22nd Mar 2018


At the court of the EU bubble kings

  • EU commission chief Juncker (l) announced that his head of cabinet Selmayr becomes the executive's most senior civil servant - in what many inside the Berlaymont consider as a coup (Photo: European Commission)

What did Jean-Claude Juncker expect when he came to the European Commission press room last Wednesday (21 February)?

The surprise press conference, announced just 40 minutes beforehand, was to make public the appointment of the new secretary general, the EU executive's highest civil servant.

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  • The Berlaymont, the EU commission HQ (Photo: European Commission)

By the mere fact that it was conveyed in person by the institution's political boss, the news - which would have usually been is of interest to only a handful of people beyond Brussels' EU quarter - was thus given the highest importance.

A week later, a commission spokesman, trying to disentangle himself from the web of the many questions raised by the move, told journalists that the appointment was not an issue "of interest beyond the press room".

If so, why did Juncker - who rarely comes to the press room - make it himself such a big topic?

The reason maybe lies in the identity of the chosen one: Martin Selmayr - aka Rasputin, Machiavelli or the Monster - Juncker's all-powerful head of cabinet.

Juncker, a weakened president of the European Commission, owes a lot to Selmayr, who ran his campaign for the office, and runs his daily activities with an iron fist that many in the Berlaymont building say is not even covered by a velvet glove.

'Bending the rules'

By elevating Selmayr to the position of secretary general, Juncker rewarded him with a position that gives him the power to run the EU executive's work in the years to come and be an influence on the next commission president.

By making the move a political issue, Juncker acknowledged and strengthened the power of Selmayr - a eurocrat turned political gambler.

At the same time Juncker also - unwittingly - highlighted how far his team has gone in disconnecting itself from what the commission is supposed to represent: the general interest.

No one doubts that Selmayr has the intellectual capacities and the political flair to play an important role at the top of the EU.

So why did he, with Juncker's approval, decided to be crowned in a few minutes, in a meeting before which no EU commissioners but one knew what was coming, in a procedure that followed the rules but in such a secret and accelerated way that no one had a chance to apply for the job?

"Selmayr is good at bending the rules to his favour while sticking to the letter of the rules," noted a commission official who, like many colleagues, only found out about the move when the media reported it.

Democracy and legitimacy

All this would be just an anecdote about the EU bubble court, worth entertaining columns, if it had not come amid grand speeches about EU democracy and the legitimacy of the institutions.

On 14 January, Juncker defended to the public the so-called Spitzenkandidat process, by which the commission president is chosen according to the result of the European elections.

The commission chief, he said, is "not an anonymous bureaucrat or a putschist who would have forced the doors of the Berlaymont".

Just a week after, he accepted that his head of cabinet becomes civil servant in chief in what many inside the house consider as a coup - and then legitimised the move by a press conference.

The press conference is now brandished by the commission as the proof that all was done in transparency. As if journalists called at the last minute for a news they didn't know had all the elements at the time to ask the right questions.

When details about what truly happened leaked to the media - the commission spokesman, reacted by calling Jean Quatremer, the correspondent of France's Liberation who revealed the details, a 'Robespierre', the French revolutionary responsible for the Terror and its thousands of deads.

Tired with journalists asking for information he did not want to give, the spokesman also compared them to his children "who don't listen".

Court of Versailles

Meanwhile, also last week, various spokespeople plus Juncker himself brushed aside other questions - about why a commission vice president, Jyrki Katainen, had met Jose Manuel Barroso, a former commission president turned lobbyist, despite promises from Barroso not to lobby commissioners - or about why Katainen had given two versions of the meeting, first saying it was official (although with no notes taken) and then that it was "just a beer" between friends.

In both cases, the commission's reaction to journalists questions was the same: all is fine, stop asking questions.

"This is nothing," Juncker said about the Katainen-Barroso case, ironically during his press conference about Selmayr's elevation.

By raising Robespierre's ghost's, the spokesman may after all have a point.

In the Berlaymont, just like in the court at Versailles, the commission in its final days gives the impression that princes, favourites and faithfuls act like if what is good for them was good for the general interest, refusing any criticism or questioning.

Some of them may know that on 14 July 1789, king Louis XVI had only one word in his diary: "Nothing".


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