficiency.
”He is a truly exceptional person. He has an incredible capacity to handle things small and big and to see the wider context of things. He just forces his way, dictates and makes change, by any means necessary,” said one official.
How can someone be everywhere at the same time? How can he know every tiny detail of every damn piece of legislation? Yet still find time to follow the news, travel, write speeches, study CVs, and be busy on Twitter…
”How is it humanly possible?”
People say that Selmayr makes up his mind quickly, sticks to his positions, and steamrollers those who disagree – aggressively, if the people around don’t get it.
This way of doing things has brought quite a revolution to the Commission in just a couple of years, for which Selmayr gets a lot of praise. The Commission has moved from small, random pieces of legislation to bigger packages. Now the Commission is ”big on big things and small on small things.”
As I heard these stories about Selmayr, he began to take the form of some kind of prince of darkness in my mind. This feeling was deepened by the fact that it is not easy to find information about Selmayr. Wikipedia has a couple of tiny articles on him, and even the German papers have not run very straightforward profile stories on him.
In November, the web publication Politico.eu made an ambitious exception by publishing a long piece on Selmayr. Its headline read: ”’Monster’ at the Berlaymont”.
Berlaymont is the name of the Commission’s headquarters in Brussels. The ”monster” would be Selmayr.
According to the articlehttp://www.politico.eu/article/monster-at-the-berlaymont-martin-selmayr-european-commission-jean-claude-juncker/, Selmayr is ”admired, despised and feared” and ”the most powerful EU chief of staff ever.”
According to the paper, some commissioners never get to meet Juncker, because Selmayr is the gatekeeper.
Gotta meet this man!
In the waiting area on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont, I coincidentally bump first into President Juncker. He greets me, shakes my hand and appears to be in a good mood. It is already late afternoon, but Juncker does not appear to be drunk, but busy.
This is no surprise to me. Many interviewees have told me that even though Juncker likes to drink, he does his work respectfully and industriously. It is rare to see him drunk.
When Juncker hears from Mina Andreevahttps://www.hs.fi/haku/?query=mina+andreeva, the Commission’s deputy chief spokeswoman, that we are about to meet Selmayr, Juncker quips: ”First Martin, then me.”
Then comes Selmayr. He flashes a boyish smile and wants to know the right way to pronounce my name. I’ve heard about this too: Selmayr knows how to charm.
Martin Selmayr says that the stories about him and Juncker are myths. He says that any power he has is power that the President has delegated to him.
”Power is what politicians have. I’m not a politician,” he says.
Selmayr says that he has never blocked any commissioner who wanted to see his boss – but sometimes Juncker does not want to see them.
Especially then, when the commissioners want to tell Juncker ”how someone has been mean to me” about some minor detail of a piece of legislation when Juncker is in the middle of saving the Greek economy from collapse or hammering out a refugee deal with Turkey.
”The President would say ’I have no time for that one. You’re a grown-up yourself, find your solution. And don’t cry.’”
This is how Juncker speaks – according to Selmayr – to commissioners, some of whom are their countries’ former prime ministers or other ministers.
No time for cry-babies.
When I ask Selmayr to name the leader he admires most in the union’s more than six decades of history, he says, without hesitation, something very sweet: Jean-Claude Juncker.
”That is a very easy answer. He is one of the fathers of the European Union as it is today, one of the fathers of the single currency.”
Selmayr is an enthusiastic supporter of integration. He thinks that Juncker’s way of defining our common Europe hits every right note.
”It is a federal project without being a superstate. The EU is combining unity and diversity. The EU must be big on certain things but leave the member states their identity.”
Selmayr has previously spoken for the idea of a United States of Europe. But today, his emphasis is on more pragmatic solutions.
For instance, in the refugee crisis, the Commission has had to find the right balance between the issues of solidarity and shared responsibility, and the fact that some member states have no experience of taking refugees.
”This is not an ideological commission; this is a pragmatic commission. And those people in the commission who try to be ideological, they don’t get meetings with the President.”
Selmayr says that Juncker has no time for mediocrity. He may shout at commissioners if he finds out that they have not done their homework.
”The brutal guy here in this house is not me. The brutal guy in this house is the President – as he has to be.”
According to Selmayr, Juncker finds some of the commissioners simply boring, calling them “walking sleeping pills.”
”Some people come here and bore the President, and then he doesn’t want to see them again. Not everybody is of added value to him.”
This all makes the Commission sound like a tough place to work. When Selmayr talks about his own team’s work – full of praise – you get the idea that there is little tolerance for slackers here.
”I’m very lucky to have this strong team, who are not sleeping, who are working hard, day and night,” says Selmayr, who says he sleeps about four or five hours most nights.
The five-member Politico team had found one prominent person who would go on the record with her disenchantment: the Bulgarian Vice-President Kristalina Georgievahttps://www.hs.fi/haku/?query=kristalina+georgieva, who in October announced her resignation from the Commission and is going to take a leadership position at the World Bank.
She told the paper that one reason for her resignation was her frustration with Selmayr’s authoritarian management style and Juncker’s unilateral decisions.
