Thursday

21st Nov 2019

Juncker's chief of staff: 'I get 800 emails a day'

  • Jean-Claude Juncker and his chief of staff, Martin Selmayr (Photo: junckerepp)

The centre of power in Brussels has temporarily moved to the ninth floor of the so-called Charlemagne building in the EU district.

There, in a nondescript grey hallway guarded by security officers, pinned up pieces of paper with arrows guide vistors to the “President-elect Jean Claude Juncker” team.

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“We’ve put them up to make him laugh,” says Martin Selmayr, Juncker's chief of staff.

Juncker is protocol-averse and insists on being called “Jean-Claude”, Selmayr told this website. A change from the more formal Jose Manuel Barroso, who still heads the EU commission across the street, in the Berlaymont building.

Selmayr’s team consists of just a handful of people but will expand once Juncker replaces Barroso later this autumn.

“I get around 800 emails a day,” says Selmayr.

Specialised in EU law and communications, the 43-year old German lawyer has been part of the EU commission for 10 years. And always working for a Luxembourger.

He worked for commissioner Viviane Reding from 2004 until this year, first as her spokesman, then as her chief of staff. In April, he went on unpaid leave to steer the election campaign for Juncker, also from the Grand Duchy.

Before joining the commission, Selmayr worked as legal counsel for the European Central Bank and had a one-year stint at the International Monetary Fund in Washington. He also worked for four years as Brussels competition lawyer for Bertelsmann - a large German publisher.

Commissioner posts

In the Charlemagne headquarters, most of the activity these days revolves around the composition of the next EU commission.

EU governments had an end-of-July deadline to send in names. Juncker has asked for a “significant number” of female commissioners, while the European Parliament said it might veto a college that has fewer women than the current nine.

So far only four countries have officially nominated women - Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Italy and Sweden.

But Selmayr says some countries have kept their main nominees under wraps and others have already indicated one or two more options, some of whom are women, so the tally may still be reached.

The ultimate composition of the EU commission will be drawn up in the first weeks of September, depending on whom EU leaders pick as foreign affairs chief at a summit on 30 August.

The foreign affairs chief not only chairs council meetings of EU foreign ministers, but is also part of the College of Commissioners to ensure that EU foreign policy is streamlined in both institutions.

Three countries so far have sent in names for the foreign affairs post - Poland nominated its foreign affairs minister Radek Sikorski, Italy proposed Federica Mogherini, its foreign minister, and Bulgaria has opted for Kristalina Georgieva, the current humanitarian aid commissioner.

Selmayr says all three are “good candidates”, but the final deal - which will also take into account key commissioner dossiers - has to represent a geographical balance and include at least one woman.

“We have drawn up dozens of models [for the composition of the commission] and we have a pretty good idea of what may stay, but it’s enough to have 2-3 variables and you end up with so many different results,” Selmayr says.

New role for vice-presidents

With an unprecedented number of former prime ministers nominated for commissioners and amid demands to restructure the 28-strong college, Juncker is considering a redistribution of tasks.

As they have governing experience, nominees like the former PMs of Finland, Latvia and Estonia could have a “filtering” role - perhaps even without a portfolio.

With each commissioner wanting to put forward his own initiatives and proposals, the Secretariat General at the moment is the only “filter” for what actually gets done.

“But it’s difficult - who can tell a commissioner what goes in the working programme and what not? It’s easier when it’s elected politicians, not a civil servant taking that responsibility,” Selmayr explains.

This would be in line with the demands - coming from Britain and Germany - that the commission focus on fewer, bigger initiatives.

And it would justify the better-paid vice-president posts, currently numbering eight out of 28 commissioners.

Fewer travels

What to expect of Juncker once he becomes commission president? Selmayr says there will be more focus on the inner matters of the EU.

This would also mean less travelling and duplication with the EU council chief. During the previous five years, the Barroso-Van Rompuy tandem travelled (separately) to every international meeting possible.

“He will ask what the added value is if the commission president is there. It shouldn’t be just a protocol issue,” Selmayr says.

Juncker has also promised to make public all meetings of commissioners with lobbyists and interest groups - a long-standing demand by transparency groups and MEPs. In return, Juncker expects MEPs to live up to the same standards and also publish information about their meetings.

Referring to the new system that brought Juncker to the commission presidency - under which the lead candidate of the most successful party in the EU elections is nominated for the position - Selmayr said its future success will itself depend on how successful the Juncker commission is.

Selmayr shifted to Vienna, ahead of von der Leyen arrival

London and Washington had been rumoured, but instead the German political mastermind behind the EU commission will now work as a quasi-EU ambassador in Vienna. He irked many in Brussels but also shook things up.

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