Thee European Union’s College of Commissioners voted on February 21 to appoint Martin Selmayr as the EU’s head civil servant, according to Politico. Selmayr, a German lawyer who previously served as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s chief of staff, is notorious for his fierce loyalty to Juncker and his secretive, forceful methods.
Some individuals in Brussels immediately questioned the promotion of Selmayr, an openly political member of the conservative European People’s Party, to a historically nonpartisan position, Politico reports. Marietje Schaake, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, stated on Twitter that Selmayr is too political for a role intended for a civil servant and that, “Maybe he should have run for political & accountable office instead.”
EU officials have criticized the clandestine process through which the Commission appointed Selmayr because the vote was not announced until immediately before the commissioners met. An attendant at the College of Commissioners meeting speculated that the vote was kept secret in order to avoid media attention and prevent commissioners from organizing dissent, Politico reports. This has given credence to the perception that Selmayr was appointed because of Juncker’s support alone.
Further adding to the controversy, Juncker’s term as Commission president will expire next year. The Economist reports that some political experts view Selmayr’s appointment as a way for Juncker to maintain influence in the Commission after departing Brussels. This casts further doubt on the Commission’s ability to be a neutral arbiter between different national governments and various political parties.
Yet another issue complicated by Selmayr’s promotion is the number of European institutions headed by Germans, with the European Parliament and European External Action Service both headed by German secretaries-general, reports Politico. However, many Germans pushed back against this perspective, arguing that Selmayr’s policy positions often conflict with those of Berlin.
The combination of issues with the promotion of Selmayr has caused many to wonder why the Commission did not exercise more transparency in order to alleviate fears of ethical violations. The Hungarian government accused the Commission of hypocrisy, as the Commission has cited Hungary several times for violations of the rule of law, according to Politico. Hungary’s right-wing government alleged that the existence of such an ethical lapse at the highest levels of the Commission demonstrated a double standard against Hungary.
Several MEPs, including members of Selmayr’s own European People’s Party, critiqued the appointment as political, opaque, and hypocritical. MEPs stated that the move reinforced the perception of European institutions as undemocratic and cronyistic. MEPs voiced concerns that the appointment had been undertaken so suddenly in order to bypass the checks and balances of the European Parliament.
Some MEPs, like the Dutch Democrats 66 leader Sophia Helena in ‘t Veld, staunchly oppose Selmayr’s appointment, as reported by the Guardian. “I am left speechless at the scene of 28 top politicians, selected for the political leadership of this continent, led by the nose by a civil servant. The Commission will have to choose what is more important: the credibility of the commission or the career of Mr. Selmayr. The two are irreconcilable,” in ‘t Veld said.
Selmayr has also played a critical role in the Brexit negotiations and is purportedly despised by both Theresa May and David Cameron. Politico reports that while serving as Juncker’s chief of staff, Selmayr was accused of leaking details of private meetings between British and EU delegates and treated British requests for a more generous exit deal with disdain. Selmayr’s extended presence in Brussels will not make for an easier Brexit.