Martin Selmayr’s latest career move may seem strange at first glance: from Secretary General of the Commission to its representative in a small EU country. Having held the post for a year, he plans to take a more political approach than his predecessors as well as a stronger stance to protect European interests. EURACTIV Germany reports.
The news that Selmayr was to take over the representation of the Commission in Austria from November 2019, came as a surprise to many – including Jörg Wojahn, Selmayr’s predecessor. “He was the highest official in the house. We heads of representation are just people. But it flatters us that our work can also interest a Secretary General,” Wojahn said in an interview with EURACTIV Germany.
Wojahn is now the Commission representative in Berlin. He and Selmayr have known each other for a long time. They were fellow students at the University of Passau, both graduating in 1997.
As Secretary General of the Commission, Selmayr was the right hand of former President Jean-Claude Juncker. When Ursula von der Leyen was appointed as his successor in July 2019, Selmayr stepped aside; in part because of the perception that there were too many Germans in European leadership positions, and also because the German Council Presidency was also upcoming.
So where to put the man? He could choose, Wojahn said. Rumour had it that he could have become the head of delegation in a third country, for example in the United States, where the question of succession was being discussed at the time.
But Selmayr wanted to go to Vienna – and had wanted to for a long time, according to Wojahn. During his visits, Selmayr had always raved about this “great post.”
Wojahn’s time there expired in November 2019, with his Berlin posting lined up, but he only found out when Selmayr was confirmed as his successor in July 2019.
Active and high-profile
Selmayr approaches his role differently than Wojahn, says Paul Schmidt, Secretary General of the Austrian Society for European Politics. Schmidt works closely with the Commission Representation on events, actions and political analysis. He also knows both Wojahn and Selmayr.
“He is much more political, more active in his role, and more effective in publicity.” Wojahn has a background in journalism and likes to write catchy commentaries. Selmayr has his background in communication and likes to talk well, says Schmidt. If a panel debate takes place in the house, he often insists on participating in the discussion.
He also had quick and direct access to politics, partly because of his broad network – and “his reputation precedes him,” Schmidt said. “Not everyone appreciates him, but many know him.”
Wojahn also says that “someone with Selmayr’s experience and expertise can of course be particularly convincing. But that is “not to everyone’s liking,” says Schmidt. This became apparent, for example, in a conflict with Austrian Finance Minister Gernot Blümel (ÖVP).
In September, Blümel asked the Commission for permission (using EU terminology, “notification”) to offer further financial state aid to companies. The Commission turned the application down because of a formal error, which according to Selmayr could be quickly corrected.
Blümel was “appalled” by the rejection. In an interview with Die Presse, Selmayr was surprised about this fuss, but said: “Of course we have also registered that there is a Viennese election campaign.” Blümel, who was the ÖVP’s top candidate at the time, accused Selmayer of “arrogance.”
They met for a discussion, Blümel submitted a new motion, the final green light is still pending.
But that was Selmayr’s only conflict with the government, according to commission circles. The agreement between Selmayr and Austrian politics worked well, both at the federal and state level. In the conflict with Blümel, ministers and provincial governors called Selmayr personally to find out exactly what was going on.
Selmayr’s future is uncertain. He would like to stay in Vienna until 2024, but would have to change after that date if he wanted to continue managing a representation.
“He has come to stay,” thinks Schmidt, who sees “many career options” for the former top EU official in Vienna, also in the academic field – Selmayr already teaches at the Danube University Krems.
However, it remains to be seen whether the politician bureaucrat will be able to put EU politics aside completely.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]