She described the duo’s way of running the Commission as ”poisonous.”
Selmayr says that Georgieva has – in writing and face to face – denied that she had made such comments.
Georgieva’s cabinet tells Helsingin Sanomat that ”she has told the president and his head of cabinet that she never said those things to Politico.”
The executive editor of Politico, Matthew Kaminskihttps://www.hs.fi/haku/?query=matthew+kaminski, has this to say about the issue: ”We stand by every word of our story.”
After the publication of this article, the Politico published the handwritten notes http://www.politico.eu/newsletter/playbook/politico-brussels-playbook-presented-by-epp-group-austria-talks-tough-on-turkey-weber-builds-bridge-tells-parliament-to-get-over-it/from the meeting between the paper’s reporter Ryan Heath https://www.hs.fi/haku/?query=ryan+heathand Georgieva in September.
One gets the impression from Selmayr that the top duo of the Commission doesn’t trust all the commissioners.
”He knows that when he speaks to a prime minister (of a member state) in confidence– – they keep the secret. But when he says something in the college of the commissioners, five minutes later it is in the Politico.”
Selmayr says that Juncker is skillful at using the fact that the commissioners have a tendency to speak anonymously to the press.
”Juncker sometimes says, ‘I don’t have to do press conferences, I just do college meetings.’ And it’s a tool that President Juncker masters. Some people don’t understand what President Juncker does in the college. He is giving an indirect press conference, because he knows that people speak.”
Selmayr says that he thinks Politico – widely read in EU circles – is a ”gossip paper”. About the article on him, he says, ”at least one-third was true, which is not bad for a Politico story.” He says that a previous storyhttp://www.politico.eu/article/the-time-of-jean-claude-juncker-troubles-european-commission-president-investment-plan-travel-meetings-scheduled/ that claimed that Juncker is not much seen in his workplace was completely false.
”President Juncker is permanently here. Who says anything else is lying. President Juncker is mastering brutally the meetings of the college. There’s not a single person in the college of commissioners who dares to contradict President Juncker.”
One point in the Politico article seems to have been particularly annoying, as Selmayr brings it up himself. According to an official quoted in the story, Martin ”has no friends.”
”It says only one thing. This person is not among my many friends.”
It turns out that Selmayr indeed has friends and admirers. The Director General for Mobility and Transport at the Commission, Henrik Hololei https://www.hs.fi/haku/?query=henrik+hololeifrom Estonia, praises Selmayr as a great European visionary and a good friend.
”He is very capable and smart. As a friend, he is trustworthy, and he is a very nice person. He has strong opinions, and he defends them forcefully. And he knows how to get things implemented,” Hololei says.
When I ask Mina Andreeva – a long-time close collaborator of Selmayr – to send me a couple of thoughts on him via email, she sends a long letter of praise.
The Bulgarian Andreeva has worked with Selmayr for eight years. She paints a picture of a boss with good sense of humor and one who takes care of his staff.
”He has never ever forgotten any of his team members’ birthdays.”
She writes about a boss who demands hard work and accuracy.
Selmayr has written a doctoral thesis on the legal foundation of the common euro currency, and he is a professor at the University of Saarbrücken.
”Martin expects perfection and professionalism from his team members, and I think rightly so.”
Andreeva finds odd the stories that claim that Juncker does not work enough or study the details. According to her, Juncker gobbles up every briefing paper that is brought to him and uses markers to highlight the key points, sometimes making comments on punctuation errors.
Juncker’s aides have to take extra marker pens on trips in case the President’s pens run dry.
”You do not want to feel embarrassed in front of the President. Sometimes he even draws a heart if he really liked a briefing,” Andreeva says.
In the Politico article, the headline referring to Selmayr called him ”monster” in quotation marks. It is a word that Juncker has sometimes used of Selmayr, affectionately.
But now it’s time to wrap up the one-hour interview, because Selmayr’s assistant says that he needs to rush off to do the next thing. The assistant, says Selmayr, is the real bossy one in this house.
”If I am the monster, she is the dragon,” he says.
This article has been modified at 10:22, adding the detail about Politico publishing the handwritten notes from the meeting between their reporter and Georgieva.
Martin Selmayrhttps://www.hs.fi/haku/?query=martin+selmayr, 46, has been the head of cabinet of Jean-Claude Junckerhttps://www.hs.fi/haku/?query=jean-claude+juncker, the President of the European Commission, for two years. He has worked at the Commission since 2004, first as the spokesperson for commissioner Viviane Reding https://www.hs.fi/haku/?query=viviane+redingfrom Luxembourg, and later as the head of her cabinet.
When Juncker was running as the lead candidate for the Commission presidency for the center-right EPP group in 2014, Selmayr run his campaign, which was victorious.
Selmayr says that he woke up to EU-related issues in his teens. When he was 15, his grandparents took him to France, where he learned about the history of the world wars. His grandfather told him that “there is a task for the new generation to make sure that this never happens again.”
Selmayr, who was born in Bonn, holds a doctorate in law. He is fluent in English, French and German. He also speaks some Spanish, Italian, Russian and Polish. He is married with no children.