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23rd Feb 2020

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Selmayr did not want top job, says predecessor

  • Martin Selmayr's rapid backdoor promotion to top EU civil servant attracted criticism from the European Ombudsman - and MEPs (Photo: European Commission)

Martin Selmayr originally had not wanted to become secretary-general of the European Commission, his predecessor revealed on Monday (27 January).

"He actually did not want to become secretary-general," said Alexander Italianer, who filled the same post from September 2015 to March 2018.

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  • Alexander Italianer (rear centre), with (left to right) Georgieave, Jean-Claude Juncker, Selmayr, and Margaritas Schinas (Photo: European Commission)

He was replaced by Selmayr in a lightning-fast 'backroom' procedure - which was heavily criticised by both the European Parliament and the European Ombudsman.

Until becoming secretary-general (the highest civil servant in the commission) Selmayr had been head of cabinet and chief of staff to commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Prior to that he was Juncker's campaign manager.

Selmayr was appointed deputy secretary-general in February 2018 and then within minutes was elevated to the post of secretary-general.

But this was not his idea, stressed Italianer at an event at the The Hague University of Applied Sciences.

According to Italianer, Selmayr thought Juncker would expect him to have two hats: continuing to play "his old part" as a political aide, as well as the role of secretary-general - which is supposed to be a more politically neutral position.

"So he did not want to do that at all."

However, Selmayr and the commission were both heavily criticised for the affair. The European Ombudsman concluded last year that it constituted a case of maladministration.

This followed a resolution supported by a majority of members of the European Parliament in 2018 which had called on Selmayr to resign, saying the affair created "reputational damage caused to the EU as a whole".

The parliament also said that the commission had "failed to respect the principles of transparency, ethics and the rule of law in the procedure it used to appoint Martin Selmayr as its new secretary-general".

Selmayr ignored the non-binding request from MEPs to step down, but left the post last year after it became clear that another German, Ursula von der Leyen, would succeed Juncker as commission president.

The stealth promotion took place when Selmayr had already acquired a reputation in Brussels of being a Machiavellian chief of staff, often regarded as the 'real person' in charge of the commission.

But Italianer, a Dutchman, suggested that Selmayr's notoriety had been exaggerated.

"He mostly owed his supposed power to the period during which he was head of cabinet for Juncker," Italianer said,.

"He [executed] Juncker's ideas very well. Everything he did came from Juncker. It is not like he was trying to push through his own ideas," said Italianer.

Italianer praised Selmayr for accomplishing most political goals the Juncker commission had set out at the beginning of the mandate, and in steering the commission through multiple crises, like the Greek debt crisis; Brexit; and the 2015 migration wave.

"Without a person like Martin this would have been a lot more difficult," said Italianer, adding Selmayr had been criticised unfairly.

When looking back at his own time as secretary-general, Italianer downplayed the importance of the post.

"Everyone thinks that you lead the commission, that you are everyone's boss. Nothing could be farther from the truth," the now-retired civil servant said.

He half-jokingly said that the secretary-general was in charge of making sure "there is paper on the tables and that the pencils are sharpened".

Nevertheless, his long experience in the EU commission, which he joined in 1985, is of apparent value to some.

Last year, Italianer was hired by US law firm Arnold & Porter as a consultant, in particular because he had been an insider for so long.

"During a critical time in Europe, where Brexit, trade, foreign investment and competition are front and center, Alexander brings extraordinary insight into the key issues facing today's global economy and an unparalleled knowledge of the workings of the European Commission," the law firm said in a press statement.

Author bio

Peter Teffer is a freelance journalist in the Netherlands, and former investigations editor at EUobserver.

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