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18th Apr 2021

Selmayr shifted to Vienna, ahead of von der Leyen arrival

  • Martin Selmayr (l) has been Jean-Claude Juncker's (r) right hand man from the start of the Luxembourgish politician's bid for the commission presidency. His mix of sharpness and abrasiveness upset some in Brussels (Photo: European Commission)

After months of speculation on what will happen to arguably the most-powerful and most-talked about man in Brussels, Martin Selmayr, the EU Commission revealed on Wednesday (24 July) that from 1 November the controversial German will lead the EU executive's representation in Vienna.

Selmayr will leave his current job as the EU's top civil servant this week, and serve as special advisor to commission president Jean-Claude Juncker for the remainder of this commission's mandate.

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From November on, he will head the EU commission's Vienna representation, which means he will represent the bloc in a sort of ambassadorial role.

"The five years of the Jean-Claude Juncker commission would be inconceivable without his contribution," commissioner for human resources, Guenther Oettinger, said Wednesday, on the news.

"Most people are grateful to him, and those who are not grateful to him, at least have respect for him," the fellow German added.

In the commission's statement, Selmayr was praised for "outstanding qualities and achievements", and "his strong commitment to the community method and his extraordinary sense of duty".

Selmayr has been teaching EU law at the University of Saarbrucken in Germany and at the Europe-University of Krems in Austria, which he will continue to do.

The German lawyer was feared and admired, often at the same time, for his bright intellect, ruthless leadership style and indefatigable working methods. He wanted to shake up the comfortable and apolitical bureaucracy of the Brussels bubble and he did.

For a spin doctor who likes influence and power, however, the Austrian capital might prove to be too sleepy - his appointment as Vienna EU ambassador came as a surprise to many, as he is "genetically incapable to rest", as one source put it.

Last week, as another German, former defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, won enough votes in the European parliament to become the new EU commission president, it became clear Selmayr would have to go.

Rise to the top

Von der Leyen wanted to please MEPs, and avoid having to deal with protecting a controversial figure not of her choosing at the start of her tenure.

With the EU commission presidency going to a German, and a fellow Christian Democrat, questions had been also raised whether the commission's civil servants should also be led by a German, in a community of 28 member states.

Moreover, the European Parliament already last year complained that Selmayr's promotion to his current job as the secretary general of the EU commission was "coup-like".

The EU's top watchdog also said last September that Selmayr's swift appointment to the job was wrong and risked undermining the public's trust in the EU institution.

The number of Selmayr's enemies grew with his promotion, but he had already irritated many as the head of Juncker's cabinet in the previous years.

Some EU ambassadors complained that he misled them, while some commissioners were irked that they did not have direct access to Juncker, only to Selmayr.

But nobody questioned his allegiance to the EU, his hard work, his political capabilities, and his knowledge of the EU law.

Selmayr started off in Brussels as a legal advisor for the German media company, Bertelsmann. In 2004, he joined the commission, first becoming the spokesman for Luxembourg's commissioner for media, Viviane Reding. Later on, he became her head of cabinet.

As the 2014 European election campaign kicked off, Selmayr became Juncker's campaign director and after the election win, Juncker's head of transition team. Controversy was already Selmayr's stock-in-trade back then.

There had been more recent speculation that he would get a top commission positing in London or Washington, or return to the European Central Bank (ECB), where he had worked before.

But until November, he will stay on in the Berlaymont, the commission's headquarters, where he built his formidable reputation, advising not only the outgoing but also the incoming commission president.

At the bureaucracy's helm, he will temporarily be replaced by his Latvian deputy, Ilze Juhansone, who has been serving as a deputy secretary-general since 2015.

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